BioCouture by Suzanne Lee 10.08.11

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Bio drycellmesh

In its raw state it looks scarily like human skin," says Suzanne Lee, the designer behind BioCouture – a research project to produce garments from textile biomaterials.

Lee is speaking about bacterial cellulose, the material she has used since 2004 to create eco-friendly clothing for exhibitions and events. The project has led to Lee being made a fellow of international design, technology and ideas conference TED2011.

The production of bacterial cellulose is straightforward. A mother culture of bacteria and yeast is introduced into a sweetened green tea solution and the resulting fermentation prompts the bacteria to produce a sheet of cellulose 
at the liquid's surface. "The whole thing has been grown and coloured in a vat of liquid as opposed to a field of cotton," Lee says about the shirts, jackets and kimonos that BioCouture has produced.


Publicity surrounding the project has focused upon its science-fiction element – fevered imaginings of frocks rising from frothing vats of liquid are undoubtedly striking. However, at present the cellulose is not grown directly into clothing shapes; instead it acquires shape either through being moulded over a dress form, or through conventional sewing and stitching. The clothes feel like vegetable leather and look like creamy, worn vellum.

"In a way it's not about fashion at all. It's not to do with trend; I haven't even pushed it in the direction of exploring extreme shape or trying to push a new aesthetic," says Lee.

The project's legacy will likely lie in its environmental, rather than fashion, credentials. The production of bacterial cellulose requires minimal resources and involves no petrochemicals; the cellulose itself is biodegradable.

Such an emphasis upon the ethical has slowed BioCouture's practical impact. The highly absorbent bacterial cellulose reduces to a gelatinous mass if worn in rain. One solution, the addition of a petrochemical-based, waterproof nanocoat, is a step Lee refuses to take: "I genuinely believe that there's got to be a way of keeping it organic and the technology will be out there to do that."

BioCouture is a refreshing oddity – a fashion project that is not a fashion project; a designer avoiding design solutions. Lee, who is a senior research fellow at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London, hesitates when asked about her relation to mainstream fashion. "Fashion has changed a lot in the past few years and we've gotten into this fast fashion, cheap high street nonsense. It felt more and more unpalatable to me, and the more that I learned about these alternatives, the more I felt I could never go back into that world and not feel like I have a responsibility as a designer."




© Biocouture 2011: Robert Clarke; Santiago Arribas



Oli Stratford

quotes story

It's not to do with trend; I haven't even pushed it in the direction of exploring extreme shape or trying to push a new aesthetic


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