Suzanne Lee’s fashion design studio is different than most. It’s not filled with sketches and silks, but instead occupied by vats of microbes bubbling away while they feast on sugars to produce her latest clothing line.
In the first of this year’s Penny Stamps Speaker Series, Lee spoke to a packed Michigan Theater about the intersection of synthetic biology and design. She discussed her involvement in the multidisciplinary field, from growing clothes in microbial vats to growing cow skin to produce leather in a way that doesn’t involve slaughtering.
Lee described her job as creative director at the biodesign firm Biocouture, where she has been making garments derived from microbial cellulose, saying she was influenced by her fascination with the future and concerns about sustainability in fashion.
“Rather than think about growing a plant like cotton in a field to obtain fiber, where you’re throwing away 99 percent of that plant just to get these fibers that need to be spun and woven into a fabric, you can think about taking a microorganism like a bacteria and getting that to spin the fiber,” Lee said.
Microbial cellulose is related to cellulose derived from cotton, which makes up a large percentage of commercial clothing. Lee outlined three main benefits of microbial cellulose: it is more ecologically sustainable to grow, it is much purer and it absorbs dyes, which are usually toxic in their liquid form, much more effectively.
The process of growing microbial cellulose, which takes about three weeks in total, involves creating a bath of nutrients, a carbon source and microbes. Lee accomplishes this with green tea, refined sugar and a complex community of yeasts and bacteria. This community, called a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast — or SCOBY — is identical to that which makes the drink kombucha. As the microbes feed and multiply, they produce cellulose in a thick mat that can be later washed, dried and cut into fabric.
Art & Design junior Harsha Devaraj said he thought this process was particularly interesting.
“The final product that she came out with, the jackets, were really cool. But I really enjoyed the process. Seeing the time-lapse of the bacteria synthesizing the material was easily the coolest part of the whole thing,” he said.
Lee also talked about her involvement in growing cow skin for leather. She spoke about an epiphany moment she had while discussing lab-grown tissue with a synthetic biologist.
“If it was possible to grow human tissue in the lab, why not animal tissue? And in fact, why still require killing an animal just to obtain certain parts of it if it’s possible for us to grow the correct cells and just use those tissues?” she said.
LSA senior Léa Ono said the sustainability focus resonated with her.
“It always troubled me how wasteful the material process is,” she said. “In order to dye any fabric, we have to wear gloves and a mask and a full body coat because the dyes were so toxic. So I was thinking about the beet dyes and vegetable dyes and how amazing it would be if we could do leather with mammalian cells.”
Lee said the process of “biofabrication” through microbial cellulose was difficult to produce in large quantities and may have a limited impact on the fashion industry as a whole. However, citing examples of mushroom-derived furniture, bacterially constructed bricks and biofuels, Lee said intersections between design and fashion will be influential in decades to come.
“I fundamentally believe today that the future of creativity and design in working materials is really going to intersect and depend on what’s happening in biology,” she said.