LONDON — In search of natural fabrics, some 21st-century designers and manufacturers have moved beyond — way beyond — the obvious cotton, wool, cashmere and linen into new organic territory, including fruit orchard, dumpster and forest floor.
Recent fashion graduate Aurélie Fontan is experimenting with slime mold and kombucha for dresses, Beatrix Ong is filling her eco-friendly shoes with bamboo and charcoal, and firms in northern Italy are repurposing fruit juice and orange waste for textiles.
“There’s a lot to be said for innovation — but there’s also a lot to be said for looking back. The return of the milkman is a great example of that,” said Ong, who layers bamboo and charcoal into the insoles of her shoe designs. Those materials are natural deodorizers and anti-perspirants, and also help promote comfort and circulation.
Ong’s shoes, which sell on her web site, can also be pulled apart in the name of sustainability. A Central Saint Martins graduate and former Jimmy Choo designer, Ong was well aware of the waste created from the sampling stage through to the quality control stage.
If her shoes are faulty — or just worn out — the components can be pulled apart and recycled rather than thrown away. The designer, who’s bursting with ideas for sustainable design, has also created a water bottle made from recycled paper coffee cups, while next year she will launch The Company of X, which she said will offer “completely sustainable” clothing and home wares. “They will be objects of beauty, rather than mass-market ones,” she vowed.
Creating objects of beauty was Fontan’s goal from the start, but she had to deal with slime — and the stench and the outright ugliness of untreated kombucha — before she reached it.
As a fashion student at Edinburgh College of Art, Fontan had already cultivated slime mold — a fungus-like organism that lives on dead plants — for a project with Mackintosh. She grew the yellow mold on blue fabric and then copied the lacy pattern for a digital embroidery.
Not long after that, she decided to push the limits of organic materials further with a plan to make couture dresses from a fabric grown from kombucha tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast.
She said that making a luxury dress was a real challenge because the kombucha “looks really disgusting, when you grow it. It’s like a really thick piece of plastic but kind of melting. It is super slimy and it smells like vinegar because you grow it with a lot of vinegar,” recalled Fontan, who grew it in trays under her bed at home in Edinburgh.
By contrast, working with the resulting fabric was easier. She let it dry out for two weeks, and the result was a sturdy fabric, albeit one that was sensitive to water and extreme heat. “It’s kind of like a thin PVC, but it doesn’t crease so you don’t need to iron it. It’s partly a living thing, so it adapts to your body temperature, and becomes like a second skin.”
There were challenges in coloring and coating it — she couldn’t use dyes because the material cannot be put in water — so she screen-printed it.
Fontan said that while the dresses were — in the end — impractical for day-to-day use, the process of “growing” textiles in a lab (or under the bed) will only evolve and improve until someone comes up with a way to make them for commercial use.
“There is a lot of debate about whether or not we should modify nature, but I think if it means making fabric translucent or fluorescent, I think it should be explored,” she said.
She’s also been making a name for herself in the sustainable fashion arena, having won the Dame Vivienne Westwood Sustainable and Ethical Award, M&S Womenswear Award and the Catwalk Textiles Award for her kombucha collection at 2018 Graduate Fashion Week in London.
Fontan is persisting with her experiments in sustainability. In the autumn, she unveiled a project with Samsung which helped her to create a capsule collection of dresses made from recyclable leather and plant-based, biodegradable, 3-D plastic fastenings. She designed and produced the collection in six weeks on the brand’s Galaxy Note9 phone.
It’s not only designers such as Ong and Fontan who are mining the natural world for textile and supply solutions. Smaller designers are in there, too, turning trees into jewelry and sweat into accessories.
Ingy Stockholm is a jewelry collection created by Ingela Klemetz-Farago. A former model, musician and Chanel stylist, she collects dead oak, beech and elm wood and hand-paints it to create one-off pieces of jewelry that double as pieces of art. Stockists include Matchesfashion.com, which is currently selling her mismatched earrings for 700 pounds.
“The commitment to sustainability came naturally to me because I love nature. The idea is to give a new life and a new context to something that would have passed away. I think that’s beautiful and it’s not like I’m plucking things from trees — it’s dead debris,” she said, adding that she intends to keep her collections small, producing only 50 to 60 one-off products a season.
Alice Potts, a recent graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, is another designer who relies on the natural world for inspiration. She creates crystalline accessories from the sweat of athletes and dancers.
She’s currently living in Athens as an Onassis Fellow and will pursue her work as a biotech designer, working on the nature and the technology of sweat.
It’s not just designers, but manufacturers, too, who are working with Mother Nature.
Orange Fiber was founded in 2014 and produces textiles from citrus waste, specifically the cellulose extract, which is spun to create the fabrics.
Founded by Adriana Santonocito and Enrica Arena, it made headlines in 2017 when it collaborated with Salvatore Ferragamo on a capsule collection of shirts, dresses, trousers and scarves, all crafted from the company’s twill fabric that has a silk-like look and texture.
The Ferragamo launch put the company on the international stage. Orange Fiber scooped the Technology & Innovation Award at the Italian Green Carpet Fashion Awards in 2017, and many a company — and not just luxury ones — came knocking.
“A lot of companies have been getting in touch — firms in the sportswear, underwear and denim segments,” said Arena.
“We currently show clients about 10 different fabrics, but we can actually create customized products,” said Arena, explaining that the citrus cellulose yarns can also be used to create poplins, jacquards and jerseys, among other fabrics.
Frumat is another company that derives its riches from natural waste. Based in Bolzano in Italy’s South Tyrol province, it manufactures Apple Skin, an eco-leather produced with the waste of the fruit juice and compote industry. It makes for breathable, waterproof and sturdy fabrics.
It is used by a range of fashion ad accessories companies, including Italian leather goods brand Fedon; vegan handbag label Happy Genie; footwear firm Veeraah, and designer Matea Benedetti, who showed her creations at the Green Carpet Fashion Awards in 2017.
Expired or leftover milk is used by several companies to create milk fiber, a regenerated protein fiber which is reconfigured to simulate wool. First patented under the name Lanital by Italian engineer Antonio Ferretti in 1935, milk fiber was rapidly replaced by chemical fibers only to be rediscovered in the last decade due to the increased attention around sustainability.
It has recently been used by a new Italian children’s wear label called Origami and is 10 percent lighter than silk and 13 percent lighter than polyester. In addition, it is hydrating thanks to the amino acids present in the fiber itself. It’s also naturally antibacterial, easily absorbs moisture, is a natural screen against UV radiation, is dermatologically tested and biodegradable.
Ong, the designer who’s juggling multiple projects in the sustainability space, said that not all efforts will work or be commercially viable or even last in the long run. So many eco-crusaders admit that new problems arise once others are solved.
“The important thing is to have your intention in the right place. There’s a lot of ‘green-washing’ out there so the important thing is to have integrity. And you need to pick your battles,” Ong said.
She is a big promoter of water and ocean conservation, and points out that while regular cotton uses pesticides, organic cotton uses far more water. That inevitably forces environmentally conscious producers to take one side or another. “It’s not all black and white,” she said.