For her first set of duties since becoming FIT’s first sustainability ambassador, model, actress and activist Amber Valletta sat down virtually with FIT Biodesign Challenge winners on Friday.
The group discussed the significance of biotechnology in fashion as part of FIT’s Sustainability Awareness Week (which ran from Oct. 4 to 8).
Among the panel was Valentina Gomez, FIT alumni and cofounder of biomaterials firm Werewool; Mitchell Henderson, student and innovator behind a biodegradable elastic alternative called Ecolastane; and Evelyn Rynkiewicz, assistant professor of ecology at FIT and Biodesign Challenge instructor.
Speaking to biodesign’s potential and circular fashion, Valletta said: “It’s a huge opening that we haven’t really delved into.”
Henderson started the talk by defining biodesign in a holistic way.
“Looking to nature for solutions to solve the world’s problems…is one aspect of what biodesign can be. I think biodesign is beautiful because of the vastness of what it can offer. For me, in regards to circularity, it’s about integrating arts and science in harmony with nature and societies for whatever you mean to create,” he said.
Biodesign is opening up countless solutions applicable to fashion, be it grown mushroom root leather, algae or fabrics made from industrial pineapple waste.
“Right now, we have a really big waste problem with fashion and fast fashion, and just so much clothes getting thrown away constantly, so having all these worlds collaborate that before weren’t having these conversations, I think is a really important way to step forward and be able to drive this circular fashion industry,” said Werewool’s Gomez.
Despite some limitations, Rynkiewicz feels encouraged by the kind of unbound thinking she witnesses among her students.
Sharing an anecdote of a student biting into an apple and finding fungus inside, then being inspired to develop packaging with fungus that consumes the packaging after use, Rynkiewicz said, “I would never have thought of that. I’m always surprised and excited by what the students think about…You don’t have to keep going in this toxic cycle. You can change it to be something better. From what I’m seeing from FIT students is they really want that change.”
Valletta wheeled the questioning back to the panelists’ respective biodesign process.
Gomez said Werewool’s process always begins with “looking to how nature creates these performance properties, and how we can translate that into fibers that can be biodegradable.” To that, Henderson spoke of the need to apply management frameworks around innovations like Ecolastane.
“You need people on every side of it, whether it’s the sales team or trying to go and get investments to scale this project. These are new technologies and they’re going to need investments, they’re going to need marketing, they’re going to need distribution,” Valletta said. “We can’t do everything alone, we have to collaborate.”