Canadian-Iranian designer Roya Aghighi wants you to imagine that your shirt is alive.
Far from dreaming up a horror movie script, Aghighi hopes we can develop a more intimate relationship with fashion — by treating clothes as living beings that need our help to survive.
“You’re not going to throw your clothes in the corner of your closet or into the washing machine,” she said over the phone from Vancouver. “It’s immediately going to shift the way you think about your clothing.”
Aghighi’s thought experiment isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem.
“Biogarmentry” explores the future of fashion by combining research from the fields of synthetic biology and design. Credit: Courtesy of Roya Aghighi
The lifecycle of the garment is dependent of how it’s taken care of. Credit: Courtesy of Roya Aghighi
An image of “Biogarmentry” care instructions. Credit: Courtesy of Roya Aghighi
Changing our relationship with clothing, from one of neglectful fast-fashion consumption to an empathetic connection, is one of Aghighi’s main drivers.
While her innovative garment is now only at the proof-of-concept stage, buyers may one day be instructed to stretch the fabric out in front of a window before putting it on. With sunlight and a spray of water, its single-cell chlamydomonas reinhardtii algae come to life.
The crops traditionally used to make clothing, from cotton to hemp, absorb carbon as they grow. So, too, do a growing number of manufactured materials derived from plants, like Rayon, which is made from wood pulp that is chemically converted into purified cellulose.
But end-to-end, most natural materials are still carbon emitters, says New York-based designer Charlotte McCurdy, a fellow at Rhode Island School of Design.
Take a single T-shirt made of cotton, the world’s most commonly used natural fiber, as an example.
Fabric of the future? Charlotte McCurdy has developed a plastic-like fabric made of algae and fashioned it into a raincoat. Credit: Courtesy of Charlotte McCurdy
Fabric detail shot from McCurdy’s project, “After Ancient Sunlight.” Credit: Courtesy of Charlotte McCurdy
Sustainably scaling up algae-based fabric production will be essential if these garments are to become the basis for carbon-negative fashion.
Algal biotechnology is a big business. Beyond the world of fashion, it’s seen as an alternative for polyurethane plastics — the world’s most common plastic, which is used in everything from bags to outdoor furniture — as well as in fabrics.
Stephen Mayfield, a biological sciences professor at UC San Diego who has made a biodegradable flip flop, says algae-based materials are, currently, where electric vehicle technologies were a decade ago.
“It was clear they were the future of transportation and it was just a matter of time. Algae is poised in the same way,” he said. “The technology is now ready for prime time.”
“After Ancient Sunlight” explored the use of algae as a material for fabrics. Credit: Courtesy of Charlotte McCurdy
The raincoat produced by McCurdy’s “After Ancient Sunlight” project was featured in “Nature,” the Cooper Hewitt museum’s 2019 Design Triennial, last year. She was interested by the fact that sunlight is responsible for both the photosynthetic energy produced by algae and the fossil fuel energy, like oil or coal, that traces its origins to prehistoric plants and algae.
Closeup of the transcuent raincoat. Credit: Courtesy of Charlotte McCurdy
“And we can get back to building our society from sunlight. So there’s some sort of poetic tension between rain and sunlight.”
In the lab, Aghighi’s fabric develops different patterns — organic shapes, spots and bands — as the algae grow, the designer said. When the resulting garments are commercially available, she imagines people tending to their own organic cloak, spraying their organism as they commute to work and encouraging their algae to purify the air and grow distinctive, individual motifs.
“I’m not saying that your clothes should be your pets,” she said. “I mean, to be honest, secretly, I do say that.”