The fashion industry’s influence extends far beyond the realm of its social and economic impact. With fast-fashion producers and retailers such as Zara and H&M on the rise, the mass-consumption of widely produced garments calls into question the environmental sustainability of the apparel industry, and reveals the darker side of retail. As population growth stretches our natural resources to capacity, the Global Fashion Agenda predicts that with the “current trajectories of production and consumption, pressures on natural resources and social conditions will intensify by 2030 to the point of threatening industry growth itself” (May, 2017).

However, this hasn’t stopped a number of determined individuals and retailers from attempting to find alternative solutions — viable sustainability initiatives have presented themselves in the form of ‘slow fashion’, an antithetical solution to the environmental implications of industrial mass-production. One of these pioneers is DIY Biotechnology activist and ‘speculative designer’, Kazuya Kawasaki. As a graduate of the SFC X Design Programme at Keio University in Japan, Kawasaki focused on DIY Biotechnology, and how “biology and fashion can come together” in a meaningful and feasible way.  Kawasaki’s goal was to engineer an organic fibre that could be utilised to create an ecological fashion garment, and in 2016, he presented his findings in South Africa for the first time at the Design Indaba held in Cape Town.

In order to ‘grow’ the material required to create a wearable and functional garment, Kawasaki developed a “cocktail of organisms” including: yeast, fungi, algae and bacteria. The organism concoction was placed in a children’s inflatable swimming pool, along with a water base in order to form bacterial cellulose. Cellulose can be produced by both plants and bacteria; however they differ in their respective properties, particularly in their structure and consistency. Bacterial cellulose is characterised by its ability to retain water, its malleability, and its strength. The result of Kawasaki’s experiment was bacterial cellulose with “similar properties to leather.”

Following on from the success of Kawasaki’s initial experiments, he was able to cultivate a workable, durable textile that could be fashioned into a purposeful and well-designed garment that can be washed and provides adequate insulation. As part of his “bio-hacking” design strategy and an obligation to eradicate the wastage that the fashion industry is known for, Kawasaki additionally developed a new ‘zero waste’ pattern and cutting process, so that every piece of material is used and accounted for. The efficacy of the final garment is indicative of what ingenious engineering and design in biotechnology and fashion can produce, and it’s not as farfetched and futuristic as it may seem. Kawasaki’s biotechnological advances are aimed at ensuring that sustainability is not only viewed as being a necessity, but stylish as well.