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Fashion’s Interest in Alternative Fabrics Keeps Growing

By Astrid Wendlandt

Elizabeth PantaleoWorkers create tweed fabrics out of plastics, paper and other materials in the Maison Lesage atelier in Paris.

High-end fashion and sportswear brands are taking a growing interest in recycled and alternative fabrics made from unusual materials like mushrooms, oranges and even proteins inspired by spider-web DNA — but not just out of concern for the environment. They are recognising that these cool materials of tomorrow could be something people want to buy today.

Over the next 12 months, brands are expected to announce partnerships with businesses that have figured out ways to make leather without cows, silk without worms, fur without animals and fabrics from recycled waste. Already this year, Salvatore Ferragamo has been selling scarves made of orange fibres while Stella McCartney produced two outfits made with the spider-inspired silk.

McCartney, a vegan designer who was a relatively lone fashion voice in the field of sustainable fabrics until recent years, provided a golden dress of the laboratory-made silk for the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Item: Is Fashion Modern?” She also presented a chocolate-brown bodysuit and trousers backstage at her spring 2018 show last month during Paris Fashion Week.

“They have not completely perfected it but it is a silk; it is literally a silk but it is a slightly different texture than the silk we normally use,” said Claire Bergkamp, head of sustainability and ethical trade at the Stella McCartney brand, adding that it had not finished testing the fibre for all of its possible applications. She said the brand, which has signed a long-term partnership agreement with Bolt Threads, the California company that developed the Microsilk material, expected to start selling clothing made with it in the next year or two.

As with any new technology at an early stage of development, initial production of such fabrics continues to be limited and the finished products, costly. Bolt, for example, introduced a lottery in March to sell its first spider-inspired silk neckties, at US$314 each.

And that is before the work of private and public scientific research institutions are taken into account.

Silk produced in a laboratory, for example, would not exist without the breakthroughs of the past 30 years that have enabled scientists to perfect ways to edit and replicate the DNA of living organisms.

After studying spiders’ DNA and their webs, Bolt Threads’ engineers developed similar proteins that are injected into yeast and sugar and then subjected to a proprietary fermentation process. The resulting liquid silk is turned into a fibre through a wet-spinning process that creates strands that then can be knitted into fabric.

Rivals, which are using similar technology but different production methods, have not produced marketable products yet either. The Japanese company Spiber has an agreement with the North Face, the American activewear company (in 2016, they developed a Moon Parka prototype). And AMSilk, a German company, has partnered with Adidas on products that they will not identify but say are expected to go on sale next year.

Adidas, however, s producing sneakers made with plastics recovered from beaches and oceanfront communities, part of a product line developed through its partnership with the activist anti-plastic group Parley for the Oceans. (McCartney, an Adidas collaborator, provided some of the designs.)

Recycled fruit waste is another promising substance for the creation of alternative fabrics. The Italian company Orange Fibre provided the material for Ferragamo’s capsule scarf collection. Ananas Anam, based at the Royal College of Art in London, uses pineapple leaf fibres to create a nonwoven leatherlike material called Piñatex and brands like Edun, the sustainable fashion label owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, are creating items from it.

And mycelium, the rootlike fibre of mushrooms, is being processed as a leather substitute by MycoWorks, a San Francisco startup. But some specialists say the material, which looks like suede, needs to be tested for durability.

In addition to bio-fabricated materials, the Stella McCartney brand and its founding partner, the luxury group Kering, are investing in ways to recycle fashion items and use fewer resources, such as water. McCartney’s Falabella Go bags are made of recycled polyester and Econyl, a nylon produced from recycled fishing nets, carpets and other such waste, manufactured by the Italian company Aquafil.

In recent years, several venture capital firms have supported the development of alternative fabrics, especially when biofuels, including corn and algae, failed to live up to their initial promise.

One of the latest and most high-profile investors is the Russian entrepreneur Miroslava Duma, founder of the fashion and lifestyle website Buro 24/7.

In May, Duma introduced Fashion Tech Lab, a venture that funds and develops new technologies in sustainable fashion and wearable technologies. It has US$50 million in funding and the advisory services of Carmen Busquets, the e-commerce investor, and Diane von Furstenberg. Orange Fibre and Vitro Labs, a company that is developing lab-grown variations of fur and leather from stem cells, were among the organisation’s initial beneficiaries.

Chanel, known for putting a healthy dose of pressure on suppliers to create new yarns and fabrics every season, has been working with paper yarns and is researching the use of 3-D printing for ready-to-wear clothing.

The house, in what it said was a first, presented suits at its fall 2015 couture show that were made of material produced by a 3-D printer from sintered, or compressed, powder and then embellished with embroidery and braid by Lesage, one of Chanel’s métiers d’art houses.

“Karl Lagerfeld says we should do things that are unimaginable,” said Hubert Barrère, the creative director at Lesage. “Creativity is about being in tune with your time.”