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Climate-friendly couture

Luxury fashion designers are increasingly turning to biotech companies for sustainable fabrics that inspire fresh concepts for the runway. Spiber in Tsuruoka, Japan, has partnered for the last four years with couturier Yuima Nakazato to create breathtaking garments from microbes.

Credit: Spiber

The trend is part of an effort to alleviate the huge burden on the environment brought on by the world’s insatiable desire for new clothing. Fibers such as polyester and nylon, which are typically made from non-renewable sources such as petroleum, make up 60% of fiber production globally. “There’s a growing sense that there has to be an urgent move away from polyester and fossil fuel-based fibers,” says Alice Payne, a textile and fashion researcher at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. The fashion industry is responsible for about 2.1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions globally — about the same amount emitted by the entire economies of France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined, according to an estimate by the consulting firm McKinsey.

In Spiber’s process, microbes are genetically engineered and fermented to produce key structural proteins that can be spun into fibers with unique qualities. The woven fabrics made in collaboration with Nakazato have characteristics that allow them to contract and shape-shift when exposed to water and heat.

To finish the textile, the designer coats areas of the fabric with an ink that makes it resistant to contraction. The ink is printed on the fabric in digitally calculated patterns to guide the contraction into an intended shape. The fabric is soaked in hot water and then dried and tailored to the human body.

The process results in gravity-defying textiles that wow on the runway. Nakazato often showcases his work with Spiber’s materials at Haute Couture Week in Paris. The work pictured here is part of his 2021 Atlas collection and features a complicated, sculpted dress.

“That’s what the future of fashion looks like to me,” says Fiona Mischel, director of international outreach at Built with Biology in London. “I think we’re just getting started in terms of creativity,” she says.

Scaling up in a cost-competitive way is one of the biggest challenges to biotech companies in this space and “has required innovations across the board,” says Spiber researcher David Lips. This has included developing novel strain design, purification processes and fiber spinning technologies, he says. The company will begin production at a plant in Thailand this year and plans to build an even bigger one in the United States.

Spiber has raised over $560 million in investment and another $321 million in debt financing since the inception of the company. It has partnered with several fashion brands, including with outdoor apparel company Goldwin to create a North Face jacket they call the Moon Parka.

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Waltz, E. Climate-friendly couture. Nat Biotechnol 40, 629 (2022).

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