Luis Quijano traces his interest in fashion back to the start of college at Liberty University three years ago.
“People complimented my style a lot,” he said.
But Quijano never thought that he would be growing his own clothes, too.
As a political science turned fashion design major, the 19-year-old senior from Orlando has been working on growing a leather-like material through a fermentation process that uses water, sugar, green tea and kombucha, a kind of fermented tea.
He was originally drawn to the idea of growing clothes after coming across a 2011 TED talk by Suzanne Lee, a fashion designer and now chief creative officer at Modern Meadow, of New Jersey, which makes lab-grown, biofabricated leather-like material.
In the world of fashion, there is a growing interest in using recycled and alternative fabrics. Partly, this is driven by environmental concerns: The fashion industry is notorious for being a major polluter, and the amount of natural resources required to fuel the industry is staggering. Also, the supply of natural fibers and leather is limited. But there is also the novelty factor: People might want to wear cool new materials, and brands want to position themselves to respond to that demand.
Innovators are now drawing on unconventional materials like pineapples, mushrooms and oranges to create leather-like substitutes. Some, like the California-based start-up Bolt Threads and the Japanese company Spiber, are experimenting with developing protein microfibers, modeled off spiders’ DNA and their webs, to make synthetic silk through a fermentation process.
If Quijano and other innovators like him succeed in growing alternative fabrics at scale, it could potentially redefine the fashion industry.
Whereas the conventional production process involves taking raw material (cotton and wool, for example), spinning it into yarn, weaving it into fabric, cutting and sewing it into a garment, and finally dyeing, printing, and adding finishing chemicals, the process of growing clothes cuts out many of the intermediary steps. One would start with a cultivation solution, ferment it into a sheet material, dry it on a 3-D form (such as a mannequin) to mold the material and finally trim or add embellishments to the completed garment.
“It has the potential to eliminate a lot of waste from the fashion industry,” said Quijano. “This textile circumnavigates a lot of the processes of the industry.”
Quijano started experimenting in his dorm room last fall, mixing ingredients together in large containers and setting them on the floor, where they would ferment for three to four weeks. He would take care to keep the containers in the shade and to cover them with blankets, so as not to disrupt the fermentation process.
“It can get a bit smelly,” said Quijano. “Very vinegary, acidic, almost like a beer brewery.”
As the ingredients ferment, a solid, inch-thick layer of bacterial cellulose forms on top of the mixture. Quijano would then dry out that layer, evaporating the water to leave a thin material to fashion clothes out of.
“It comes out skin-tone, transparent, but depending on what you do to add color, it can be very pretty,” he said.
Quijano has since migrated his operations to incubators at Liberty’s Center for Natural Sciences. This past summer, he spent three months at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, where he experimented with using different types of sugar for the fermentation process.
He also wants to work on refining his recipe, exploring ways to make the material waterproof and uniformly thicker. And he’d like to come up with a plan to commercialize his product, too.
“How are we going to position it in the fashion industry?” said Quijano. “Are we going to have celebrities wear it first? Is it going to mass market or more of a slow fashion thing?”
He is now applying for an interdisciplinary Ph.D. at the Queensland University of Technology, where he hopes to study fashion design, microbiology, and mechanical engineering as he continues his research.