Anything you can do, Ma Nature can do better. That’s not to say you can’t crib from the best, of course: adapting biological principles to solve design problems is as old as civilization, whether it’s studying birds to enable human flight, modeling skyscrapers after termite mounds, or creating leaf-like solar cells to boost the output of photovoltaics. “Biomimicry,” a term popularized by Janine Benyus in her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, mines billion-year-old adaptation strategies to craft a more sustainable future. Here are 10 examples of how the fashion industry draws cues from life to innovate and awe.
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PHOTOSYNTHESIS AS PERFORMANCE ART
Who needs a fur pelt when you can drape your shoulders in living green moss? Tara Baoth Mooney, a graduate of the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion, created her “Portable Pelts” to promote the concept of “symbiotic biomimicry.”
“Portable Pelts” uses living moss to promote the concept of “symbiotic biomimicry” between humans and plants.
More specifically, Mooney’s creations ape non-parasitic or commensal relationships found in the environment. Moss that grows on the trunks or branches receive the light and nutrients they need without affecting their host. Mooney’s intent is far more subversive, however.
“Increasingly, there is a tendency for human beings to be emotionally detached from one another and from their environment,” she says. “Engaging physically with anything is far more complex than merely talking about it. I believe that there is a potential for people to engage with the idea of growth as an experiential and participatory process through keen observation and sympathetic regard.”
LAYERING SCRAPS LIKE SCALES
After spying diamond-shaped wood chips on a workshop floor at London’s Kingston University—the leftovers of some architecture student, no doubt—Stefanie Nieuwenhuys was reminded of a secondhand snakeskin bag she once purchased. Scooping them up, the fashion student set to work, layering the wooden scraps onto fabric like reptilian scales.
To minimize waste, Stefanie Nieuwenhuys layered discarded pieces of wood onto fabric like reptilian scales.
Nieuwenhuys’s “aha” moment resulted in her master’s project: a collection of corsets, floor-length evening dresses, trousers, and neckpieces that marries modern laser-cutting techniques with a couturier’s delicate yet exacting touch.
Eschewing virgin resources, Nieuwenhuys worked with bio-waste firm InCrops Enterprise Hub in Norwich to obtain discarded pieces of plywood, which she honed into efficient forms that left behind little waste. Glued onto unbleached organic cotton, the brown-and-ecru “scales” become a “simulacra of nature, without discarding nature’s inherent harmonies,” she tells Ecouterre.
COMPACT STRUCTURES THAT UNFURL LIKE LEAVES
Diana Eng based her “Miura Ori” scarf on an origami “leaf-fold” pattern invented by Koryo Miura, a Japanese space scientist who was in turn inspired by the unfurling mechanism of the hornbeam and beech leaves.
Diana Eng’s scarf folds into a compact package yet “deploys” to create a voluminous wrap for your neck.
Hornbeam and beech leaves are distinguished by their corrugated folds, which remain collapsed until they emerge from their buds. Eng’s wool-cashmere scarf folds into a compact package yet “deploys” to create a voluminous—and warm!—wrap for your neck.
IMITATING SHARK SKIN TO REDUCE DRAG
Speedo’s Fastskin FSII swimsuit mimics the texture of sharkskin to improve its wearer’s speed while reducing drag. Sharks may appear sleek on the surface, but their skin comprises tiny scales known as dermal denticles (“little skin teeth”) that correspond to varying flow conditions. Rougher dermal denticles, for instance, cover the nose of the animal, while smoother ones amass further back. Furthermore, longitudinal grooves in the scales serve to channel water more efficiently over their surface, enhancing thrust.
Speedo’s Fastskin FSII swimsuit mimics the texture of sharkskin to improve the speed of its wearer.
The swimwear company’s ersatz sharkskin, which premiered at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, still has a ways to go, however. In February, Harvard scientists concluded that the Fastskin’s bumps were too small, rounded, and far apart to have the same effect as denticles, although its skintight form probably enhanced the swimmer’s performance in other ways.
APPLYING COLOR WITHOUT DYES
This dress’s iridescent hue is purely a trick of the light. Fashioned from Morphotex, the frock uses structurally colored to mimic the microscopic structure of the Morpho butterfly’s wings, which appear a shimmery cobalt despite its lack of pigment. Manufactured by Teijin in Japan, Morphotex requires no dyes or pigments, nor the prodigious amount of water and energy used in conventional dyeing.
Inspired by the microscopic structure of the Morpho butterfly’s wings, Morphotex requires no dyes or pigments.
A native of the South America rainforest, the Morpho is one of the largest butterflies in the world, with wings that span five to eight inches. The vivid color on the upper surface of their wings is the result of microscopic, overlapping scales that amplify certain wavelengths of light while canceling out others.
Similarly, Morphotex relies on fiber structure and physical phenomena such as light reflection, interference, refraction, and scattering to produce its opalescence. The fabric comprises roughly 60 polyester and nylon fibers, arranged in alternating layers that can be varied in thickness to produce four basic colors: red, green, blue, and violet.
ATTRACTING POLLINATORS WITH FASHION
To address the shrinking populations of bees and other pollinators, artist Karen Ingham treated a series of “Pollinator Frocks” with a nectar-like sugar solution to attract and nourish insects.
Karen Ingham treated her “Pollinator Frocks with nectar-like sugar solution to attract and nourish bees and their brethren.
Featuring electron-microscopy images of pollen, her wearable gardens fall into two separate categories: day-wear to draw bees and butterflies and evening-wear for nocturnal critters such as moths. Ingham sees her dresses having the most impact in urban spaces, where gardens are limited in number, nectar-rich plants are rare, and public engagement is most needed. “The clothing can be hung out as clothes are hung on a washing line, to act as an attractant to pollinators,” she says.
GROWING GARMENTS FROM MICROBES
Suzanne Lee grows her own “biocouture” from vats of green tea, sugar, bacteria, and yeast. Lee, a senior research fellow at the School of Fashion & Textiles at Central Saint Martins in London coaxes fibers from this microbial soup, coalescing thin, wet sheets of bacterial cellulose that can be molded to a dress form.
Suzanne Lee grows her own “biocouture” from vats of green tea, sugar, bacteria, and yeast.
As the sheets dry out, overlapping edges “felt” together to become fused seams. When all moisture has evaporated, the fibers develop a tight-knit, papyrus-like surface that can be bleached or stained with fruit and vegetable dyes such as turmeric, indigo, and beetroot.
OUTERWEAR THAT TRANSPIRES LIKE TREES
Páramo’s waterproof jackets feature fabric technology inspired by the transpiration activity of trees. The process is akin to evaporation: pore-like openings in plant foliage, collectively known as stomata, open and close to release water vapor into the air. The water loss allows the plant to access carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, as well as to cool itself when the mercury rises.
Páramo’s line o outerwear features fabric technology inspired by the transpiration activity of trees.
Unlike conventional mineral wax, the company’s Nikwax treatment leaves spaces between the fibers elastic, open, and breathable. Besides providing water-repellency, the elastomer also traps air next to the skin, directing moisture away from the body and preventing external moisture from entering.
“SHEDDABLE” GARMENTS THAT REDUCE LAUNDERING
Katie Ledger wants you to make like a serpent and molt—the layers of your clothes, that is. Inspired by the way a snake sheds its skin, the London College of Art student envisions garments with layers that slough off without the need for frequent laundering.
“Shed Me” garments slough off their layers like a snake, reducing the need for frequent laundering.
In addition to slashing the heavy energy burden that washing and drying entail—an average laundry cycle uses up to 40 gallons of water and 5,500 watts of electricity, according to the U.S. Department of Energy—Ledger’s “Shed Me” project imagines clothes that change color and even style with the removal of each successive layer.
Zoe Alexander Fisher designed a hand-felted wool coat during her sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence College. Worn in winter, the garment can be disposed of by planting it in the spring. The wool acts as a fertilizer for the embedded seeds, which grow into food-producing plants throughout the summer in time for a fall harvest.
Zoe Alexander Fisher’s seed-embedded coat is worn in winter, planted in spring, grown in summer, and harvested in winter.
“From production to disposal, the product remains a part of the environment,” Fisher says. “By biomimicking nature’s seasons, it [serves to] draw attention to our human relationship and commitment to the natural environment.”