Microbes are "the factories of the future"

Dezeen and MINI Frontiers: Suzanne Lee of BioCouture explains how she makes clothes that are "grown using bacteria" in this movie filmed at the Wearable Futures conference in London in December.

Suzanne Lee portrait
Suzanne Lee

"There's a whole spectrum of organisms that can grow material," says Lee, who founded BioCouture to explore how organisms like bacteria, yeast, fungi and algae could be harnessed to produce fabrics.

Update: this interview is featured in Dezeen Book of Interviews, which is on sale now for £12.

Lee showed the Wearable Futures audience a range of jackets and shoes made from bio-materials produced by bacteria in a vat of liquid to produce bacterial cellulose - a material that has similar properties to leather.

BioBomber jacket
BioBomber jacket

"The recipe that I've been exploring to grow a piece of clothing is using a symbiotic mix of yeast and bacteria," she said. "It's a fermentation method that grows you bacterial cellulose. It's kind of like a vegetable leather if you like."

She adds: "What attracts me to it is that it's compostable. It's not just biodegradable, it's compostable. So you could throw it away like you would your vegetable peelings."

Biocouture BioShoe
BioCouture BioShoe

BioCouture is a London-based design consultancy that is pioneering the use of bio-materials for the fashion, sportswear and luxury sectors.

Lee is a former senior research fellow at the School of Fashion & Textiles at Central Saint Martin's College of Art & Design, and author of the 2007 book Fashioning The Future: tomorrow's wardrobe, which was the first publication to explore how technology could transform fashion.

Biocouture shoe inside
BioCouture Bioshoe

"Through an engagement with biology I'm really excited about how we can think about organisms like microbes as the factories of the future," says Lee. "What most people know BioCouture for is a series of garments that were grown using bacteria. So the fibres, the material itself and the formation of the garment has been done by a microbe rather than a plant."

Biocouture BioSkirt. Photograph by House Of Radon
BioCouture BioSkirt. Photograph by House Of Radon

In future, Lee believes that clothing materials themselves could be living organisms that could work symbiotically with the body to nourish it and even monitor it for signs of disease.

"What we have right now are living organisms making us materials, but then the organism is killed and the material just exists like any other," she says.

Biocouture BioSkirt. Photograph by House Of Radon
BioCouture BioSkirt. Photograph by House Of Radon

"But I can imagine that we will eventually move towards the material itself being living while it's on you, and having a direct relationship to your whole body in this happy micro-biome environment and perhaps diagnosing and treating, nourishing in some way the body surface so becoming part of your wellbeing."

The two-day Wearable Futures conference explored how smart materials and new technologies are helping to make wearable technology one of the most talked-about topics in the fields of design and technology.

BioCouture material
BioCouture material

The music featured in the movie is a track by DJ Kimon. You can listen to his music on Dezeen Music Project.

Dezeen and MINI Frontiers is a year-long collaboration with MINI exploring how design and technology are coming together to shape the future.