Suzanne Lee was a fashion designer in the early ’90s when she discovered in a lab that biofabrication processes could produce leatherlike materials via yeast fermentation. She spent the next 10 years experimenting with giant vats of bacteria while advising clothing brands on how to incorporate newly invented materials. Recently, as chief creative officer at biotech startup Modern Meadow, she’s helped lead the development of an animal-free leather material called Zoa and is now collaborating with industrial fermentation company Evonik to scale the biofabrication process.
As the world becomes more affluent, people want more meat and leather products, but the planetary stress is unsustainable. Here, we design and edit DNA, put it into yeast cells, and then use a fermentation process to scale. We can actually brew protein collagen like you brew beer, and use it anywhere that you might use a leather material, whether that’s fashion, interiors, or cars.
Many consumers care about being able to trace [leather] back to the farm. It’s almost impossible with the leather supply chain as it is. With Modern Meadow, you have complete traceability, to the very cell that was engineered to produce it.
We’re starting with a liquid form of leather that you can transform into all kinds of different shapes, thicknesses, and sizes that are not bound by the sheet of leather hide that nature gives you. And we can reduce waste to a minimum.
Paola Antonelli, the design curator at MoMA, is interested in synthetic biology and what it means for the future of products. As we were thinking about the Fashion Modern exhibit, we thought this was an opportunity for us to make something [unexpected] from leather, like a white T-shirt. Because we’re using liquid leather, we can make it incredibly thin but strong, and combine it with other fabrics.
The T-shirt was appealing because it’s timeless, genderless, and ageless. It’s also a garment of revolutionaries, because people use the T-shirt as a slogan-carrying device. The exhibit at MoMA was very much a billboard.
Modern Meadow is a finalist and honorable mention in the 2018 Innovation By Design Awards. Check out all the honorees here.