How To Grow Clothes With Yeast

Bioengineered fashion is beginning to make new, more sustainable materials grown in labs and made with microbes.

The field has been brewing for decades. Now, bioengineered fashion is beginning to deliver on its promise of new, more sustainable materials grown in labs and made with microbes. The technology uses a kind of fermentation, in which gene-edited organisms—like yeast or bacteria—are reprogrammed to produce the raw materials for fibers and textiles. 

In recent years a range of these bioengineered materials, from lab-made leathers to futuristic, super-strong silks, have begun trickling onto fashion-show runways and into consumer markets. Big-name brands like The North Face, Patagonia, and Stella McCartney are buying into the dream, partnering with biotech firms around the world. This year, Adidas released a mushroom-leather version of its classic Stan Smith sneaker. Hermes is partnering with California’s MycoWorks on a fungus-based luxury handbag. And designer Yuima Nakazato has been using bioengineered, spider-inspired silks to make wild, baroque couture creations.  

It’s an exciting time for designer Suzanne Lee, who’s worked at the intersection of materials science, biology, and fashion since the early 2000s. Until recently, Lee was chief creative officer at Modern Meadow, a biotech company most known for using yeast to produce collagen—which they then craft into a leather-like material. Now, her consultancy, called Biofabricate, connects investors, labs, and fashion brands, holding conferences and other events that bring together a generation of sustainable materials startups.

Lee, who started her career on the fashion side, has long pioneered the idea of bringing design and biology together early on in the materials development process. The ability to tinker with the genetic makeup and growing conditions of the organisms means that never-before-seen materials can be designed from the cell up, to create ideal fibers and high-performance clothing. For Lee, the bioengineered materials making headlines and hitting markets now are just the beginning, the first spores of a biobased fashion world, and what she calls the dawn of a “new system of manufacturing.”

Illustration by Hunter French.

This series is supported by Levi’s. VICE News retains complete editorial autonomy.