'The word sustainability has gone down the gutter, it doesn't mean anything anymore. Science and fashion? They're quite separate still, but I think together they're the only way to rectify the damage we've done', fashion designer Olivia Rubens says when she comes to SHOWstudio to tell me all about her new project with the London concept store MACHINE-A, Photosynthesize. When we meet, she’s wearing a dusty mint knitted cardigan. At first glance, it's a standard wardrobe staple, but this cardy is coated in a special concoction. In fact, this garment is alive.
Originally a creamy white colour, the cardigan Rubens is wearing metamorphosed into its current green state when it was immersed into a giant petri dish by Post Carbon Lab, the design research studio who Rubens has been collaborating with since studying for her MA in Fashion Design Technology Womenswear at the London College of Fashion in 2015-2016. Founded by Dian-Jen Lin and Hannes Hulstaert, Post Carbon Lab were, at that point, experimenting with bacterial pigment dying, which uses no water and creates cool pink, blue and purple hues. Now, with Rubens and MACHINE-A, they're using science to create fashion items which exist as living organisms.
The clothes in the Photosynthesize collection actively reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Undergoing the process of sequestration they capture carbon dioxide, just as a plant would. The special concoction they're coated in is in fact a living layer, cultured using photosynthetic microorganisms. Rubens tells me that so far, in this riveting project full of unknowns, that they've found that knitwear provides the sort of surface the bacteria grips to best. She describes the knitwear which makes up a chunk of the MACHINE-A collection as being 'Like moss, it's a mini forest, and you have the bacteria in there doing its thing to make it live.'
Just like a plant, the clothes are extremely sensitive. Before being dunked into the petri dish, garments are pre-washed to remove any remnants from dying treatments. Rubens says over time they’ve learnt more about the process; at first they didn’t even know if a sewing needle would 'kill' the garment. What they do know is that these clothes do 'better over the summer months like a plant does, so it goes a much more vibrant green, and in the winter it goes a duller green.' Rubens expects to see changes on tighter areas of the clothes as people wear them, especially those which cling to parts of the body which sweat more, and who knows what might happen from a red wine spillage at a party. She lovingly refers to the collection as being like a shady plant; they live better in indirect sunlight. However, the clothes shouldn't be washed as you certainly 'don't want to drown a plant', as Rubens puts it. Instead, Post Carbon Lab advise to dab clothes with a pH-friendly eco-friendly detergent. Wearers will have to actively take care of these clothes if they want them to stay alive, and all of the pieces in the collection come with care instructions, such as to regularly mist them. 'I'm experiencing taking care of this for the first time. It's coded and it's alive, which is why it's green’, Rubens explains to me of her cardigan, adding that it gives off 'a sweet algae smell'. This is all one big experiment, and neither Rubens nor Post Carbon Lab know quite what will happen when people take these clothes out into the world with them. That’s what makes it so exciting.
In order to grow, plants absorb water, sunlight and carbon dioxide to create oxygen and energy in the form of sugar. But who’s to say the process of photosynthesis should be bound to what grows in the soil beneath our feet?
Rubens calls herself as a positive fashion designer, and her work has taken her to Helsinki Fashion Week in 2020, seen her receive mentorship from Fashion Open Studio as the winner of the second ever Responsible Fashion Award powered by Allianz and the CNMI Award in the International Talent Support 2020 competition, and she is currently seeing through a fellowship at The Suzanne Rogers Fashion Institute. Now, having been picked up by Stavros Karelis, the founder and head buyer of MACHINE-A, Rubens will see her clothes sold commercially for the first time, inviting the public to take part in their fashion experiment.
Sustainability has become a buzzword in fashion, and brands including Stella McCartney and Hermés are now even creating their own mushroom leather. Rubens, however, stresses that no brand can ever be completely sustainable. 'Being circular isn't enough', she adds. The designer endeavours to think about the very real consequences for the planet of the materials she uses, and is refreshingly transparent about her process, even when that means having to compromise. The Photosythesize collection is created using ethical alpaca, organic wool and linen, Tencel and GOTS organic cotton, however Rubens has been open about having had to use non-biodegrabale elastane in the past to ensure the long-term durability of her designs, until she finds a sustainable alternative such as spider’s webs. ‘I want to have the biggest impact possible and for there to be a purpose behind what I'm doing. I want to be able to sleep at night’, she says.
Growing up in Canada, she spent much of her time in nature snowboarding, but it was here that she also saw the impact of global warming and how the natural world is deteriorating around us. ‘It's always been part of my value system without me realising it; I grew up as, and I still am, a punk. Thrifting and wearing ridiculous crap, kind of the odd kid out. I innately keep my garments till they're in shreds and you can't wear them any more. Unfortunately that's not how a lot of society or luxury fashion functions. My intention for luxury is that you put so much work into it, and it's such a thoughtful product, that hopefully people would want to keep it forever.’
The concept of experimentation is inherent to the collection, and runs throughout Rubens' process, from her playful drawings to found object collages; this included blowing bubblegum bubbles so big that they burst on her face. 'I always try and find an odd methodology to my work. I approach some quite serious topics, but I try to infiltrate it with humour.' Other references for the collection include the excess of the Rococo and 18th century period, specifically clothing and furniture. Rubens proposes that beauty can be found in the everyday items we find around us, and Photosynthesize incorporates vintage crochet table cloths, upcycled barcodes, old ceramic kitchenware, and other sculptural elements in clothes and accessories. The collection also sees Rubens continue to work with social cooperatives, this time collaborating with the women refugee organisation Manusa in Italy, where the knit pieces such as the balaclavas were made, and Making For Change who employ women in, or rehabilitating from, prison.
'At MACHINE-A we always aim to support and showcase emerging designers that apart from their creative talent, their proposition to the future of our industry is such, that creates new ways for everyone to think, to be inspired and to bring positive change. Photosynthesize...is the scientific result of transforming garments to living organisms and how do we keep them alive in the environment we are in with our care. It is a project that elongates the life duration of a garment and offers us a better understanding of the fundamental circular relationship between the environment, us and our clothes', Karelis said in a statement.
The ultimate experiment in fashion behaviour, with Photosynthesize the wearer must now become the caretaker. They may even choose to hang these items in their home; part plant, part art installation. The project encourages buyers to scan a QR code and report back regularly about their garments and how they react to everyday life. There are so many intriguing variables in this experiment. Will people develop new attachments to the garments? Will this create a new type of fashion experience? How much carbon will they sequester over time? Will they thrive or die? ‘I want people to have that individual agency. There are people who will be value-based and be excited about this project, but I'm excited to also try and re-shape people who aren't perhaps value-based, or doubt their individual agency when it comes to climate solutions’, the designer explains. One variable is certain - that this is exactly the sort of behaviour needed if we're to have a future on this planet.
Available to buy now at MACHINE-A.COM
Photographer : Oscar Foster-Kane / @oscarfosterkane
Stylist : Laura Vartiainen / @lauravartiainen
Model : Lan Di / @rantekiteki
Set Design for in-store installation Mick O'Connell @mickoconn
Post Carbon Lab @postcarbonlab