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Algae, spider webs, and mushrooms – the materials shaping fashion’s future

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AFW Article Cover (Future fashion materials)

Algae, spider webs, and mushrooms – the materials shaping fashion’s future

As we enter a new age of industry innovation, we dig deeper into the biotech fabrics that could be infiltrating your wardrobe in the years to come

Welcome to A Future World – Dazed's network, community, and platform focusing on the intersection of science, technology and pop culture. Throughout April, we're featuring conversations and mission statements from the people paving new pathways for our planet: activists, inventors, fashion pioneers, technologists, AI scientists, and global youth movements, alongside in-depth editorial exploring the new realities for our future world.

What will fashion look like in the year 2041? With trends churning around in 20-year cycles, there’s a pretty good chance we could have a slouchy loungewear boom on our hands. Slipping into sweatpants, hoodies, and UGG boots, the teens of distant tomorrow might find themselves looking back to the halcyon days of the global pandemic for inspiration when it comes to their wardrobes, in much the same way as we’re currently mining the aesthetics of the Y2K era. That said, we should probably (see: definitely) remove that ‘vintage’ Ed Hardy trucker cap from the depths of our Depop basket. 

One thing that’s likely to change in the time between now and then, however, is what those sweats are made from. Sustainable, bio materials being utilised within the industry right now include coffee grounds, cactus leather, algae, and onion skins. Cotton’s detrimental impact on both the environment and the people farming its crops is well documented, and polyester and nylon are also a no-go thanks to the harmful chemical gases released into the atmosphere during manufacturing  (not to mention the fact they take centuries to break down). Instead, today you’ll find the likes of Stella McCartney dipping her toe into lab-grown spider silk, and rising London designer Alice Potts turning to the human body itself to create unique garments and accessories made from glittering sweat crystals – their rough-hewn finishes giving them the appearance of a geode turned inside-out. 

Even those in the very upper echelons of luxury fashion are taking note, with Hermès entering the lab to explore mushroom-based alternatives to its exotic skins and hides after two centuries of turning out the finest leather money can buy. This is particularly big news given that by 2025, it’s estimated that 430 million cows will need to be slaughtered annually to keep up with consumer demands. 

For such a notoriously fast-moving industry, fashion has been slow on the uptake when it comes to sustainability. Finally it’s waking up to the realisation that innovative new fabrics aren’t a novelty, but an urgency – and when it comes to the source, it’s a case of the weirder, the better. 


Mushrooms are having a moment. Not only the overarching drug of choice for pandemic park wanders, research into psilocybin as an effective therapy for depression has also amped up in the last few years. Now, fungi is springing up on catwalks, too. But while Iris Van Herpen and Jonathan Anderson have worked the motif into recent collections – with Van Herpen turning out a blooming, lamella-detailed couture offering just last month – the humble mushroom is working hardest behind the scenes. 

Pioneered by the world-class scientists and engineers at Bolt Threads, leather substitute Mylo utilises mycelium – which, in case you’re not familiar, is the root-like structure fungi uses to grow. The process involved in creating the finished product sees mycelium cells ‘fed’ with organic material including sawdust in a temperature controlled environment. Soon, a foamy layer grows from the matter, which is then processed to become thin, flexible sheets that resemble cork. From there, the fully compostable material heads to sustainability-focused tanneries to be dyed without the use of harmful chemicals usually employed to colour leather. This whole process takes just two to four weeks – in comparison to the two to three years it takes to raise a cow for its hide.  

With Stella McCartney first unveiling a prototype bag crafted from Mylo back in 2018, and revered Parisian house Hermès recently debuting its own ‘mushroom leather’ tote as part of a collaboration with San Francisco-based start-up MycoWorks, last year saw Mylo receive hefty investment from a consortium of companies including McCartney, adidas, Lululemon, and luxury conglomerate Kering. Will be we seeing mycelium on the runway at Gucci, Balenciaga, and Bottega Veneta in the months and years to come? All signs point to yes. 


Chances are your first brush with algae clothing came via – who else – Kanye West. Back in 2019, the Yeezy founder dropped the first, divisive prototype for a new runner crafted, in part, from the aquatic organism. “We’re going to be farming and going seed to sole,” he revealed at the time, with the limited shoe that finally dropped last year made from a blend of EVA and harvested algae. 

What you might not know is that fashion has been exploring the use of algae for some time now. London-based start-up Post Carbon Lab took home Kering’s award for sustainable fashion for its extensive research into the material, working with the intention of making fashion not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative. Thanks to algae’s status as a living, breathing organism, the garments it is eventually turned into are capable of respirating through photosynthesis – meaning that someday, not too far from now, the clothes you wear might be able to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen. According to the groundbreaking label, a large t-shirt could generate almost as much O2 as one six-year-old oak tree. 

Other designers utilising the innovative bio-textile include CSM graduate Scarlett Yang, who crafted a delicate, diaphanous gown from algae and silk proteins. The unique, shapeshifting dress grew and adapted to its surroundings depending on humidity and temperature levels, creasing and folding to take on new forms in different environments. More art than anything actually wearable (Lady Gaga, come through), the piece had the ability to break down and decompose within 24 hours when placed in water – meaning getting caught in the rain in a number like this would likely be pretty problematic. 

At the more practical end of the scale is NY designer Rachel McCurdy’s see-through, bio-plastic raincoat, and experimental clothing label Vollebak’s algae t-shirt, which, despite being fully compostable, isn’t going to break down when it comes into contact with a little bit of rain. Instead, when the tee reaches the end of its life, it can either be chucked in the compost bin or otherwise buried in the ground – breaking down to become worm food within a 12-week period.


adidas, Stella McCartney, and Bolt Threads are back at it again with another biotech material: a pioneering, lab-grown spider silk. As one of the strongest known fibres on the planet, science has long sought to replicate the threads arachnids use to make their webs, making actual headway in recent years. In 2019, McCartney used her adidas collab to debut a lightweight, fully biodegradable tennis dress crafted from Bolt Threads’ bioengineered ‘spider’ yarn. But how does it actually work? 

Thankfully, early innovators ditched attempts to create enormous farms full of spiders in a bid to harvest their silk, given their predilection for cannibalism. To create this unique thread, the company’s team of scientists looked to an orb spider known as the argiope bruennichi. Studying the way the eight-legged creature spun its web, the company then took to the lab to concoct its own version of the protein the spider created in the lab, implanting it into yeast and allowing it to ferment and grow. 

From there, the liquid silk is removed from the mass and spun into yarn, before being woven into the fabric that will later become a garment. Don’t think this came easily, however: in a 2017 interview with The New Yorker, Bolt Threads’ CEO and co-founder Dan Widmaier revealed the lab had tried somewhere in the region of 4000 formulations before they eventually struck gold.

Also utilising this hardcore new fabric is The North Face, which joined forces with Japanese company Spiber – not a typo – to debut a commercially available gold-hued ‘Moon Parka’, and Patagonia, which is currently exploring the technology within its own practice.


No, we’re not suggesting anything in the direction of Buffalo Bill’s skinsuit. Instead, we’re looking in the direction of a small but growing pool of next-gen designers exploring the interaction between biomaterials and the human body in order to create truly unique – and in some instances, living – garments. 

Among them is Royal College of Art graduate Alice Potts, whose final collection of accessories was made from crystallised human sweat. First inspired to explore the concept when she spotted white crystals forming on her gym gear post-workout, the designer began collecting droplets of sweat – wringing out sweaty socks and vests, as well as ballet slippers – before applying them to still-damp garments and allowing them to grow. The result was a series of otherworldly, sculptural pieces that took secreted bodily-fluids and turned them into things of beauty – zero waste crystals that could, someday, embellish the clothes we wear (because lord knows it’s not about sequins any more). 

Elsewhere, newly-founded digital couture house AUROBOROS is also exploring biomimicry. Established by Paula Sello and Alissa Aulbekova and championed by Alexander McQueen’s Sarabande Foundation, the designers create one-off pieces that grow on the body through the process of crystallisation. Beyond this, the clothes are then evolved further in the digital sphere through 3D scanning, adding another layer to the process, and eradicating the need for physical clothes altogether. That is, until you need to leave the house.