Nature vs Nurture: the Case for Synthetic Luxury, Luxury Society

26th November 2009

In the not too distant future, advancements in contemporary cutting-edge materials like “supernaturals”, bio-mimetics and hybrids may alter the course of luxury altogether.

But it is current research and development that have the potential to turn our conventional notion of luxury materials on its head. While bio-mimetics (technology mimicking nature’s biological systems) and material innovation have always gone hand in hand, material scientists have moved beyond merely emulating the properties of nature’s superior materials. By manipulating nature to make it outperform itself, “supernaturals” are evolving and exceeding the original attributes of many materials found in nature. Take for instance products like Fabrican (an instant, non-woven fabric applied from a spray-gun) or an artificial self-healing rubber created by researchers at Paris’s ESPCI industrial physics programme.

The Gucci Group has recently joined the growing number of luxury firms that recognise the importance of nurturing such new materials from ideas to prototype to the product stage. The Italian group announced last month that it is underwriting a PhD scholarship and research programme at London’s Central Saint Martins College as part of the Textile Futures Research Group (TFRG). Researchers will explore the potential of new technology, cutting-edge design, science and materials innovation as they relate to the future of manufacturing — that is, projects like those initiated by Suzanne Lee, the renowned fashion futurologist, designer and textiles researcher.

Lee, who is part of the TFRG, believes the luxury industry needs to find new ways to avoid being copied by mass-market competitors and that several of the materials coming out of these research labs may hold the solution.

“Luxury brands need to push boundaries,” she says. “And not just through design but they also need to look to things that cannot be mass produced and are ultimately out of the mass price range. Bio-materials offer a huge opportunity in this arena.”

Lee’s own research in bio-materials, super-synthetics comprised of a living structure, is called “BioCouture”. It explores the use of bacterial-cellulose in a laboratory to create clothes and accessories that grow themselves from a liquid in a “growth bath” — making it theoretically possible for the fabric to keep on expanding even after it has been used in a garment. A short dress, for instance, could keep growing over time and morph into new shapes. All be it far from ready for the consumer, such innovation in materials does open up a new way of thinking about co-design between consumer and brand, which is the truest form of customisation and multi-functionality. There is, furthermore, the “luxury” that brands could potentially offer by selling an endless catalogue of growth “recipes” for their garments to extend and decorate.

Another example of how scientists and engineers are striving to apply bio-mimetic principles to push the boundaries of luxury can be seen in an eleven by four-foot piece of cloth that took four years to produce, recently placed on display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Simon Peers, an art historian and textile expert together with designer Nicholas Godley, harvested one million golden orb spiders in Madagascar in order to weave a textile entirely of extracted spider’s silk. Besides its extremely rare lustrous and tactile properties, the silk is ultra-durable and super lightweight, a “luxury” that would be most desirable in high-end garments for which wear and tear can mean the loss of a significant investment.

“Spider silk is very elastic, and it has a tensile strength that is incredibly strong compared to steel or Kevlar,” said Peers in a recent interview with Wired Science.

Peers and Godley built a scaled-up replica of a silk extraction machine designed in the 1890s by French missionary Jacob Paul Camboué who studied the spiders. Enlisting the help of dozens of handlers, the spiders were “milked” and released back into the wild.

The commercial viability of such an experiment is of course close to nil at present. But with research all over the world now being undertaken to replicate the spider’s silk, scientists are closer to being able to mass-produce such a fibre. The resulting fabric would be unmatched in the luxury fashion and textile industries.

Looking beyond bio-materials, “supernaturals” and the potential afforded by them, a new generation of super-synthetic plastics and ABS polymers are also altering our sense of luxury in the areas of packaging and product design.

Most notable among them are high gravity plastics, which many materials science observers have dubbed “plastics that exude value.” Commonly used for casino chips, these HGPs in some ways seem to contradict the principal advantages of plastics; and yet, their ability to be moulded into complex shapes together with the additional weight they carry help convey a sense of quality. The weight comes from either mineral or metal fillers, which can also give the plastic a darker and richer colour. Such material innovations are starting to become relevant for premium packaging for perfume bottles, like in the lid of Sisley’s Eau du Soir, as well as for golf clubs like Ping.

With the rise of more synthetic-natural material hybrids, supernaturals and bio- mimetic materials, in the future, consumers will undoubtedly have new standards for luxury. Soon, they may be entirely unable to discern the difference, for example, between a fabric genetically modified to behave and look like mink fur grown in a laboratory, and the genuine thing. So many questions will soon arise, leading us to reassess our definition of the luxury, premium and mass-market categories based on components and material composition. Will the time devoted to creating these new materials become part of the luxury moniker? Or will it be investment in the “recipe”? If the properties of synthetic materials of the near future surpass those of the finite luxury materials of yesteryear, will rarity as a factor of luxury cease to exist?