Photograph by Hannah Whitaker

Is a Luxury Object Made in a Lab More Desirable One Made by Hand?

The idea of machine-made indulgences is increasingly competing with handcrafted counterparts. Will a lab-grown Birkin soon have as long a waiting list as a crocodile one?

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Sep 4 2018, 2:30pm

Photograph by Hannah Whitaker

Conventional notions of luxury tend to go back to all things touchy-feely: heritage materials, classic fabrics, “craftsmanship.” But the pioneers of lab-grown fabrics are bored with such convention. Why shouldn’t a diamond or a piece of silk created in a shiny white building be even more luxurious than the original? Isn’t that kind of technology a rare craftsmanship, too?

Until recently, lab-grown fabrics were presented as simply a viable if niche alternative, often touted for their affordability, but the industry’s pioneers are now branding them as a better, more elevated, more “woke” choice. Classic fabrics are for Luddites, devotees would argue; technology is the future.

Take Chanel, the master of heritage techniques and craft savoir faire, which debuted embroidery with 3-D-printed elements in 2015. It is continuing to research how to incorporate the technique into its practice: Its 3-D-printed mascara brush launched in June; expect 3-D-printed ready-to-wear suits soon! Or what about the notoriously hierarchical diamond industry, which is being upturned by bright man-made stones? Over in California, Diamond Foundry is growing diamonds in the lab, setting a new standard for social and environmental good. Its sparklers are better than traditionally mined stones, the company says.

In fact, tastemakers of the highest echelon, and not merely those with environmental bona fides, can furnish themselves entirely in alternative fabrics this fall, should a forward-thinking mood hit. Perhaps a golden, silk shift dress from Stella McCartney, weaved not by spiders but by the California-based lab Bolt Threads, who craft protein-based yarn. Or how about an orange-fiber fabric scarf from Salvatore Ferragamo? The Italian luxury label cottoned onto an opportunity area offered by its country’s juice passion, making use of the 700,000 tons of by-product that occurs post squeeze.

Seetal Solanki, the founder and director of Ma-tt-er, a research studio that looks at the past, present, and future of materials, says that she can see a day where these fabrics are seen as the ultimate choice in high fashion and luxury. “There is definitely a ‘luxurious’ aspect to lab-grown materials as there is a lot of craft, care, and attention that goes into culturing them.”

Star Wars gear, all shoulders and silver. Though fashion is an industry driven by rapid change, many are skeptical and fearful of true innovation. “It does take a while for something quite groundbreaking such as lab-grown materials to be integrated and accepted into society,” Solanki says. “A lot of it comes down to human behavior and culture.” She cites leather as an example: “As a material, it’s rooted in history and culture, which is so hard for some people to move away from. It’s about embracing how the culture of materials needs to be included in the design process.”

Disrupting the intimidating global leather industry—worth a daunting $100 billion a year—is Modern Meadow. Founded in 2011 to make animal-free “animal products,” it launched Zoa, the first-ever bio-fabricated leather brand, last year. Modern Meadow started with burgers and steaks, as well as bags and shoes, before pivoting to focus solely on fashion. “As long as consumers are eating meat, there will always be a leather industry,”Chief Creative Officer Suzanne Lee says. “We are looking to offer advanced materials that sit alongside traditional leather.”

Lee is aware of the same prejudices as Solanki, but thinks the demand for lab-grown materials will benefit from the growing associations between ethics and luxury: Products that are sustainable and built on fair working practices are now at the top of the wish list for many, seen as better, cooler, and more worthy of showing off. “There’s huge demand for animal-free alternatives,” says Lee. She’s adamant that lab-grown materials are the future of high fashion. “We’ve had enormous interest from the luxury sector. These brands have seen a demand for alternative materials from their customers for some time.”

The future fabrics world is diversifying. Pioneers such as Iris van Herpen, who experimented with 3-D printing and collaborated with scientists and architects way before others took note, are no longer anomalies. There are whispers in the front row about an Hermès Birkin bag made from lab-grown leather. Imagine, the ladies of Silicon Valley proudly touting such a luxury, smug in the knowledge they’re one step ahead of the curve. The brand denies such a project is in the works—an oversight, perhaps, given that science is so in vogue.