In the blur of color-saturated silks and iridescent jewels that slunk down last week’s Met Galared carpet, it’s easy to forget the precarious relationship tangling the fashion industry to the looming crisis of climate change. And the current administration isn’t helping. As President Trump contemplates withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, 2015’s landmark legislation binding 195 countries in the battle to curb global carbon emissions, international markets, including fashion, face an increasingly urgent call to reimagine their production methods and to create solutions for defending a steadily warming planet.
The impact of the clothing industry on the environment defies belief. Growing the cotton for just one set of your favorite slouchy boyfriend jeans requires 1,800 gallons of water, and an additional 2,900 gallons to manufacture the finished, dyed pair. Stitch those stats to the galling footprint of harvesting raw materials, manufacturing them into textiles, and shipping finished items across oceans or continents, and we’re talking about some pretty alarming ecological hazards — the devastatingly hidden cost buried in the pleasure of zipping up the latest Zara dress or breaking in stiff leather loafers.
Brooklyn-based artist and designer Ali Schachtschneider is charting the frontier of fresh paradigms for fashion production, working at the bioengineering co-op, Genspace, to re-conceptualize the ways we think about clothes. Here in the laboratory, she’s playing with groundbreaking formulas for building new materials, everything from fabrics to dyes, framing her research as a catalyst to wean the global clothing market off its dependence upon already-depleted ecosystems. A graduate of Parsons School of Design, Schachtschneider occupies a unique position to encourage this dialogue between biological innovation and fashion’s entrenched, damaging blueprints for making garments. “I was involved in fashion but wasn’t happy doing it,” she explains. “Now I’m focused on thinking about how biologically engineered products could show us that fashion and design don’t have to look or feel the ways we’re accustomed to. My research is a tool we can use to expand the conversation.”
If Schachtschneider’s approach feels revolutionary, all the better. Her latest project, “Vivorium,” was inspired by experimentation with a variety of biological materials, including a bacteria engineered to produce indigo—the lustrous blue dye fueling the jeans industry’s $8.5 billion annual profit. “Imagining what biotechnology could mean for indigo—what it could mean for the future of denim—pushed me to think about how we could reshape fashion production in a really inventive way.” Set in 2043, after the Earth has endured another quarter-century of razed forests and rising seas, “Vivorium” looks towards a dystopian (though still starkly elegant) reality where clothing responds to, rather than drags resources away from, our increasingly polluted environment. Scorched by a depleted ozone layer and plagued by drought, this not-so-distant future feels disturbingly easy to picture—like a glimpse at a post-climate disasterland in which humanity relies on the cooling powers of garments imbued with pond bacteria or sets out to rebuild desiccated landscapes in shoes cobbled from recycled agricultural waste. For Schachtschneider, the burden is on us to reject the ingrained practices of clothing manufacturing that have become literally untenable and forge something new. In a world like “Vivorium”‘s, we may not have a choice.
Schachtschneider’s work isn’t just conceptual (though you can catch the whole “Vivorium” video at the top of this piece); she also teaches at Parsons and at Genspace, challenging students to incorporate sustainable practices into the design process, like her studies dying silk with bioengineered pigments. “In light of the current political atmosphere, it’s really important to stay passionate, especially as a woman within the biotech design arena,” she summarizes. “My goal is to focus on what I’m doing, to be intelligent about it, to inspire more people around me to want to see the idea grow—that’s really all I can do.”