Local Fashion Students Are Making Major Strides Toward Sustainability

As fashion houses like Hermès and Stella McCartney experiment with biomaterials, a local costume designer is giving students a jump on the future

This year, Hermès announced a new iteration of its Victoria bag made from mycelium-based material. Stella McCartney, too, has been experimenting with leather-like fabrics made from mycelium, which are networks of fungal threads. These kind of innovations excite Kristine Upesleja. “It’s time to recreate and find a solution, find a new fiber,” she says.

A former costume designer, Upesleja is teaching students at ArtCenter College of Design to do just that in her class, “Wearables: Material Futures.” She also developed and continues to curate the Innovative Materials Collection at Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, and runs the consulting firm Madisons Innovative. Upesleja is pushing the next generation of designers to experiment and find the materials necessary for a sustainable future.

“I’m fascinated with my students at Art Center, to see how they create and how they find out some new ways of making things,” she says. “Of course the next step is how to make it pliable and commercially available. That’s the big question, but it shows that it’s possible.”

Upesleja’s students might come into her class with an interest in sustainable design, but they typically don’t have practical experience in making biomaterials. “They need to come up with their own solutions,” says Upesleja. “This is really about exploration, experimenting,” she adds, “failing, also, which often happens when they are trying to create their own bioplastics. 

The “Glutch” by Ozzy Alvarez

Recent ArtCenter graduate Ozzy Alvarez took Upesleja’s class in the spring of 2021. Developing materials in the midst of the pandemic proved to be a challenge. “My kitchen became this chemistry lab,” he says. And when a delivery of ingredients was delayed, Alvarez looked around his kitchen to figure out what he could use instead. That lead to a bioplastic made of gelatin, which he used to mimic bubble wrap and also crafted into an arm shield. He also made a bioplastic with cheesecloth and, combining that with a SCOBY-based material, he fashioned a clutch handbag as his final. While Alvarez already had an interest in sustainable practices, he says the class made him passionate about the subject. “I know that there is an opportunity to possibly create a completely biodegradable/sustainable purse that can go onto a fashion runway,” he says. “I believe that is possible.”  

“I’ve always been interested in materials,” says Upesleja. In Europe, she had worked as a costume designer, primarily for theater and opera. She moved to Los Angeles in 2000, and a few years later landed a job as a textile specialist at FIDM. After seeing a photo of a raincoat that transformed into a mattress, Upesleja was so impressed that she reached out to the maker, C.P. Company, who sent her the item on loan for what would be the first exhibition she curated at the school. She now organizes an annual innovative materials conference and exhibition at FIDM.  

We met in person inside FIDM’s Innovative Materials Collection in late July, where Upesleja enthusiastically shows off some pieces in the collection. There’s a gold motorcycle jacket that looks like leather but is actually made from pineapple leaf. A pair of sneakers feel like suede but the material is derived from mushrooms.

Recent ArtCenter alum Martin Hernandez experimented with hemp fungus to form a mycelium midsole.

Martin Hernandez

At ArtCenter, Upesleja dives into concepts like circular economy with her students. She might have them look for plastic trash along the beach to turn into something wearable or repurpose an item that’s already in their closet. Students can learn how to make bioplastics and turn food waste into materials.  

Anastasia Bachykala, a 2019 ArtCenter graduate, grew up in Belarus, where growing SCOBY (which stands for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”) at home to make kombucha was a common practice. So, when she took Upesleja’s class a couple years ago, she was excited to learn about how people are working with microorganisms to make materials. Bachykala herself made SCOBY leather, which she used to craft a pair of earrings and journal covers, in the course. But, SCOBY leather is tricky. “One of the challenges with SCOBY leather is that it’s highly sensitive to water,” she says. Yet, Bachykala has continued her experiments since finishing school. She’s currently collaborating with researchers at University of California San Diego, who have been working with biopolymers derived from algae. “In order to make SCOBY leather commercially feasible, or potentially be applied for real products in the market, it would need to be made waterproof,” she says. Algae might be the solution.  

Upesleja sees educating the students as part of a solution to the environmental issues brought about by consumer culture. Hopefully, they’ll take the knowledge they acquire to their future employers and help affect change. “I deeply believe that if we change the materials that we’ve been using, it would make an enormous impact,” says Upesleja. “The materials world needs to change and we need to educate our designers that they should design for recycling. They have the power.”

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