Revolutionising textiles with ecology

London-based designer and researcher Natsai Audrey Chieza has spent the best part of a decade evolving the use of natural systems in textile design and production. She talks to Megan Williams about her practice and why it’s still an uphill battle to engage with the fashion industry

For an industry so devoted to the concept of beauty, fashion has an ugly underbelly. It’s not the “world’s second-largest polluter”, a claim that still circulates despite being dispelled in a New York Times article in 2018. Yet between the production of environmentally damaging fabrics, the 21 billion tonnes of textiles overwhelming landfills every year, and the carbon emissions involved in the bloated Fashion Week calendar (buyers and designers alone caused 241,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions across the four major Fashion Weeks in 2019), it’s no surprise the industry is at loggerheads with the environment.

However, brands and organisations have started to respond with tangible steps. Last year, the British Fashion Council launched the Institute for Positive Fashion to help green businesses prosper. This May, Gucci became the latest in a string of fashion houses to abandon the Fashion Week merry-go-round and instead go seasonless – a move facilitated by creative director Alessandro Michele’s fluid approach to gender in his shows, where he has tended to flout the divide between menswear and womenswear collections. “Our reckless actions have burned the house we live in,” Michele wrote at the time. “We conceived of ourselves as separate from nature, we felt cunning and almighty. We usurped nature, we dominated and wounded it.”

Top and Above: Textiles dyed using Streptomyces coelicolor, a soil-dwelling organism that produces pigment naturally. Images © Immatters Studio

While other brands had already been doing this for some time, Gucci, which brought in more than €9.6 billion in revenues last year, is without a doubt one of the biggest to have done so.

Of course, building a less destructive fashion industry isn’t just a case of producing fewer collections and shows. A growing number of innovators are discovering ways to change the modes of production, too. Among them is Natsai Audrey Chieza, who in 2018 founded Faber Futures, an award-winning lab and studio devoted to harnessing the intrinsic power of biological systems to rethink materials and systems of production.