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Will Fashion’s Next Generation of Materials Be Brewed Like Beer?

Japanese sportswear group Goldwin and biotech start-up Spiber are set to test the market for lab-grown materials with collections for brands including North Face and Woolrich this fall.
A North Face parka created in partnership with Japanese sportswear group Goldwin and biotech startup Spiber. (North Face)
  • Yola Mzizi

Key insights

  • After nearly a decade of development, Japanese sportswear group Goldwin is launching a suite of products featuring lab-grown materials from biotech start-up Spiber this fall.
  • It’s a milestone in efforts to commercialise technology that uses genetically engineered microbes to “brew” protein polymers — building blocks for materials like wool and cashmere.
  • Getting the innovation to market at scale remains a long-term project in an increasingly challenging and competitive environment.

For nearly a decade, Japanese sportswear group Goldwin and biotech start-up Spiber have pursued an elusive goal: to get lab-grown fabrics out of the lab and onto the market.

It’s been an arduous journey. The pair’s first collaboration, a North Face parka made using a synthetic “spider silk,” shrank when it came into contact with water. Their next attempt was functional, but made in such small quantities that it was only available by lottery on Spiber’s website. It retailed at $1,410, roughly four times the normal price for a similar jacket.

But this fall, Spiber’s efforts to recreate materials like silk, wool and cashmere using genetically engineered microbes to “brew” protein polymers – the essential building blocks for animal-derived materials – are set to hit the market in a bigger way. Goldwin, which runs its own brands and produces labels like The North Face and Woolrich in Japan, is launching a suite of products featuring the bioengineered materials, making them available for sale globally.

It’s still a rarefied world with limited volumes, but it’s the latest milestone in a race to develop a new generation of textiles that can help fashion meet its sustainability ambitions.

Brands and venture funds have poured billions of dollars into innovations that aim to mimic leather, fur and other traditional materials without harming animals or causing as much damage to the environment.

Companies from Hermès and Stella McCartney to Allbirds and Everlane have dabbled in materials made from mushrooms, plant-based leathers and bio-fabricated textiles. But there have been plenty of false starts along the way and products containing these next-generation materials have only really started to hit the market in the last 18 months; the first real test of whether brands’ bets can scale and commercialise.

Spiber’s had less hype than some competitors, but over the last 15 years the company’s attracted nearly half a billion dollars in funding from investors including Goldwin, the Japanese government, private equity firm Carlyle Group and agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). By 2030, Goldwin has said it wants 10 percent of all its new products to use Spiber’s “Brewed Protein” materials.

“It’s a great achievement to create a new beginning, to commercialise an apparel material … which didn’t exist in the world before,” Goldwin general manager Gen Arai said.

Fermented Fashion

Spiber began as a failed class project for founders Kazuhide Sekiyama and Junichi Sugahara. While studying bioinformatics at Tokyo’s Keio University, the duo began experimenting with ways to bioengineer spider silk, a material that is five times stronger than steel, but very difficult to harvest in the natural world. The idea was to develop a material for industrial applications, but they never cracked how to duplicate spider silk’s natural strength. Instead, they pivoted.

“Spiders hold a lot of secrets,” said Spiber’s head of business development Kenji Higashi. “We were able to create fibres with interesting properties but it never came close to the real thing. Garments don’t need tough properties so the pivot made sense for us.”

The company makes materials in a process not dissimilar to making beer or kombucha. But instead of using yeast to ferment sugars into a refreshing beverage, Spiber uses microbes genetically engineered so that the fermentation produces different kinds of protein polymers. These synthetic building blocks are then extracted, dried and spun into fibres.

Until recently, such techniques were so difficult and expensive they’d largely been relegated to the pharmaceutical industry. But over the last decade, equipment to edit and splice DNA has become much more widely accessible, opening up new opportunities for material innovation.

“We are at this juncture where we can start to apply the tools used in pharmaceuticals or biomedicine to produce a textile for the fashion industry,” said Suzanne Lee, founder and chief executive of Biofabricate. “That is a revolutionary concept.”

Spiber isn’t the only material science company to experiment with the technology, but it’s at the forefront of efforts to commercialise it for fashion. If successful, it will be in a position to offer a one-stop shop for alternatives to materials the fashion industry has become accustomed to using, Lee added.

“We stand out because we don’t just produce one thing,” said Higashi. “We’re able to take inspiration from the environment and create new materials.”

Last year, the company opened its first industrial scale production plant in Thailand with capacity to produce hundreds of tonnes a year, according to Higashi. It’s partnering with ADM to build a second facility in the US.

“They are pretty much as far as they can go with a fermentation-based method at a large scale,” said Sydney Gladman, chief scientific officer overseeing research and development at Materials Innovation Initiative.

Challenges Ahead

Brands including fashion start-up Pangaia, luxury brand Sacai and couture label Yuima Nakazato have already experimented with Spiber’s “Brewed Protein” materials, but it’s only since the company’s Thai factory started production that it’s been possible to make products in commercial volumes.

Goldwin’s fall collections will include a line of the North Face’s signature Nuptse jackets, a Woolrich parka and Goldwin jacket all reworked in a blend of “Brewed Protein,” wool and nylon.

The company declined to provide detail on exactly what volumes will be available for sale or the planned price point. Industry watchers said the products will likely still be more expensive than similar garments made with traditional materials.

“These things take time and it will be a while until the average consumer can get their hands on their materials,” said Lee.

While limited releases of products made from next-generation materials have generated buzz, it remains to be seen whether a broader swathe of consumers will be willing to shell out on unfamiliar innovations, particularly as scepticism around sustainability claims – a key selling point for many – has grown.

For instance, plant-based leather alternatives have come under fire because many contain a great deal of plastic to enable them to meet brands’ requirements for look, feel and quality. All of Goldwin’s products launching this fall blend Spiber’s “Brewed Protein” with nylon.

Nonetheless, Spiber said its lab-grown materials have a significantly lower climate footprint than conventional alternatives, based on environmental assessments it’s conducted.

It’s also working to drive its footprint down further. At the moment, Spiber relies on agriculture products like sugar and corn for the sugary brew it feeds its genetically engineered microbes – water-intensive crops that use up large swaths of land. The long-term goal is to shift to waste-based and non-edible alternatives — or even for the company to brew its own feedstock. But realising those options requires overcoming a variety of logistical, financial and technological hurdles.

“Creating any new material, like what we have, means you are going to face lots of challenges,” said Higashi. “Innovation requires patience and support, but we are ready to come to market.”

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