How about owning a bag made of fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s DNA?

  • Vinod Nair, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Aug 04, 2016 16:43 IST
Tina Gorjanc is a student at the Central Saint Martin’s in London.

If you thought dressing like your favourite celebrity or buying clothes endorsed by them is a measure of your craziness for fashion, here’s something that will blow your mind: How about wearing jackets or bags made of leather grown from the DNA extracted from their hair samples?

This is exactly what 26-year-old Slovenian Tina Gorjanc, a student at the Central Saint Martin’s in London, is attempting to do with her project Pure Human.

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Though she is working with stylish biker jackets and totes made out of pigskin for now, Gorjanc has made pieces made out of the DNA of legendary British fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

The human skin contains far less natural protection against UV light than other living organisms. This would enable the cultivated leather which was not fully tanned to get sunburnt.

A graduate in fashion and textile from Slovenia, Gorjanc worked in London for two years before enrolling herself in Central Saint Martin’s. Her fascination for biotechnology pushed her towards Material Futures at the institute.

In an exclusive interview to HT, Gorjanc explains her concept and the controversies surrounding it. She says her project is more than just “a creepy fashion collection made of human skin from a known personality.”

Tina, tell us about your project and how you developed the skin.

I based the procedure on a process called de-extinction, where you extract the genetic information from a source (usually preserved hair, skin or bone) and use it to biologically programme an already existing skin draft (Human beings are pretty similar in their biological characteristics so the draft is easier to find, compared to other extinct species).

Body modification techniques can be applied to the material surface before and after the tanning process.

After that, the skin grows, using the mentioned genetic information, which means that the growing tissue mimics the tissue of the original source.

Its accuracy is dependent on how much genetic info you can extract. Once the growth process of the skin is stopped, it is preserved and processed into leather using common tanning techniques. The tests in the laboratory were intended to understand the technology and the extent to which we could exploit them. These tests were not made with McQueen’s genetic information. This technology is still in development.

MullenLowe Nova Awards Winner - Tina Gorjanc from MullenLowe Group on Vimeo.

How close is this to real skin?

I believe bigger laboratories could have more success in developing the process I am proposing. However, their intentions are purely different from my anticipation of future exploitations of genetic material. The skin itself, when grown in the laboratory, doesn’t look anything like skin on a body as it does not have all the layers underneath the first two.

The TYR gene is responsible for the production of the pigment melanin. The stimulation of the gene’s performance can be achieved with biological agents. Depending on the amount of the applied agent the accumulated melanin can appear on a smaller (freckles) or larger (moles) scale.

It is also really interesting that a skin grown in the laboratory can be altered, which could result in interesting developments of material characteristics in the futures (elastic leather etc.). However, when the morphology of the skin is achieved, and it is tanned, it could look exactly like leather.

Was your choice, the idea of Alexander McQueen’s ‘Rebirth’, conditioned by the exploitation of genetic material around the world?

When I was researching old medical cases, I realised it was indeed the case. That kind of exploitation first happened in the medical field in the 1950 (Henrietta Lacks case) and later in the case of John Moore, where doctors extracted biological material from patients and ended up copyrighting and use the material for product developments (cures).

The final degree show display of the Pure Human project at Central Saint Martins.

Sadly, the patients never gave their consent for it, and neither did any of them receive any benefits from it. Today, the luxury industry is investing in biotechnology and it is fascinating to be at the intersection of the two fields. The trouble is, some of these products are developed from “leftovers” from surgical patients. As the patient is not expected to keep those kinds of materials, they belong to the institution executing the procedure on the patients.

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Those materials are then sold to bioengineering companies as a source of stem cells. And if those companies are collaborating with a luxury brand, the cells are produced into products and copyrighted by the manufacturing company. I wanted to expose the issue and test how far I can exploit the legislation to patent someone else’s genetic information.

You’ve made samples using with pig skin. Do you plan to make a collection using skin developed from Alexander McQueen’s DNA?

Details from the final display explaining the process of extracting genetic information and harvesting it into a tissue culture.

Yes, I have made samples out of pig skin as it best mimics the human skin. It took several layers of paint and silicon details to make it closer looking to the human epidermis. The intention of the prototypes was to speculate a possible application of the technology and I believe making them look more like the ‘real thing’ was essential, as the public was able to better relate to the objects. I never planned to develop the prototypes in human leather, as my intention was never a commercial application.

Do you foresee a future when the world of luxury will actually use the kind of skin you’ve developed?

I am not sure if the use of human skin will happen per se, but I believe there will be a time when genetic information regarded as an initial source of luxury will be a reality.

Assuming that we develop such skins using DNA/tissue sometime soon, would it then mean an end to animal exploitation by the fashion/luxury industry?

Tattooed detail of the modifiable product from the Pure Human Collection.

This is one of the issues I am really passionate about. I found laboratory-produced leather far more ethical than the process of producing leather we currently use. I believe it would be a viable alternative as it does not require animal slaughtering. Besides that, it also does not have unwanted by-products and can represent a reliable source for when we run out of resources.

Why did you choose Alexander McQueen for your project?

This is not just an Alexander McQueen project. My goal was to speculate how big corporations could exploit genetic information as a new source of luxury in the future. I chose McQueen for two reasons. First of all, in the absence of any legislation surrounding protection of genetic materials, I wanted to showcase how one could access biological material from sources you’d otherwise think are extremely protected.

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McQueen’s genetic information was interesting from the perspective that he is dead, has an enormous brand empire that is protected with numerous copyrights and still has relatives who have inherited his possessions. However, his genetic info is still not well protected. Secondly, the more practical reason was the possibility to authenticate and access his genetic info through his hair labels.

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