In the second part of our conversation with Edwin Keh, the CEO of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel shares his down-to-earth and real take on career development and some lessons learnt on his professional journey.
An Artisan and Scientist Fronting the Sustainable Materials Design Revolution
Candid industry expert interviews
Last December, we were lucky to meet materials researcher and designer Jen Keane and discover her amazing work as she was a Resident at The Mills Fabrica in Hong Kong. We’ve just caught up with globetrotter Jen, currently in California, so she would share on her journey in innovative sustainable material design with our community.
Jen Keane is a designer and creative researcher working to connect the dots between design, science, technology, and craft to help drive sustainable innovation.
With a background in performance materials and a fascination with new digital and biological tools, she has been developing a process she calls ‘microbial weaving’, employing bacteria to design a new generation of materials, and perhaps change our approach to making altogether.
Taking an organism-driven approach to material design in fashion
J Working for Adidas was an amazing experience and I learned loads, but after five years, I was looking for a new challenge to push myself creatively. I decided to go back to school to do an MA in Material Futures at Central Saint Martins in London where there was a lot of interesting future-facing work happening.
I never planned to work for myself after, it just end-up making the most sense because I wasn’t quite ready to give up on the work I had started in my ‘This is Grown.’ project, and knew it would be impossible to further my research while working full time for someone else.
J ‘This is Grown.’ was both a response to the emerging plastic crisis as well as an attempt to push a new approach in material design inspired by nature. Nature has had 3.8 billion years to perfect the ultimate circular economy: life. I didn’t just want to use natural materials to recreate materials we already have. I wanted to learn from the way nature makes to design new material processes, to imagine a future where designers work from raw materials forward and products can be grown to shape employing living organisms.
I thus took an organism-led approach to material design, studying the natural process of cellulose producing bacteria to employ them in a new type of ‘microbial weaving’. Essentially I weave the ‘Warp’ and the bacteria grow the ‘Weft’. I grew the upper of a sneaker to show the technical and aesthetic potential of this process.
The process is interesting because you can ‘weave’ patterns to shape which allows you to create designs not possible with traditional weaving. It also could allow you to program levels of strength and stiffness into different parts of the material.
Biotech and sustainability in fashion
J Definitely. I find Europeans generally to be quite educated and interested in sustainable materials. In the US and Asia I have had a wide variety of reactions to my work. Some people just aren’t able to imagine the potential and seem confused as to why you would go to the trouble of trying to grow a shoe. On the other end I get business people who only see the work as an opportunity to make more money and ignore a key part of the project which was the idea that customization could actually reduce consumption.
Pushing the boundaries of materials design in fashion
J I’m most excited about the work I am doing currently as Creative Resident with Bolt Threads.
Last year, I also launched a fun project in collaboration with Imperial College called ‘This is GMO’ where we grew a genetically modified version of the ‘This is Grown.’ shoe that dyes itself black. I worked with synthetic biologist, Marcus Walker, a Ph.D. candidate at Imperial College London, who has used genetic engineering techniques to develop a self-dyeing bacterium that produces both cellulose and melanin, a natural pigment found in squid ink, hair and skin. By employing this bacterium in my microbial weaving process, we’ve grown the first sneaker upper woven and dyed by a single genetically modified organism. It is 100% compostable and contains no synthetic materials or dyes
The potentials of synthetic biology in fashion are really mind blowing, taking part in the sustainability innovation journey is hugely stimulating and gratifying.
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In this new MOTIF Talks interview, Edwin Keh, CEO of The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), shares his views on how to foster innovation and the key role skills play in the innovation process.