Imagine this scenario: you undergo a medical procedure. It’s invasive but nothing out of the ordinary, like a removal of the appendix. And in the course of the operation, there are blood-soaked gauzes, unwanted tissues and other medical wastes. Sure, any ethical medical institution would have them properly disposed off. But when it becomes an afterthought to us as patients, how certain are we that our unwanted biological materials (which contains samples of our own DNA) are not collected and used for medical research? Is using biological wastes without prior consent (because after all, it is waste) considered stealing?
That’s what Central Saint Martins’ graduate Tina Gorjanc explores in her Pure Human project. While the Solvenia-born did not use biological wastes for her project, she’s theorising the use of something even more surprising – the DNA of a dead fashion designer.
The fashion designer in question is no other than famed wunderkind, the late Alexander McQueen. And how did Tina Gorjanc obtain the designer’s DNA? In McQueen’s first collection for his namesake label, the designer had locks of his hair housed in perspex containers attached to his designs.
Alexander McQueen might have freely given away his DNA to the public but he probably never thought it could be extracted and his skin artificially grown to be made into leather for commercial use. It’s a disturbing thought but perhaps not so much different than wearing clothes made of animal skin and furs that have been more cruelly obtained.
Tina Gorjanc hasn’t produced any McQueen-leather products. The project is theoretical and the samples produced were all made of pigskin owing to its similarities to that of a human. And she has no intention of making an entire line of McQueen-leather products either.
We contacted Tina Gorjanc to find out more about her project and the implications it might have in the luxury industry.
What sparked your interest to come up with this project?
In my second year of the Material Futures Masters course, I became interested in the ethics behind biotechnologies and started researching medical cases that dealt with those issues.
The case of Henrietta Lacks was one of the first cases that dealt with the “theft” of genetic information. I found it fascinating at how much we can still relate to that story now, as there have not been many improvements done to change the exploitation of bodily materials.
That kind of exploitation first happened in the medical field in the 1950s (the Henrietta Lacks case) and later in the case of John Moore, where doctors extracted biological material from patients and ended up copyrighting and using the materials for product developments (cures). However, the patients never gave their consent for such uses and had no benefits out of them.
Today, the luxury industry is investing in biotechnologies and I find the intersection of those two fields really interesting. However, the source of some of the products that are being developed come from “leftovers” from surgical patients. As the patient is not expected to keep unwanted biological materials, they automatically belong to the institution that was executing the procedure on the patients. Those materials are then sold to bioengineering companies to harvest stem cells. And if those companies are collaborating with a luxury brand, the cells are produced into products and copyrighted by the manufacturing company.
Why was Alexander McQueen’s DNA used as an example?
Contrary to what is mostly advertised about my project, this is not just an Alexander McQueen project. The project is speculating the possible exploitation of genetic information as a new source of luxury. It also addresses the problem of defining the ownership of the information and its inheritance. The same process can be applied to multiple sources. The reasons why I choose McQueen are two:
1. Because of the lack of legislation surrounding the protection of genetic materials, I wanted to showcase how someone can gain hold of biological materials from sources you would usually think extremely protected. 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 that have inherited his possessions. However, his genetic information is still not well-protected.
2. The more practical reason is that there was a higher possibility of authenticating and accessing his genetic info through his hair labels. (Alexander McQueen confirmed in interviews that his own hair was used for the labels.)
What is your process like for harvesting the DNA into useable leather material?
I based the procedure on a process called de-extinction, where you can extract the genetic information from a source (usually preserved hair, skin or bone) and use them to biologically program an already existing skin draft. After that the skin grows and mimics the tissue of the original source. The accuracy of it is dependent on how much genetic info you can extract. After that, the material can be treated using tanning techniques commonly used in leather-making processes.
What were the challenges that you faced during this project, if any?
I think the biggest challenge during the development of the project was to stay true to my role. As the Pure Human project touches upon various domains of our current global industry (science, legal, ethics, etc.), it becomes fairly easy to be drawn towards one of them and start acting within that domain. I have to constantly remind myself that I am not a lawyer, scientist or ethical expert nor do I possess enough skills to be one. My role as a designer was to visualize the research that I have done in those sectors and present it to the public in the clearest way possible.
What do you think are the implications should such technology and the commercial-viability of it be used on a larger scale?
I believe there are numerous potential applications in the commercial market that could represent a more sustainable alternative to today’s processes. For instance, bespoke laboratory skin for cosmetic testing would minimize or even remove the use of animal testing. Lab-grown leather could also replace some of today’s cruel leather producing techniques.
Do you think that there would be any ethical concerns should this be another way for those who are against killing animals for leather to be able to purchase leather products?
I find it really interesting how there is still taboo surrounding human bodily materials. The common reaction to human leather is disgust, while animal leather that is obtained in more cruel processes is still regarded as a common everyday material.
However, I must add, that human materials developed with biotechnology are fundamentally different than human materials obtained in a ‘natural way’. Bioengineered human materials do not require an element of death and are developed by growing and multiplying an existing source.
Mimi Bekhechi, director of the PETA Foundation has actually praised your idea of using lab-grown leather and skin for fashion (as reported by Dazed). How do you feel about that?
I am really pleased about PETA’s reaction to the project, especially because it made me realise that the sustainability fragment of the project has become apparent and is reaching more and more people.
Has your attempt at growing useable skin for leather products been successful so far?
The tests that were made in the laboratory were intended for me to understand the technology as I wanted to base the project on a viable process that could potential be exploited in the future. The technology is still in development and big corporations with better-equipped laboratories have a better chance of developing it further.
Despite the many different reactions received over this project, what is the takeaway that you want people to think about?
I have been really blessed with all the media and press that my work has gotten and I feel really lucky that they are helping me spread the issue I have been trying to raise.
However, I feel sometimes the real intention of the project gets misunderstood. I am aware that this is probably due to the complexity of information and the novelty of this emerging technology, which is why I try to make sure the project receives the attention for the right reasons.
Furthermore, I am really pleased by the amount of people that gave a bigger thought to the issue of ownership of one’s genetic information, which consequently led to really interesting and informative conversations. I hope that my project inspires more debates around the issues surrounding the patentability of human genetic information and their possible exploitation. And also, hopefully it will lead to new bioengineering technologies that could possibly present a more sustainable alternative to various processes in the luxury industry.