Would you buy a bag made of human leather? Well, if you can strut the streets with pride with your Ostrich leather bag and snakeskin shoes, why not human leather? Who would have thought that we would be mulling over fashionable human leather accessories all because of a final year college project created by a student from a fashion school? That’s exactly what Tina Gorjanc, a recent graduate from the Central Saint Martin’s has done. She brought the legendary Alexander McQueen back from the dead, well almost.
Tina calls this the ‘Human Project’ and chose the perfect fashion icon for the project: one of the most famous alumni of her fashion school. Yes, Alexander McQueen himself, who died in 2010.
Tina Gorjanc developed the idea of creating a collection made from ‘human leather,’ which is made in a laboratory using McQueen’s DNA. Ironically, McQueen himself had used his own hair in the labels of his first collection, and the owner of these pieces agreed to give Gorjanc one hair in order to extract McQueen’s genetic information for her research.
Says Tina, “After finishing my bachelor’s degree in fashion and textile in Slovenia, I moved to London to pursue my career. I worked in the fashion industry for two years and in the course of that time, I discovered my interest in biotechnology.”
Tina enrolled in the Material Future course at Central Saint Martin’s, where she learned how to combine her passion for research with her background in fashion. She says, “The course helped me shape as a designer and allowed me to find the branch of design I want to work in– critical design.
Tina created a collection of accessories and clothes using McQueen’s skin. But for Tina, this was not just an Alexander McQueen project. “Though with his genius, he certainly deserves one,” she quickly clarifies. However, after researching on several “candidates” for her project Tina eventually settled on McQueen.
She says, “There are two reasons why I chose him. One, the lack of legislation surrounding the protection of genetic materials, and I wanted to showcase how someone can gain from sources you would assume is highly 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 who have inherited his possessions. Despite all that no one had bothered to protect his genetic information.” The second reason was more practical–it was easy and possible to authenticate and access his genetic information through his hair labels. “And that’s how it became a McQueen project.” Tina researched old medical cases and found out about the exploitation of genetic material that is more common around the world than we would like to believe.
One of the first such experiments was in the medical field in 1950, where Henrietta Lacks, a woman of African-American origin unwittingly became a donor of cells from her cancerous tumour that was biopsied during treatment for cervical cancer. The cells were later cultured by a scientist called George Otto Gey to create the first human immortal cell line, now known famously as the HeLa cell line, which continues to be used for medical research. Such genetic research is common in medicine. For example, John Moore, a leukaemia patient, died fighting for a share of a profit from the anti-cancer drug that was derived from his cell.
The doctors extracted biological material from him, then copyrighted and used the material for products that could cure some diseases. None of these patients had given consent for it, nor were they given the benefit or share of the profits that came out of it. Moore lost the battle in the court and eventually died fighting for patient rights and genetic information.
Tina says, “Today, the luxury industry is investing in biotechnology and I find it fascinating how science and fashion are coming together on a platform.
“But this is also where it gets complicated. The source of some of the products that are developed come from the leftovers of surgical patients, who obviously do not keep it in their possession. These materials (like hair, skin, bone) belong to the institutions that sell them 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,” she points out.
As the young designer, who raised many eyebrows with her project with critics calling it a “freak show” to turning it into a discussion on ethics, the goal of the project, she reiterates, was to speculate how big corporations could exploit genetic information as a new source of luxury in the future.
Tina adds, “The Human Project addresses the problems when it comes to defining the ownership of the information and its inheritance. The same process can be applied to multiple sources.”
Which is why she went hunting for that one strand of Alexander McQueen’s hair. She had to have a genuine piece of McQueen in her hand. Tina approached people who owned his collections to get the hair that McQueen used in his labels. “We never really finalised an agreement regarding my acquiring the hair. My end-goal was never to use the source of information and turn it into a business. I just wanted to base the whole project on a truly reliable and authenticatable source.”
Once she got ‘the hair’, the question was how to turn this into actual usable leather that could then become your favourite ‘it’ bag. That was when her peers told Tina that she may have bitten more than she can chew. After all, it all seemed like a scene from a sci-fi movie. A young girl out to recreate a dead legend and expose the big corporates that take advantage of our body, the plot was thickening.
Thus began the procedure of de-extinction (think Lost World), in which a biological agent is applied to the hair in the form of liquid to extract certain genetic information from it. Then you use it to biologically programme an existing skin draft (the closer the specimen you use to humans the better the results). Once you draft it, the skin grows using the genetic information and mimics the tissue from your original source. And voila! McQueen is reborn.
“You can grow the skin using different techniques,” Tina elaborates. “We did it in a Petri dish in the laboratory, and you put liquid treatments and nutrients on the skin, so it expands. After that when you want to create leather out of it, you actually need to kill the cells, and the first layer and so apply a lot of heat onto it to preserve it. When the material is done and you have leather,” she explains.
She adds, “This process protects the biological information so you are not able to extract any more biological information from the leather, because the cells are dead. It is a typical technique that they use for any other leather. You could also use bio-printing to create this material, but that is more expensive. The finished product looks like the leather you buy in the shops now,” she claims.
“While the skin is growing in the laboratory, it doesn’t really look like skin, because we are just growing the first two layers of the skin. Visually, when you tan it and apply colouration to it, it can look just like leather,” Tina says.
Once the science is out of the way, it is pretty much the routine. The leather is ready to be pattered, cut and designed to be your arm candy for the season! Given the lifespan of fashion, who knows who is going to be your next shoe or bag or bomber jacket.
Perhaps, why Tina has quickly applied for a patent. The patent is theoretically based of his genetic information as a source of a procedure that results in the laboratory grown leather made from human tissue.
“The purpose of the patent is to include his information mainly to promote the issue that products made out of genetic information are patentable as the information by itself is not. That goes to show that even if the legislation is still trying to reassure us that the information is protected to some extent, there is still a way to exploit them,” she explains.
The ease with which she explains the complicated project making, it sounds like walk in the park, you know this young 20-something is ready for new things, despite the criticisms that came her way. “I think with every critical design project, there are and will be a duality of reaction from the public. This is how it should be. The project’s goal was to provoke a debate on a particular issue that everybody was ignoring and I have achieved that.”
As for those questioning the ethics of it all, Tina argues that ‘human leather’ could actually be an ethical alternative to animal skins. “A lot of people are really grossed out by the whole procedure,” she admits, “but in my opinion it’s way less gross than other procedures at a leather farm because it doesn’t include animal slaughter and is completely lab born and doesn’t hurt any human beings. We are so grossed out by human leather, but then use animal leather in our every day life.”
As she stumps down her critics, the fashion designer peeps out of the experimentalist and says, “It is really interesting how you can manipulate human leather in the laboratory, you can add freckles and moles because it is just a matter of condensing the melanin to one point. You can also apply other manipulation, such as tattoos.”
Tina Gorjanc, the girl who went under the skin of Alexander McQueen is planning her next step–the future. Literally!
“I am passionate about research and want to speculate the future application of developing technologies. I believe my future work will revolve around this subject. I am thinking of expanding the project that will allow me to discover more than what I have barely touched upon,” she informs. Well, if human leather clutch is your thing, go for it. Or a tote with freckles!
Minor warning: If it isn’t fully tanned (with a chemical of vegetable treatment) when you expose it to the sun it can get sun burnt as the human skin is more fragile than animal skin because it has less protective layers.
So make sure you carry enough sun tan lotions and moisturisers, unless you want that sexy, just-back from the Mediterranean tan look for your bag too.