Bioplastic reimagined through a couture lens

NOT X LIENX Design Residency

June 2 - 16, 2022
Gem Studio, Oakland, CA

 

Jenny Lai and Lien Tong sit on sofa in Gem Studio Oakland.

Designers Jenny Lai and Lien Tong at Gem Studio in downtown Oakland

 

At the beginning of June, I had the opportunity to reconnect with my RISD classmate, and fellow fashion designer, Lien Tong. It had been 12 years since we were sewing our thesis collection side by side in our senior year apparel studio. Since then, Lien has carved a niche in designing high-performance athleticwear on the West Coast, while I had been on the East Coast focusing on a different kind of performance-wear – for performing artists and other individuals expressing themselves creatively through clothing, with my label NOT. In the throes of COVID, Lien founded Gem Studio in downtown Oakland, California, a photo/design studio and community event space that champions minority creatives. It was the perfect setting to dream up a design residency together during my sabbatical from New York.

 

Lien and I started off with the desire to create our own material, a starting point for building a sculptural garment free from the constraints of market. As we were chatting, we kept bringing up different innovations in sustainable material we had been seeing, such as mycelium leather or orange pulp fibers. Lien and I shared the desire to create something that would not bring extra waste or harm to the environment – with the awareness that we both work within an industry that counts as one of the most polluting in the world. Whether it’s fast fashion which produces 92 million tons of textile waste a year, or athletic wear which relies on synthetic textiles and coatings that take hundreds of years to decompose – we asked ourselves, how can we imagine and inspire a different future? Can the materials we wear and use be returned to the environment seamlessly? Can it be renewed and recycled? Can giving care and creativity to sustainable options change our perspective on them?

 

Lien found videos on how to make bioplastic out of agar (a gelatinous substance from red algae that comes in powder form and is often used in Asian jelly desserts), a material which was both quick to make and to dry. More importantly, instead of taking hundreds of years to break down (petroleum-based plastic can take up to 450 years, and synthetic fabrics 20 to 200 years), agar bioplastic decomposes in 2 to 4 months. I immediately agreed to the science experiment! Not knowing where it would take us – we set off.

 

Ingredients water glycerin and agar agar

It all came from three ingredients: agar agar, water, and glycerin

We realized pretty quickly, we’re no scientists. Though we may not have been as exact as scientists, we were definitely learning from our experiments! The first humid days of June meant it took our agar + glycerin + water mixture five full days to dry on our textured aluminum baking trays. Soon, we discovered that the coolest room in the studio was the bathroom so, accompanied by an industrial fan, we covered the bathroom floor with aluminum trays, to the inconvenience of the other studio mates!

Sitting in the bathroom with trays of drying bioplastic

Filling up the bathroom with drying trays of agar plastic

The thickness of our liquid pours determined whether our final plastic would be tissue paper thin or paper stiff. Over the next few days, we tried a variety of different surface trays (vinyl, woven basket, aluminum), molds (jello molds, photo frames), and tray dimensions. After a few pours, we started to get a hang of the agar plastic and moved on to experimenting with color (food coloring and turmeric), encasing leaves, sticks, and fibers inside, and other surface manipulations. A water-soluble glue made from starch worked well to adhere the bioplastic to itself. 

Colorful experiments with agar plastic
Colorful experiments with agar plastic using baking molds, food coloring, and embedding fabric strips.
Various swatches of bioplastic techniques developed displayed on wall
Display of various bioplastic swatches with texture manipulations.
Embedding cotton netting in agar bioplastic.
Embedding a layer of cotton netting that we found at local thrift stores 

 

We discovered that our agar plastic shrank over time and also became more brittle as water continued to evaporate. We knew we were on a timeline! Would we successfully host an open studio and schedule a photoshoot all before the garment disappeared into thin air? I’m only partly joking! But in fact, for me this was a big part of what I liked about this project, that we were creating something that would not stay around. Although bioplastic is not meant to be worn – Lien and I took that as a challenge to see how we could convince everyone otherwise. What if bioplastic could be treated as preciously as a piece of couture?

 Variety of cut paper swatches pinned to a mannequin

Cut paper to experiment with bioplastic manipulations

Bioplastic section pleated with the aid of clothespins

A starch-based water soluble glue was used to adhere the bioplastic

Our final looks were made up of three pieces: An A-line wrap skirt that was made up of 21 trays-worth of bioplastic with an embedded cotton netting, a lace-like top (19 trays-worth) with a dotted ombré color pattern created with food dye and hand-cut into curved lima-bean shapes, and a cropped jacket (45 trays-worth) with voluminous sleeves, covered with strips of bioplastic meticulously cut and attached in loose loops. Each garment utilized a different surface design technique designed by Lien & I. 

Red-orange bioplastic loops glued by hand

Cut strips of bioplastic, looped, and glued

Scraps of red orange bioplastic on aluminum pan

All bioplastic scraps were kept in a small bin, which could be melted down and remade into sheets.

In progress lace bioplastic top on mannequin.

Tape helps hold together our water-soluble glue as it dries.

We hosted a Residency Presentation, where we presented our process and final garments. Some folks even tried a taste of our bioplastic scraps! And the final photoshoot was shot on a very windy evening in the stunning oat strewn hills of Tilden Park with photographer Jeff Saint Andrews and artist and model Sitalbanat Muktari. 

Lien fits model Sitalbanat at Gem Studio

Lien checks skirt length on model.

Photographer and model in fields outdoor for photoshoot

Braving the winds for an outdoor photoshoot.

My hope is that, through beauty and innovation, these garments can inspire people to reconsider materiality, its relationship to our environment, and the cycle of what we consume. I hope that people learn something new about bioplastic, like we did, and are encouraged by how easy it can be to make their own. Looking at the ingredients that this whole garment came from (agar powder, glycerin, water), I have the satisfaction of knowing that it was made from essentially “nothing,” and that it will then return to nothing.

Over the next week, Lien and I will be sharing some videos on IG reels and we also can't wait to share the final photos from the shoot! Find us at @gemstudiooakland and @not_aligne. In the meantime, enjoy a glimpse into our whole residency process with this time lapse video: 

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