Creating Plastic-Free Party Dressing with Bio Iridescent Sequin

Party clothes have a particularly short life span, and it’s no surprise that our favourite glitzy sequinned pieces are generally only worn two or three times. These sparkling, glittery wardrobe staples often come with a less-than-shining environmental impact, and our materials of choice don’t always take the planet into consideration. With the festive season in full swing, partygoers are looking for more conscious wardrobe solutions.  One particularly problematic material is sequins, with research pointing out that conventional plastic versions can stay in the environment for thousands of years, even ending up in out oceans and waterways. With this in mind, Elissa Brunato has developed Bio Iridescent Sequin as a planet-friendly approach to party dressing. By swapping the standard PVC derived from finite oil resources that is usually used in sequin production for cellulose raw materials, Elissa has managed to mimic the iridescence seen in the natural world. Cultivated in a laboratory, the new biodegradable, non-toxic sequins point towards a new future of occasion wear. We chat to Elissa about the project, as well as what should be in the pipeline for a lower impact, less polluting party season.

What inspired you to start Bio Iridescent Sequin?

I previously worked in the fashion industry for ready-to-wear, luxury and haute couture fashion houses. Alongside working in design studios, I would also travel to production sites in India, China and Italy. In this way I gained a rounded insight into the operations of the industry’s fragmented supply chains and through first-hand experience I started to understand how global environmental implications link to design choices. I became increasingly aware that the chemicals and materials used in fashion are not only very unhealthy for the planet but they are used in a very irresponsible way. With embroidery in particular, there is only a very small amount of sustainable materials that reach the industrial scale and I personally felt limited by these choices.

Like most people, I am attracted to the vivid colours and shimmering effects made possible through the use of petroleum-based materials. I became determined to tackle how to create this in a natural way that is not reliant on finite petroleum resources or precious metals, and that would also make sense for a future consumer model. In this way, I wanted to show a modern approach to the colours associated with sustainability, breaking down pre-conceived aesthetics of what that word means.

Why are plastic sequins problematic?

Sequins are industrially made from petroleum-based plastic and their shimmer is obtained through chemical or metallic coatings.These are not biodegradable and are also drawing from a raw material source that is finite. Most plastic sequins available within supply chains today are PVC, which contain many toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, such as phthalates. The handling of sequins exposes both workers and consumers to these toxic chemicals and because sequins share the same qualities as micro plastics, this is then ending up in our environment and ultimately our food chain.

Through case studies of suppliers, designers and consumers, I was able to identify that these tiny sequins, normally 5mm in diameter, are leaking into our environment through all stages of manufacturing, consumer use and washing, to ultimately the disposal of garments. With the natural environment being the final destination, redesigning the sequin to be sustainable meant that its material structure as well as its shimmering colours had to be restructured to fit within a biological material cycle.

Can you tell us about what a Bio Iridescent Sequin is made from?

These shimmering sequins are made from 100% plant-based cellulose. The colours of the Bio Iridescent Sequin originate from the light-refracting structure of this material. Nature is full of abundant examples that demonstrate the dazzling optics of structural colour. From pollia berries, bacteria strains, peacock feathers and beetle wings, these colourful shimmering surfaces are created through microscopically small nano-structures. These structures are able to interfere with visible light to create what our eyes see as intense and shimmering colours.

By designing with nature we can imagine a glittering future that is free from harmful chemicals and pollutants. The material remains vibrant in colour, lightweight and as strong as plastic, yet is compostable and non-toxic. These structural coloured sequins present a more environmentally healthy alternative to traditional glittery colourants used within the fashion and textile industry.

The process of making the sequins involves forming them in different shaped moulds, so there is no excess waste from offcuts produced. This is different from traditional methods of sequin production where sheets of material are stamp cut and the excess does not have a viable use. 

How do you think we can lower the impact of the party clothing industry?

I believe that rental models offer an interesting solution to buying new pieces for every event. However, as everything comes with an impact, this too would involve an impact through the dry-cleaning process as well as shipping back and forth. I also find the digital technologies used by designers such as the The Fabricant and DigiGal extremely exciting as they show potential to change how we might shop for garments in the future, and also how designers might show collections. Right now, the collection sampling process involves making so many pieces with most not even making it to the final collection, and usually buyers only look at a collection if it has a certain number of pieces. This means that collections are more about numbers rather than quality and this leads to so much extra material and resources being wasted. Creating digital collections can really reduce the raw material environmental impact and could allow designers to be freer in providing their options.

How do you imagine the future of sustainable party wear?

I imagine the future of sustainable party wear to not only be about vintage garments and up-cycled materials, but to also embrace new technologies within material design. There are so many exciting developments happening within science and tech that really have the potential to reimagine party wear in an entirely unique way.

For me, a garment becomes more special and stands out from the rest when I can see that time and care has been invested into the full cycle of making the pieces, from understanding the raw materials, to the customer’s needs and then what happens to the piece after it has been discarded. Designing with smarter and less environmentally harmful raw materials makes the end result feel more special and modern.

What other brands or inventions have inspired you along your journey?

I am always really inspired by the way nature makes and remakes in a completely circular way where nothing ever gets wasted; for example, looking at bio-compostable colour structures in nature. The Cradle to Cradle theory by McDonough and Braungart also shows how to use nature as a metaphor for how we can redesign our world to be more eco-efficient. I am inspired by their working methods to action such concepts, like the Climatex system of manufacturing.

Discover why the key to a sustainable planet is combining biology and design.

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