Would you buy a designer bag made from lab-grown human skin?

Author: Jovana Drinjakovic, 10/06/16
A prototype bag, made with pig skin, from Tina Gorjanc’s Pure Human collection (Credit: Tina Gorjanc)

A prototype bag, made with pig skin, from Tina Gorjanc’s Pure Human collection (Credit: Tina Gorjanc)

In case you haven’t heard, Tina Gorjanc, a UK-based fashion designer, shocked the fashion world this summer when she announced her Pure Human collection of luxury leather items, to be made from lab-grown human skin, engineered with the late designer Alexander McQueen’s DNA. I know, it makes your brain twist in on itself!

As you might expect, Gorjanc’s plan was met with disbelief and consternation, with a prominent UK art critic lambasting it as “crime, not fashion.”

The aim of the collection is to highlight existing legal loopholes around ownership of a person’s DNA and to open the doors for tissue bioengineering into the world of fashion.

In May 2016, Gorjanc applied to patent a procedure in which she’ll insert McQueen’s DNA, extracted from his hair, into cells grown in a dish. From these cells, sheaths of skin would be grown, to be tanned into leather for making items, such as bags and jackets.

“My main goal was to show that it is possible to patent a process using human genetic information in a domain other than medicine. Biotechnology is happening at a really rapid pace and legislation has not kept up with it,” said Slovenian-born Gorjanc, who recently graduated from Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design in London, UK.

Gorjanc can’t patent McQueen’s, or anyone else’s, DNA, but she can apply to patent a process that uses human genetic information, as well as the end material made with it. But for any commercial gain, the source of DNA would have to give their consent, which for a dead person is tricky.

McQueen died in 2010 and we’ll never know whether or not he would have agreed to this. But given his provocative, and at times literally thorny designs, the finest of which were shown at the 2011 retrospective exhibition that went under the name of Savage Beauty, at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, McQueen may well have endorsed Gorjanc’s idea.

Legal loopholes aside, Pure Human seriously aims to boost the market of luxury goods – you know, basic everyday essentials like diamond-encrusted golf putters or tea bags – by marrying it with biotech. The lab-grown leather will spare animals from slaughter, said Gorjanc, while providing the super-rich with “ultimate luxury items made from a source that no longer exist” – a dead person. Amazingly, there’s logic to it.

The global luxury goods market is worth more than $1 trillion, according to a report released last year by the consulting firm Bain & Company. As the world’s super rich get richer year over year, the sky’s the limit on how they choose to spend their money.

“When it comes to bioengineering, people tend to skip the luxury goods market because they think it’s too shallow and not important, but if you look at it, it’s one of the biggest markets that we have – and one that is open to new technology,” said Gorjanc. She mentions plastic surgery as an example of a practice first developed to meet medical needs that has since “escalated into a money-making machine.” Tissue engineering could well be next.

Having spoken to Gorjanc, I don’t think she really plans to tan human leather, although she would consider using lab-grown animal skin. The resulting leather would not only be more ethical, but with genetic engineering it would be possible to tweak its properties, by making it more soft or elastic, she said. She has produced a thought-provoking, short documentary on her work, which you can watch here.

But even if Gorjanc does not dress the super-rich into genetically-engineered human skin, someone else might. After all, the technology is there. According to Dr. Marc Jeschke, who leads the burn research and skin regeneration lab at the Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto, anyone can grow skin in the lab. “That’s no problem, it’s easy and people have been doing it for 20 years,” said Dr. Jeschke. And the ease of inserting any piece of DNA into it makes for endless possibilities. A Neanderthal leather belt? A woolly mammoth tote? I wonder how many jaded – and extremely wealthy – women would go for floor rugs made from their ex-husbands’ skin?

Just because it is possible, does it mean it should be done? Doctors are still struggling to create new skin to treat burn victims – surely a more pressing need for human skin. “We are trying to find a way to make skin that is functional and won’t be rejected after a transplant. But just to grow skin for fashion – I don’t think that’s very useful,” said Dr. Jeschke. But then, useful is not what fashion, or luxury, is about.

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Jovana Drinjakovic

Jovana Drinjakovic

Jovana Drinjakovic is a science writer with a background in cell and developmental biology. After completing her PhD in Cambridge (the old one) and a postdoc at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Jovana decided to switch gears and enrolled into a journalism course at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. Her writing appeared in the Globe and Mail, the National Post, Dallas Morning News and U of T Magazine. Most days Jovana writes about discoveries at U of T’s Donnelly Centre, where she works as a communication specialist.
Jovana Drinjakovic

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