I’m confident – confident in my skin, and I’m cool with my flaws and all that stuff. —Minka Kelly
I’m sure there are times when many of us wish we could bring back someone from history, at least for a while. We miss the intellect, the insight, and the talent of many who are gone. But, what would we do if someone from history really did come back—as a coat? That very thing may well be possible. Quartz is reporting that Tina Gorjane is growing replicas of Alexander McQueen’s skin. Why? To make coats and handbags.
Yes, you read that correctly. Ms. Gorjane is developing a new technique to “grow” skin based on a DNA sample from McQueen’s hair, which was obtained with permission. The process isn’t speedy. Getting enough material for even a handbag has yet to actually happen. Ms. Gorjane has been using pig skin as a prototype until there is enough of McQueen’s skin to develop a product. Even once she has samples available to show, we’re still not going to see products on the shelves anytime soon.
The very fact that Ms. Gorjane is experimenting with DNA products raises some interesting questions, though. Who has a right to use your DNA? Is it ethical to wear someone else’s skin? And how is this all not just a little bit creepy?
You’re Wearing Who?
On one hand, I can see where wearing the artificially grown DNA of another person, especially someone who had as much of an impact on fashion as Alexander McQueen, is attractive. Not only might we want to “wear” McQueen or Miuccia Prada or maybe even Karl Lagerfeld (shudder), we might also think a coat made of great-grandma is a good idea, or a handbag made from the DNA of a deceased spouse. I can appreciate how people might come to look at such DNA products as a form of flattery or even affection.
What’s not certain just yet is exactly how durable such products are going to be. The DNA will grow new skin, not the wrinkled and worn stuff that seemed to hang off grandma’s bones before she died. However, the process has the ability to duplicate things such as moles and scars. Ms. Gorjane apparently plans to duplicate some of the tattoos McQueen had, which could be interesting. The material is also subject to sunburn, though. Imagine having to apply SPF 30 to your jacket before going out.
We’re so accustomed to seeing new types of fabric that we’re not likely to immediately notice that someone is wearing someone else. But when you ask someone who they’re wearing, a common question among those interested in fashion, you’re probably not ready for someone to come back with an answer like, “Oh, I’m wearing my family. My blazer is my grandfather, my skirt is my Aunt Jane, my handbag is my sister, and my shoes are my Dad.” It could happen.
Who Can Be Worn?
One of the more debatable aspects of this technology is exactly where the line is on using people’s DNA. Laws regarding DNA ownership vary from one country to the next. In the United States, for example, you do not own discarded DNA material. So, in theory, someone could take a strand of hair you left behind on a chair and develop a whole line of wearable products based on your DNA. They would not need to ask your permission, give you any credit, nor pay you for anything. Laws are slightly different across Europe, but still light enough as to leave the field open to random harvesting of castoff DNA samples.
As a person, we have a surprisingly little right to our own DNA. DNA cannot be copyrighted or patented. There is no way to legal limit how or who uses one’s DNA at the present time. Neither is there any limit to the number of times or methods through which it can be reproduced. Ms. Gorjane’s process is currently a very slow and tedious approach, which likely prevents the creation and stockpiling of large amounts of McQueen’s skin. However, should these DNA products prove commercially popular, it is quite likely that someone else would look for a way to speed up the process. What would, for now, be an extreme luxury product would almost certainly hit mainstream within a few years, creating a tremendous demand for DNA-based material.
To her credit, Ms. Gorjane did ask permissions of everyone involved in her use of McQueen’s hair as a base sample (except his surviving relatives, who are not involved in the project). History shows that we cannot expect others to be as careful, however. Laws are nowhere close to addressing these issues, either. Should the process become reasonably widespread, one could be contributing to garments around the world and never have any idea their DNA is being used.
What Are The Odds?
So, one person, a student at that, is experimenting with wearable skin. What’s the big deal? Is this really an idea that is likely to take off? Anything is possible. Luxury houses have already been investing in bioengineering companies that are likely to produce results similar to Ms. Gorjane’s. Some type of DNA-based product seems almost inevitable.
That’s not to say that it is human skin being developed. The same technology is being considered as a possible replacement for the fashion industry’s heavy use of leather products. Being able to produce leather without having to kill animals would remove a lot of the criticism the industry faces on a regular basis.
For the moment, though, growing skin is an extremely expensive method of creating material. The process is slow and requires very precise development conditions. While luxury houses might find the material usable on small collections, large-scale implementation is not economically feasible at this point. At the same time, legal considerations are likely to increase and may provide further hurdles to any widescale use of DNA material.
Imagine The Possibilities
Ms. Gorjane’s research opens the door to tremendous possibilities. Using DNA to grow skin has already been used with burn patients, but with some of the same slow issues. Were the fashion industry to find a way to make the process faster, the same technology could have amazing medical benefits as well. Where pure research can be slow and plodding at times, commercial involvement may speed up the process for other biological concerns providing broader benefit outside the industry.
Then, there’s also the possibility that one might be able to wear a nude-colored skin suit that actually looks nude, nipples and other body features included. Technically, one isn’t nude if wearing someone else’s skin, are they? Perhaps the skin could be used as a lining behind other sheer fabrics as well.
But then, what if a person who is light skinned wears clothing derived from the DNA of a person who was dark skinned? I’m not sure anyone has even considered how this fabric might impact discussions of race and even cultural appropriation.
At the moment, the issue raises more questions than answers. The potential sounds both exciting and frightening at the same time. Skin over skin could be one of the biggest developments in the history of fashion, though. We’ll watch anxiously.