Why Public School Designers Made Lab-Grown Sneakers During a Pandemic

Growing sneakers has been a labor of love for Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne, codesigners of New York-based label Public School.

The PSNY design duo was paired with FIT scientist and professor Dr. Theanne Schiros as part of nonprofit Slow Factory Foundation’s One x One initiative launched in September 2019. Swarovski supported the project which also saw the likes of Phillip Lim and Mara Hoffman participating.

“This idea of being able to experiment at a really small level and figuring out ways to scale it is the bigger opportunity for our industry,” Chow said. “We’ve always been interested in pushing forward and doing things that people weren’t necessarily doing a lot in a big way. That’s really how our brand has been defined — pushing the boundary.”

That ethos has a stake with upcoming consumer generations who are apt to rethink consumption.

“When we design, we design to be smarter. So consumers buy less,” Osborne said.

The team was tasked with making lab-grown sneakers from bacteria, which will make their debut Tuesday at the initiative’s close. Biomaterials is an area of expertise for Schiros who has guided her students through various wins in biodesign competitions.

Schiros said the sneaker project is a case study for innovation that was joyful and discovery-driven.

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“For us, we wanted to really create a structure and framework to be able to bring the two together to solve existential threats — even in a small way,” she said. “We have mechanical properties, chemical properties, biodegradability — this has all the properties to make an impact on an industry.”

From there, she said, the consideration is how to move these efforts from the lab and into the world to foster that impact.

“What was super exciting to me, mapping what we see in the lab is not always the same: texture may not work with biodegradable glue or biodegradable thread,” she explained, noting that the microbial leather used in the sneakers is composed of nanofibers of cellulose assembled in different ways by bacteria and then naturally dyed. “We got as close as we could. If they were not inherently biodegradable, they were at least upcycled.”

The shoe features a cork sole and eventually decomposes in a backyard environment — the same place Schiros sourced most of the natural dye materials.

“Black is a really hard natural dye color to get but we were able to sneak up on it,” Schiros said. By gathering backyard materials like rusty nails and bark from a logwood acacia tree, the team was able to achieve the minimalist DNA inherent in the PSNY brand.

Bioleather swatches with natural origins for dye, too. Courtesy

For that microbial leather, Schiros and her team produced a lifecycle assessment that indicates a 100-times lower carbon footprint compared to traditional plastic-based vegan leather. Schiros’ LCA research will be published soon after the One x One partnership’s formal launch.

This month, data analytics firms like GlobalData raised concern that brands might still have to forfeit sustainable fashion in protecting liquidity — even despite deepening consumer demand that has held strong through the pandemic.

So how do designers stay the course?

“I think it’s a balance,” said Chow. “It’s going to be different, certainly as a smaller brand; you’re a lot more nimble and able to be quicker with innovation. For us, it’s about finding a balance not only from a business standpoint but a moral standpoint. We made the decision over two years ago to really switch our business model.”

Chow believes cross-disciplinary collaboration must be prioritized to move fashion forward.

“This collaboration of thought and process is what’s going to lead us in a different direction,” he said. “The science piece behind this really allows us to think in a different way. Cross-pollination and working across industries — collaboration is really about turning this industry around. We have to lean on others from different industries and different backgrounds.”

Dr. Theanne Schiros working in her backyard lab on the collaboration with Public School. Courtesy

Chow continued to underline that “it doesn’t happen overnight,” and said scale isn’t the ultimate aim, either.

“The point is to just make enough. No one really needs another pair of sneakers or another shirt,” he said.

All things considered, this past year has posed significant challenges for every industry.

“This was a very challenging year for the fashion industry financially,” said Céline Semaan, cofounder of Slow Factory Foundation. “Making this shoe was not a small, quick project and involved a lot of trial and error,” (including Schiros rebuilding her lab in her home amid the pandemic).

Speaking broadly on the project’s relevance in providing inspiration for experimentation in circular design, Semaan said: “It’s really important to embrace trial and error in order for us to be able to stretch our boundaries and be able to contribute positively to this climate.”

The nonprofit anticipates another successful iteration of One x One next year and is seeking partners via Onexone.earth.

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