Q&A with Alice Potts, The RCA Graduate And Material Researcher Proving How Our Excreta Is The Future Of Sustainability In Fashion, By Lottie Jackson

Q&A with Alice Potts, The RCA Graduate And Material Researcher Proving How Our Excreta Is The Future Of Sustainability In Fashion, By Lottie Jackson

Giving new life to waste products is the zenith of sustainable practice, recycling and revitalising so that discarded materials can serve a further purpose in society. So why have we failed to consider the eco-credentials of human waste products? Whilst blood, sweat and urine aren’t traditionally considered materials of artistic beauty, for artist Alice Potts they are not only fascinating reminders of how our bodies function (speaking of our health, wellbeing and identity) but they also carry huge implications for the future of sustainability in fashion. 

The Royal College of Art graduate has developed a biological process that transforms sweat from human perspiration into crystals on the surfaces of pre-loved garments. Instead of using environmentally harmful plastic and synthetic materials to embellish clothes, she believes we could start growing onto our garments by converting our body’s own excreta into unique decorative materials. 

For her graduate show in June titled PERSPIRE, she showcased this fascinating vision for the future in which our bodies could secrete their own accessories. The series of garments included ballet slippers adorned with crystals formed from human sweat and fake fur featuring urine-crystals. The excreta, which was donated by fellow students, may not sound particularly alluring to the fashion-conscious consumer, but the results were exquisite resembling clear and amethyst quartz. The beauty of this technique also lies in the unpredictability of the process, the designs are, by their very nature, organic and grow independent of the artist’s control. As fashion has long been considered an extension of the self, Alice Potts has created garments that are an actual biological representation of the wearer. 

Speaking of the RCA Graduate Show in June 2018, entitled A Walk Without a Cat, Zowie Broach, Head of Fashion at the RCA (who will be part of our panel speaking on Fashion and Brexit on 21/11), said it reinforced “the Royal College of Art as the vanguard of fashion research, by focusing on three key areas of examination: material development, fashion systems and digital transformation. RCA Fashion holds a unique position at the junction between the creative arts, design and science, posing answers to question about fashion, identity and our future selves”. 

Thomas Meany from Open Cell said: "Alice was a part of the Biodesign Challenge UK where she worked primarily on incorporating food waste and modular designs into fast fashion. This was a collaborative project across the fashion/textiles dept. During her second year we saw her expand her portfolio and studies into bioplastics (incorporating cellulose, gelatine etc) and of course her final degree show pieces that formed the "perspire collection". Shortly after finishing her degree at the RCA she joined Open Cell as an Open Resident and continues her work here as well as receiving funding from the Onassis foundation.

Much of Alice's work seeks to bridge the gap between sustainable biomaterials and something people would actually wear. Basically making sustainable cool. This involves heavy collaboration with scientists that gives her work an edge over other designers who really don't have that underpinning in their study. I think that (as a scientist) her work should be celebrated as the product of a fantastic collaboration of disciplines and I hope to see many more designers focusing on such interactions. I would also hope that her work could be incorporated into fashion lines in the longer term and help to reduce the waste stream pouring out of this most polluting of industries."

As the Onassis Fellow at the Onassis Culture Centre in Greece, Alice Potts has been preparing for the Athens Biennale. She spoke to Fashion Roundtable about the processes behind her work, and the role it could play in creating a more sustainable future for the fashion industry. 

Where did you first get the idea to transform sweat and excreta into crystals for your garments and accessories? 

In my first year at RCA, I took part in the Biodesign challenge which was taught by Helene Steiner and Thomas Meany. Over 9 months they taught me all about biomaterials, and this multidisciplinary approach design showed me a whole new way of working, creating and designing. 

The idea of sweat came from my own personal background in sport and how the visual stains of sweat can indicate different levels sodium and urea in our bodies. Looking at how sweat covered our bodies to create a second skin I wondered how I could capture this, and show people the beauty of how our bodies function, and create, and adapt to different environments. Also, to show people that we are all individuals and labels that we have created in society should not restrict us or defy who we are as a person. 

It feels like an extremely unique concept, but were you inspired by any other artists or designers? Is your work rooted to a particular artistic genre? It feels simultaneously very futuristic but there’s also something quite pre-historic and elemental about your work. 

I've always made a conscious effort never to look or research work on the internet or allow myself to be restricted to artists or designers. Ever since I started fashion in my BA my work has always been based on mathematics and science with no idea of final outcomes but allowing both to naturally influence the overall design. Basing my work on equations rather than just an aesthetic, I can create something entirely new that even I wouldn’t know the outcome of until the work was complete. 

I’m still studying and researching about sweat, as I still have hundreds of ideas of how it could be used and developed. However, it was only after my MA was completed that I started to discover the historic references from Ancient Greece and how they used to collect sweat. 

Why do you think your work has captured people’s imaginations? 

Honestly, I’m not sure! It feels extremely weird because I remember back in January I was so scared of how my work would be perceived as sweat has always had such a bad label behind it. However, I think it's something completely new and different. It holds such a beauty of how it can capture that person in a physical object but without a picture. 

It's the impact I wanted as I hoped to encourage people to start pushing outside the box of what they think fashion should be. Bringing people from different disciplines together is where I feel the future of creativity lies. 

Could you explain a bit about the process of crystallisation? How long does the process take and how is this process sustainable? 

The process completely depends on the individual but from start to finish, and can take anywhere from one week to a month. For me the process is sustainable as there are no chemicals added, and it is also giving a second life to objects that would have been discarded. Over the next year, I aim to begin developing how I can make the process more wearable and translate it even more into fashion. 

What are your thoughts on how this relates to the future of sustainability in the fashion industry? 

For me fashion has always had a key opportunity to create a more sustainable future because it’s the closest thing we wear to our bodies without us realising, becoming our second skin. Personally, I believe that our bodies are our greatest technologies. I looked at how we could use secretion to form second skins as well as natural health indicators. Not only does the industry need to change, but we also need to transform the way the consumer shops and thinks about clothing. One of the biggest issues is over-consumption, so by trying to prolong garments that can grow and change with us I hope to expand their life-span. 

What further applications do you think your work has? 

I see hundreds of opportunities, but it’s about having the time to work on the ideas and engaging with people from all different backgrounds to help push forward new developments for my collection Perspire.

Alice will take her Masters’ collection of crystalline accessories and present them in a curated show by Stavros Karelis from Machine A and SHOWstudio as an Onassis fellow during the Athens Biennale in November of this year. For tickets and information, please click here.

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