Natsai Audrey Chieza is a designer with degrees in Architecture and Material Futures. She is the founder and CEO of Faber Futures, a multidisciplinary agency based in London, focusing on the intersection of biology, technology, and society. Chieza pioneered the process of using bacteria pigments for sustainable textile finishing and her work has been exhibited and featured in a variety of institutions, exhibitions, and publications. The below is an excerpt from her interview in Wallet’s latest issue, “Titans of Tech,” conducted by Editor-in-Chief Elise By Olsen.
How did you enter the worlds of fashion and technology?
My first degree was in architecture, which I studied at the University of Edinburgh. After completing Part 1, I returned to London, where I joined the Textile Futures MA at Central Saint Martins. The course was really about thinking of materiality in the context of culture, craft, and technology. My research explored emerging fields of biotechnology, like synthetic biology, a discipline of science that places engineering principles to design biology using new tools and DNA. I was excited to discover what the engineering of biology meant for design. How could somebody design an organism? What and who is an organism designer? And under what auspices might they design an organism? When I graduated, I saw an opportunity to explore these ideas from a less theoretic basis, so I reached out to Professor John Ward, a synthetic biologist from University College London’s Department of Biochemical Engineering. I became a designer in residence in his laboratory and began to experiment with bacteria to try to grasp, through practice, how design could interact with synthetic biology and the natural world.
What did you research, as part of your residency?
I began to work with a well-characterized organism called S.coelicolor, which is a soil-dwelling bacteria that produces a host of compounds including geosmin — which we associate with the smell of rain — and antibiotics. I was intrigued by its capacity to convert sugar into pigment molecules, and immediately connected that with textiles. So, I started an independent experimental practice as a designer working in this lab and was able to develop a body of groundbreaking work on multispecies design. And what was so compelling to me was an understanding of how one could start to work with bacteria in a way that was decoupled from the industrial notion of it. And that would affect new potential. During the first year of our collaboration, I primarily focused on trying to grow cultures that produced enough pigment molecules to extract and then just drop [them] into existing print-making systems, like screen printing. The results were pretty poor, and I soon realized that a different kind of mindset, where one learns from the organism, i.e. what can it do? might yield more fundamental results. So, I began to ferment the organisms directly onto the textiles, and that’s when this entire world opened up. This direct fermentation process yielded colourfast dyes without the use of any chemical inputs and using nominal amounts of water — up to 500 times less than industry standards, depending on the protocols I deployed. After much experimentation, I eventually arrived at a highly efficacious system of dyeing textiles without causing harm, as long as I learnt how to take care of the bacteria cultures. These emerging technologies signal inherent technical potential. But it’s not just the technical problem we have to solve — we have to develop a cultural technology around this, too. That’s where I saw the strength of upstreaming design in science.
How has the fashion-tech relationship — or fashion manufacturing in its entirety — developed over the years?
My observation is that technology has been taken on by the fashion industry simply as an afterthought. It’s not something that is necessarily integrated, because the business model for fashion has not been one to prioritize R&D. Particularly with biotechnology, we see that a lot of fashion brands are very excited about the possibilities of having sustainable processes to manufacture textiles, but they just want to procure it off the shelf when they’re ready. That level of hands-off engagement means that bioengineers aren’t necessarily designing in parallel with a fashion and textiles industry framework or a clear design brief as relates to the end-user. Fashion takes on this procurement strategy, rather than a co-development strategy. Fashion has never invested in legacy in the same way that an automotive industry does, so it’s always playing catch-up.
What led you to found Faber Futures, and what are you hoping to accomplish with this endeavour?
I founded Faber Futures in 2018, having spent six months at a biotech startup in Boston. I quickly realized that there was an opportunity to be a bridge, or translator, between technology, society, nature, and sustainability. I had the right network and way of thinking to bring those things together in a tangible way. At Faber Futures, we have a strong studio practice, which is where we explore multiple research strands in and outside the lab. We work with institutions to disseminate this work through exhibition and other engagements. It grows demand for our consultancy arm, where we work with brands and tech startups to provide strategic oversight across these different domains, and especially those interested in the emerging world of synthetic biology and its industrial applications.
It seems like you’re a master of galvanizing talent in and around textile innovation, and bringing in surprising and interesting people and institutes all over the world. How do you go about inviting science professionals into the space of fashion?
It’s very natural for me to see why different people need to come together to address these deep systematic questions. We are all products of a highly specialized environment of learning and doing. We exist in silos, and it’s partly for this reason that we have so many broken systems — because they don’t all talk to each other. One of the key things when designing with living systems is to recognize the limitations of your own background in that workflow and to be able to understand when onboard a different set of expertise and skills. While some of that work involves scientists and engineers, we also work with educational institutions. We also want for the public to be engaged with the emergence of these technologies that are going to shape the world. As citizens, as members of society, they should have a say in that.
Where would you say the mainstream fashion industry is at, in terms of re-thinking material manufacturing, dyes, and fabrics in particular?
I think that there is a huge appetite for it — certainly, this is driven by changing consumer demands — but I also detect a profound misunderstanding that will undoubtedly slow down progress. That of the drop-in replacement. We risk changing the ingredients but not the system. That’s no revolution. We have to build new tools for a new craft, new infrastructure for greater scale, sharper intelligence for equitable innovation. That requires considerable capital investment, and it will take time. People want better materials, but they haven’t defined what that means, and they don’t necessarily want to be the ones to build it.
What changes would you like to see in the fashion industry?
The now undeniable truth is that the fashion business model has always been predicated on the exploitation of people and the planet. This now needs to change, and big fashion needs to pay for it.