How Tech Is Shaping the Future of Luxury Fashion

As scientists develop new ways to grow diamonds, leather, and silk in laboratories, more and more designers are choosing these eco-friendly, humane, and very rarefied materials over the real things.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Atelier Swarovski fine jewelry line last year, Nadja Swarovski threw a party at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, France. There on the Mediterranean, as paparazzi camped out hoping for a shot of diamond-studded celebrities, a few other stars outshone the ones from Hollywood. Shining from within Lucite cases, diamond necklaces and earrings, some weighing over 30 carats, sparkled in the afternoon sun. Guests oohed, guests aahed, and more than one remarked that they were so beautiful they couldn’t be real diamonds. And they weren’t real—not exactly. But they weren’t exactly fake, either.

The perfectly cut, perfectly clear stones on display were diamonds, except they’d been grown in a lab. Even though her family’s multibillion-dollar business has an entire division that sells natural gems to other jewelers, Swarovski had spent the past two years working against nature. “I wanted to do something responsible, sustainable, and forward-thinking,” she said at the event, noting that the jewelry made with artificial diamonds had been crafted in the same workshop used by Chanel and Van Cleef & Arpels. “Using created diamonds means these pieces have a lower impact on the environment and society. People want and need to know where their products come from.”

For centuries, fashion has been defined by the laborious transformation of natural materials into luxury goods. A diamond has to be mined from the earth; silk harvested from cocoons; leather tanned from the supple hides of animals, fur skinned off their backs. But the definition of fashion is changing, as science and technology introduce new materials. Choruses of watchdogs, disruptors, and conscious shoppers now question, even shun, traditional processes and their effects: the slaughter of animals, the pollution caused by silk production, the human labor involved in mining. For many consumers, a guilt-free provenance is becoming as important as cost or carat.

Jamie Chung

In the past, diamond imposters consisted mostly of cubic zirconia. But what Swarovski and a few other companies are making is something else entirely: stones that are produced in labs and are not only indistinguishable to the naked eye but also chemically and physically identical to the real thing. One of the first to have success with man-made diamonds is the Diamond Foundry. The company was formed in California in 2013 by engineers from MIT, Stanford, and Princeton with the aim to “produce aboveground diamonds in America that are 100 percent carbon-neutral,” said CEO Martin Roscheisen. Leonardo DiCaprio was an early investor; he joined following his experiences during the filming of Blood Diamond, which showed the horrors of mining.

While it takes millions of years, high heat, dynamite, and a huge amount of physical manpower to get a real diamond, it’s taken millions of dollars, high heat, and countless chemists to make one in a lab. There are several ways to do it. The most common involves a process known as chemical vapor deposition, or CVD: Researchers first place a small, thin wafer (about five millimeters in diameter and just a fraction of a millimeter thick) from a natural or synthetic diamond into a chamber the size of a soup pot. This will be the base layer for the new diamond.

Next, a mixture containing carbon-bearing gases is introduced into the pot and heated to around 5,500°F using microwave plasma. This causes carbon atoms to drop out of the gas and lock onto the surface of the diamond wafer. It takes about a week for the layers of carbon atoms to grow into a synthetic diamond crystal just a few millimeters thick. Once the growth period is over, the heat is turned off, and the remaining gases are safely removed from the chamber.

You’d think diamonds made in a lab would cost less. But research and development costs, along with the salaries of technicians, engineers, and scientists, mean that most created diamonds are only 10 to 20 percent cheaper than mined ones. But the prices are certain to decrease as technology advances and growing diamonds becomes easier and more widespread. Mined diamonds, on the other hand—especially colored ones— are becoming rarer as mines close; their value is projected to increase. (Prices of mined diamonds have risen about 30 percent over the past 10 years.) Although new mines have recently been opened in Botswana and Canada, there has been much discussion lately about the forthcoming closure of the Argyle diamond mine in Australia, which has seen a decline in annual carats, falling to about 12 million from over 40 million in 2016. This has some in the industry worrying that one day the world will run out of mined diamonds.

Nevertheless, according to Roscheisen, the diamond industry isn’t happy about engineered stones. “The diamond cartel is very nervous about a new producer, one that is based on U.S. law,” he claimed. “They have threatened our partners, put up roadblocks, and sowed misinformation to keep people from learning about us.”

The Gemological Institute of America—the organization that established the four Cs (cut, color, clarity, and carat) for evaluating diamonds—has a research lab in New Jersey where it is also growing diamonds. They’re not for sale; the lab was set up only to stay abreast of the engineered-diamonds industry. The GIA also has one of the few machines that can, in fact, tell the difference between mined and man-made stones—it has to do with light absorption and transmission. It will soon be at a jewelry store near you.

Luxury is predicated on rarity. It’s also dependent upon a nice presentation and an even nicer narrative. And one of the biggest stories in the industry right now is the rise of feel-good fashion, which has led many designers to turn away from real fur. When Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri announced its ban last October, he said it was not only because he felt customers were turned off by animal fur; he also believed the top fashion talent wants to work for a fur-free company. Shortly after Gucci’s news, Michael Kors announced a ban, joining Stella McCartney, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger, along with luxury retailers including Selfridges and Net-a-Porter.

Jamie Chung

Not surprisingly, high-end faux furriers are emerging. Hannah Weiland’s Shrimps line of coats is a favorite of fashion editors for their nubby, comfy-cozy warmth. And newcomer Maison Atia is gaining buzz for its tailored coats. The label was cofounded by Gustave Maisonrouge and Chloé Mendel, daughter of designer Gilles Mendel and the 25-year-old, fifth-generation owner of the J. Mendel furrier. Their first collection featured a faux sheared “mink” trench coat and a reversible artificial “Persian lamb” peacoat. Prices start around $850.

There are two types of faux fur. One is made of organic materials, such as mohair or wool, and the other from synthetic fibers, usually acrylic and modacrylic, which are desirable for their silky, real-fur-like sheen. Herein lies the Catch-22 for the faux-fur movement: Acrylics are petroleum-based and therefore have environmental consequences. “Petroleum-based faux-fur products are the complete antithesis of the concept of responsible environmental conservation,” said Keith Kaplan, of the Fur Information Council of America. He explained that deadly carcinogens are released during the production of these materials, and then plastic lint fibers are released into waste water when these faux furs are washed. They are then released into oceans and rivers where they are ingested by fish.

While Michael Kors and Gucci have banned fur, they have not turned away from leather. In fact, the only top-tier designer who refuses to sell leather is Stella McCartney, a passionate animal-rights activist. Depending on whom you ask, faux-leather shoes just don’t feel the same as those made with real skins, regardless of the price point. But that may be changing, thanks in part to a visionary biotech company in New Jersey.

Modern Meadow was created to circumvent cows and pasture and grow leather in a lab. For wearables, the process involves editing the DNA of yeast cells so they produce collagen, which is the main ingredient in animal skin. The collagen is assembled into a “bioleather” material that can be tanned and then cut and stitched into shoes, handbags, and motorcycle jackets. The material is called Zoa and was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s recent exhibition “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” in New York City.

Jamie Chung

Suzanne Lee, Modern Meadow’s chief creative officer, likened the process for making Zoa to brewing beer. Just as yeast creates alcohol from sugar, it can be modified to turn sugar into collagen. She notes that the tanning procedure is more sustainable than standard tanning, since there is no animal hair or fat to remove. And, of course, zero animals are harmed.

The possible economic implications of these efforts are huge. Consider that the leather-goods industry sells $100 billion in product a year globally, and then consider that Modern Meadow’s microbes can produce collagen much faster than it would take to raise a cow or sheep. The company will be able to work with brands to design entirely new materials from the cell level up and produce them with a variety of textures.

As its leather is still in development, Modern Meadow declined our request to touch the Zoa, the true test of this advancement. But Paola Antonelli, the curator of the MoMA show, said it “felt like leather” and had the same suppleness and flexibility. No word on how it would hold up as a shoe or handbag or if it will come with that pleasing (for many people) leather smell.

“The key to the success of these new synthetics,” said McCartney, who is reportedly watching the development of Zoa, “lies with the consumer. Does the material look just as beautiful, luxurious, and exciting as anything else? The technology just has to get to the point where it’s so good that the consumer doesn’t know. You can’t accept downgraded quality in luxury.”

Jamie Chung

McCartney, who has never used leather or fur in her collections, is moving on to faux silk. She has partnered with a biofabrication company in California called Bolt Threads, which produces Microsilk using genetically modified yeast, water, and sugar. The faux silk is produced through fermentation— another process similar to brewing beer, except instead of the yeast turning the sugar into alcohol, it transforms it into a silk protein that is then put into a spinnerette, which is shaped a bit like a spaghetti strainer. The gel-like material is pushed down through the holes in the spinnerette and flows out in fiber form. The end result, which can be woven or knitted, is a material that is ethically sourced and feels, in swatch form anyway, much like traditional silk.

It remains to be seen whether consumers will view all these new materials as “downgraded,” no matter how luxurious looking or feeling they may be. While a lab-grown diamond may look exactly like a mined one, can it spark the same desire? Is test-tube leather “genuine leather”—and does it matter either way? While we grasp at the right questions to ask about what’s “real” and “fake,” companies around the world are busy experimenting with alternatives to the nonrenewable substances and environmentally destructive processes that much of the fashion business has been built on. Pineapple leaves, banana leaves, mushrooms, grape waste, orange waste, plant roots, paper, methane, stem cells, lab-grown emeralds, denim, recycled plastic—any of these may be transformed into tomorrow’s It bag or engagement ring. And maybe then a clean conscience will be the true luxury commodity.