Soon, We’ll Be Able to Grow Our Own Handbags

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Photo: Ian Lishman/? Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

If you’re not feeling freaked out enough by how quickly we’re hurtling into the future, consider the latest news from the world of technology: It’s now technically possible to grow a real leather handbag in a lab.

Sophie Hackford, director of WIRED Consulting, spoke at last week’s Condé Nast Luxury Conference about new technologies that could help the luxury industry. There was talk of 3-D printers and virtual reality, but the most jaw-dropping element of her presentation focused on sustainable fabrics. It turns out you no longer need to kill a cow for its skin: A company called Modern Meadow is growing real, soft, smells-like-leather-because-it-is-actually-leather in a lab. Hackford explained: 

It’s made by taking a biopsy from a cow, which is totally harmless, and replicating those cells endlessly — so in theory, you only need one cow. And it’s not just to replicate the leather, to mimic the leather as a fabric, but it’s to improve it — so there’s a point where you can actually super-engineer these materials to give them tunable properties … And of course when you’re tuning these materials yourself, there’s no hair to remove, there are no scars, no insect bites, no waste, because clearly you’re just growing what you need … You can also dial up or dial down, as I said, the softness, the breathability, the durability of the leather — you can even weave electronics through the piece.

But most interesting to me is that you can actually grow this directly around a 3-D shape — you can grow a handbag without any seams. You can grow a car seat without any seams. You can grow a glove without any seams. I think also there are some interesting questions here about finding it hard to prove the authenticity of a product, which I know for a lot of people in the room is a bit of a worry. Because actually, this technique initially is very, very difficult to counterfeit, because it’s technically incredibly complex to develop these materials. … One of the most important points to take home from this materials talk, is really about the concept of something that was previously quite scarce … you could [now] grow in unlimited quantities in the lab.

The technology might sound futuristic, but there were whisperings at the conference that Modern Meadow may already be working with brands. Suzy Menkes, who was hosting the event, speculated that it could team up with a designer who famously won’t work with leather. Stella McCartney seamless handbag, anyone?