“Have I made you excited about sweat?” says material researcher, Alice Potts. She has.
In 2018, Potts’ graduate collection from London’s Royal College of Art gained widespread media attention and praise from industry insiders including the British Fashion Council’s ambassador for emerging talent, Sarah Mower, for its incredible athleticwear covered in crystals grown from sweat.
Since then her experiments in growing embellishments for fashion have included crystals grown from tears and, most recently, bioplastic sequins made from petals, vegetable scraps and other natural waste.
At the start of the pandemic, Potts was in Athens where she had been completing an artistic research fellowship at the Onassis cultural center. She jumped on the last flight out of the Greek capital to spend her lockdown with family in the UK and put her work with sweat on hold due to risk of infection. “I had the worst nightmare ever that there was going to be a moment like Jurassic Park where I would crystallize someone’s sweat with COVID-19 and then in the future, it would break and coronavirus would start again,” she laughs. On a more serious note, she had two years’ worth of work planned that all ground to a halt.
Far from taking a break from work though, the pandemic has provided an opportunity for Potts to explore new ideas and reflect on the implications her work has. Inspired by concern for the increasing amount of plastic being used for hygiene purposes, she started new experiments with hyperlocal bioplastics. “I had to make my bioplastics without import or export, or travelling to the coast to get algae or seaweed. It really pushed my practice.”
This experience has led Potts to see new opportunities for biomaterials. “It would be so cool to have a future system where the design was open source but the base ingredients for each material was completely condensed to the waste and utilization of what was made in that country. The bioplastic I made in Greece has a completely different color scheme and recipe to the one in England because we have different waste products and I think there’s something really beautiful [in that].”
As a personal project, Potts has been using the bioplastic sequins to repair a bag. The result is visually stunning and has served as a memento of her time in lockdown. The new panels she’s grown for the bag come from a mixture of roses collected in March, daisies and bluebells from April and May and calendulas sourced from a friend’s garden in June. “A lot of people upcycle things, but they use manmade stuff where, actually, this whole idea of upcycling using new materials could be a nice way to introducing bio into the system,” explains Potts.
Biomaterials are being touted as one of the many possible solutions to fashion’s sustainability problems and developments include ideas for lab-grown leather, yarn sourced from kelp and bacteria used to create non-toxic dyes. Many of these biomaterials want to help broaden the materials fashion uses to ease the burden on traditional natural materials like cotton and offer solutions that are regenerative, biodegradable and don’t require water and chemical-intensive processes to make.
However, criticism has arisen that some aren’t as environmentally-friendly as they claim to be. Potts says that this has been a result of a rush to get biomaterials to market. “To make them industry ready, you have to make them almost the same quality as the original materials [they’re intended to replace]. So, there’s a lot of people who started bio-based materials, but then have genetically changed it or added a chemical in it to make it more durable.”
While Potts believes widespread commercial use of more sustainable biomaterials is still many years away, she’s keen to keep championing the positive work that’s being done in this space. Her hope is that if one positive thing comes out of the pandemic, it’s a new slow fashion mindset.
“I think if we all try and fit into this fast system and try to create a quick answer [to sustainability] then we never really embrace the achievements on a small scale. People ask how I can be so positive about the future but the changes that we’ve seen the last five years are the most drastic changes we’ve ever seen.”
While bioplastics have kept her busy during this period, working with sweat remains her true passion. Her samples have now tested negative for coronavirus and she’s able to get back into it.
“I think sweat is the most underplayed bodily secretion ever,” she enthuses. “The fact that you can tell your whole health from it: if you have certain diseases, the sugars in your diet. A lot of people think that sweat smells horrible, but actually, it’s what cleans you and heals your scars.” She’s certainly breaking boundaries with her work, both scientifically and in challenging social stigmas.
“I was really embarrassed,” she says of her early experiments. “For a whole year, I went to the gym and covered myself in clingfilm, got on the Stairmaster fully clothed with several jumpers, then I’d run to the bathroom, scrape every little bit off and collect it in canisters.”
While her classmates were grinding away in the fashion studio, Potts was perfecting her crystals in her kitchen. “[My teachers] were like ‘Alice, you’re meant to be making handbags’ and I just couldn’t stop,” she smiles. Inspired by guest lectures from biodesign engineer Helene Steiner, her future career began to fall into place. It tapped into her background studying chemistry, math and psychology at school and a life-long fascination with geometry and fractals. She also remembers, while playing tennis growing up, watching the salt lines that would form on people’s backs as their sweat dried. She took her early experiments to Imperial College London who helped her develop the idea further and turn a somewhat bizarre idea into a curiously beautiful outcome.
A celebrity partnership would be a dream project: “Lady Gaga would be amazing”. But, understandably, approaching celebrities and asking to collect their sweat is something she’s apprehensive about. However, it could be a big step in getting the word out about biomaterials and helping people become more comfortable with wearing them because it’s not just the development of the materials that needs time. “Trying to get people excited by it and slowly introducing it is the best way forward. I hope that it will start integrating into our system.”