The Making of a Pioneer
Natsai Audrey Chieza, materials designer
In partnership with Toast
I’m looking at the bookshelf in Natsai Audrey Chieza’s studio which features books such as Sapiens, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics and Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science. As I browse, Natsai explains to me how much she loved watching America’s Next Top Model at university. This juxtaposition perfectly sums up Natsai: she’s a respected innovator in bio design, but she’s just as interested in chatting about Tyra Banks.
Growing up in Zimbabwe with two fierce but creatively nurturing grandmothers, it seems that she was always destined for greatness. Career options to a young Natsai were mapped out as doctor, teacher, engineer or architect. Having an interest in the more creative paths of life, Natsai opted for architecture which she went on to study in Edinburgh.
This was the age of My Space, American Apparel and Vice parties. East London seemed like the epicentre of the world and somewhere Natsai felt drawn to. This coincided with her interest in how architecture and fashion could intersect so rather than finish part two of her architecture degree she moved to London and enrolled on the textile futures course at Central Saint Martins. This new focus opened up Natsai’s mind to the world of synthetic biology: the study of working with living systems to design new materials, products and processes. This idea that you can design with nature by manipulating molecules and DNA led to her first experiment with Streptomyces coelicolor, a pigment releasing bacteria, and ultimately to the beginning of her studio Faber Futures.
Her initial experiments with coelicolor were fuelled by a “recipe” passed on to her by scientific advisor. She used the recipe to produce some basic pigments that she screen-printed onto textiles. Realising the limitations of her initial tests she knew that she needed to go deeper to see what these organisms can really do. “We’re talking about biology that has evolved over billions of years, so I thought maybe I should be schooled by it.” Natsai says of the moment of realising the limitations of her early experiments. The switch came when she began to grow the bacteria directly onto the textiles rather than in a petri dish. “Suddenly overnight I had this whole new territory that I could explore,” she explains. “Then the question was, how am I going to define the growth parameters of this process to achieve a specific aesthetic outcome?”
Since those early days, Natsai and her team at Faber Futures have developed novel processes to ferment colourfast dyes for textiles using pigment-producing bacteria. These processes result in various aesthetic finishes, including textured graphic prints that are grown directly on to garments. The real impact of her work is the solution it presents for the fashion industry to address the problem with the pollution that comes from dyeing textiles on an industrial scale. Her methods only use 200ml of water per garment and no heavy chemicals. “Our process enables manufacturers to reduce their fresh water footprint and negate the need to use the kinds of chemicals or petroleum-based dyes that are destroying life in our waterways,” she says. “I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t want to see that kind of solution.”
On the topic of sustainability and scale, Natsai is interested in addressing the current model of consumption rather than creating a template to fit it. She’s not suggesting that fashion itself is inherently bad; she’s passionate about fashion as a means of self-expression. “We need to redefine what profit means, redefine what value means for a wider community not just shareholders,” she says. “We should be building a fashion system that’s less extractive and less exploitative.”
Moving forward Natsai is excited to be taking the thinking behind Project Coelicolour and using it to help other bio-tech startups when it comes to developing their scale, growth and application in the real world. The ground-breaking work Faber Futures carries out was recently acknowledged when they received the 2019 Index Award—a prestigious prize that promotes and invests in the world’s most ground-breaking sustainable designs.
For all of the successes Natsai has experienced through her work there is a trail of failed experiments. “As a non-scientist doing microbiology for the fashion industry I’ve been through failure with a capital F. It’s scary and a huge challenge but we have some good people around us.” In an age of insta perfect careers and lives it’s refreshing to meet someone who owns their process so humbly and honestly.
As a pioneer in her field I wonder who Natsai looks to for inspiration and guidance, “Daisy Ginsberg, Nelly Ben Hayoun, Seetal Solanki—all of whom I respect for their work ethic, their innovative thinking and generosity. I’m optimistic that the human condition continues to produce people who want things to be different."
Natsai wears Toast Taro cotton oxford shirt and wool Alix trousers. www.toa.st/uk
All photography by Bex Day.