Tina Gorjanc is a young and prosperous fashion designer from Slovenia. In 2012, she completed her B.A. studies in fashion and textile design at the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Engineering in the University of Ljubljana. Afterwards, Gorjanc enrolled at the Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London. Not long ago, she shocked the (fashion) world by having proposed an extravagant concept of turning Alexander McQueen’s DNA into human leather goods. She created “The Pure Human” project in 2016 as part of Material Futures MA. With this concept, she wanted to address the issues concerning the protection of biological information and initiate the concept of luxury being redefined in the future.
The current global market is characterised by the interchange between the increase of mobility, media distribution and global communication which is resulting in the expansion of the phenomenon known as the ‘democratization of luxury’. As the old focus of luxury has become commonplace, the search for the element of rarity has expanded to a demand for bespoke and personalization.
Science was always the field that attracted the luxury market. The development of technologies that were firstly designed for specific medical problems into the enhancement of normal human functionshas enabled the luxury market to partly monetize the field of healthcare. However, the growing appetite of the industry to indulge in the exotic is shifting its interest towards undiscovered domains and technologies that are redefining the value of luxury.
The biotechnology industry has become firmly established over the past twenty years and biological patents have played an important part in this phenomenon. However, concerns regarding the patentability of human genetic materials have been raised through public protest and international statements. The concern mainly focuses on the lack of surveillance regarding the protection of biological information that allows big Bioengineering Corporation to obtain raw material from surgical patients without their consent. Those materials are later processed into products, copyrighted by the manufacturing company and sold worldwide.
In 1990 a jury was addressing the legal case of John Moore, a leukaemia disease patient from whom biological material was extracted and patented by his doctor. Moore filed a lawsuit against the doctor, but ended up losing the case as the jury concluded that the person’s bodily tissue is not considered stolen when obtained by a doctor through blood or tissue samples and because the person is not expected to keep the material, it consequently belongs to the institution executing its extraction.
This law still exists today. Furthermore, all existing legislation dealing with biotechnology today is united under the Human Tissue Act, which only addresses the handling of bodily materials for medical purposes. The act does not regulate the use of biotechnology for commercial purposes, which is attracting the attention of the luxury industry. As this new intersection between luxury and biology grows more sophisticated I am proposing the research question: How will advances in tissue engineering technology redefine today’s concept of luxury?
A common point of critical design projects based in the field of bioengineering seems to be highlighting potential future applications and raising ethical issues about the spread of such approaches. However, there seems to be a lack of reflection regarding the impact that the technology will have on our complex social and economic environment.
The ‘Pure Human’ project was designed as a critical design project that aims to address shortcomings concerning the protection of biological information and move the debate forward using current legal structures. The project explores the ability of the technology to shift the perception of the production system for luxury goods as we know it and project its implementation in our current commercial market.
The final outcome consists of a range of speculative commercial leather products cultivated from extracted human biological material. The primary speculative source based on which the ‘Pure Human’ system was conceived is the Alexander McQueen hair label obtained from his first collection: Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims. The mentioned source is one of the extremely rare authenticated sources that can be identified within a vast archive of memorabilia.
The products within the collection have been exposed to different surface manipulations. The surface alterations have been specifically selected to imitate three different modifications that Alexander McQueen’s skin has undergone in the cycle of his life time.
– On the tattooed product, body modification techniques were applied to the material surface after the tanning process. The tattoos imitate the design, size and location on the body of the original McQueen’s skin.
– The tannable product focuses on the fragility of human skin compared to other species. The epidermis contains far less natural protection against UV light than other living organisms, which enables the cultivated leather that was not fully tanned to get sunburnt.
– The pigmentable product exploits the ability of the TYR gene to promote the production of the pigment melanin. The stimulation of the gene’s performance can be achieved with biological agents. Depending on the amount of the applied agent the accumulated melanin can appear on a smaller (freckles) or larger (moles) scale.
The collection of products is situated within a discursive design context and acts as a transitional tool that illustrates the shift of values that is bound to happen in the luxury environment. A patent application for the process has being filed on the 20/05/2016.
Theoretically, the process is based on genetic information and is, therefore, patenting a biological sequence including that information. However, it is worth specifying that if a grant for patent is obtained, genetic information won’t be subject to patent on their own. The patent will be granted for a material that is derived from his information.
This new approach to the idea of luxury puts its values in an entirely different context that revolves around the notion of genetic identity. The ability to alter and own genetic material that is passed down from generation to generation puts a new perspective on inheritance.
The right attained by claiming ownership over biological materials redefines the genetic information as an initial source of luxury. At the same time, the new ambiguity of bodily materials endangers the term as it deviates from its initial definition of rarity and authenticity. What happens when the only difference between luxury items is defined by a 0.01% (the approximate difference between two genetic information of human origins)? To put it simply, the bioengineering field has become far to advanced for the old definition of unattainable luxury to apply.
Photography: Tina Gorjanc, Tom Mannion, Vic Philips, Single Malt Teapot, Sanne Visser