Sacha Laurin is really into bacteria. She makes her own cheese, ferments her own wine, and brews her own kombucha. When a friend first suggested that she grow kombucha, it seemed to be a natural evolution of Laurin's exploration in bacteria, given her health-conscious approach to life. Kombucha, a fermented tea drink popularized in the last few years, is categorized as a "functional beverage," meaning that many drink it for its intended health benefits. "I bottle it in champagne bottles, so I drink a whole champange bottle [of kombucha] every day," said Laurin.
But the California-based cheese maker and designer didn't stop there. "I decided to make something more out of it," she said.
It started with jewelry. Laurin realized that the bacteria and yeast culture associated with kombucha production, known as SCOBY, could be used to create a shiny material that reminded her of earrings. Her continued experimentations with SCOBY in her garage led to the development of a fabric that resembled leather. And with that, Kombucha Couture was born.
Laurin's mother was a seamstress, so she grew up with a passion for different fabrics. "I was in love with different fabrics and textures and colors," she said. "I'd go to the thrift store and buy things to rip them up and make something else out of them." Even without any formal fashion training, Laurin was able to design and sew her dresses, thanks to her upbringing. She described her whole life as "design school."
At Laurin's fashion farm in Davis, California, she creates her fabrics in shallow tubs filled with tea and a little bit of SCOBY. As the bacteria and yeast begin to eat the tea, a mat forms on top. The weather in California is ideal for the process, and Laurin simply lets the fabric grow itself. After about one week, she harvests it.
Once the fabric is harvested, Laurin used a variety of techniques to get it looking exactly how she wants. Layering sheets of SCOBY results in a thicker fabric, which can be used for a "leather" jacket. Thinner pieces can be combined with repurposed fabric for a silkier texture. She creates the different colors primarily through food dye, which means that the Kombucha Couture designs are entirely edible.
"You could actually eat your clothes if you got hungry enough," she said with a laugh.
Laurin got her first big break with Kombucha Couture at the Sacramento Music and Film Festival, where she won a fashion competition. "That was how I got catapulted to Sacramento Fashion Week," Laurin explained. Following Sacramento Fashion Week, one of the producers of Paris Fashion Week called Laurin, and she had the opportunity to show her Kombucha Couture collection there as well.
Currently, Laurin is working on a mermaid-inspired collection. Since kombucha comes from water, it naturally has an aquatic feel to it. "It kind of looks like mermaid skin," she said of her fabrics. And with Halloween approaching, she's had several people approach her about creating mermaid costumes.
Though she sees the possibility for more professional and everyday wear clothes in the future, Laurin describes her recent designs as "costume-esque," a result of her mother's costume-making background for a local theater company and her love of the mystical and magical. "I'm just a very whimsical person," she said.
But Kombucha Couture is about more than just a unique look, as the designs are representative of a sustainable way of making clothing. "There's all kinds of real concerns environmentally about what the fashion industry is doing," said Laurin. Dying fabrics can pollute rivers in developing countries, leading to adverse health effects; the leather industry is marked by the unethical treatment of animals. And typically, the process of creating clothing uses an enormous amount of water and causes a high level of waste.
When Laurin creates a garment, she uses every scrap of fabric. The unused pieces can be put back in a tub, where they'll regrow. She can also keep using the same tea for multiple cycles, which means that the overall process has very little waste. In addition, only about an inch of liquid is needed, compared to the immense amount of water that goes into cotton production.
Laurin is working with the design department of UC Davis to further explore her ideas, and several other universities around the world are looking into it as well. "It's a very hot topic in biodesign... to try to find resources we already have, instead of creating very time-consuming and often toxic processes," she said. Laurin sees a "higher purpose" for her developments, particularly as a product that could be grown in developing countries inexpensively to create clothing or even shelter.
In the future that Laurin envisions, kombucha will become so popular that it'll be sold at McDonald's. "Still, people have to wrap their heads around wearing their komucha," she said. But given the benefits that kombucha-based fabrics offer, you might see the trend taking off sooner than you'd expect.
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