Fashion’s Biological Future is Now

safe_image-1by Joshua Katcher (also published on Huffington Post)

In an industry notorious for transience, flux and experimentation, it’s counterintuitive to consider that the fashion system is stuck in a rut when it comes to materials and real sustainability. Year after year, season after season, there’s this feeling of velocity, of working towards something better. Sure, there are a million ways a shirt can look, but if the way that shirt is made never changes, are things actually changing – or is it simply an illusion of progress?

Designers, press and editors alike continue to rationalize what happens to animals caught up in the fashion industrial complex as a necessary evil in achieving the highest quality, performance and most luxurious fibers, as if mother nature herself were meticulously positioning a leopard’s spots, arranging a reptiles scales or softening a goose’s down for the sole purpose of human use. And more often than not, the more rare an animal or cruel a process – from fetal lamb (also known as astrakhan or karakul) and calfskin (from veal calves) to angora and fur, the more heightened the perceived payoff will be. This is a strange psychological equation to say the least, but one that rules in the realm of luxury fashion. While animal agriculture is the single most environmentally problematic aspect of the fashion industrial complex, the choice to actually breed, farm, trap, confine and kill animals in order to attain their fibers will soon be obsolete thanks to a burgeoning sector of biofabrication startup businesses.


Leather without cows? Shearling without sheep, silk without spiders and furs without foxes? At first glance, something sounds wrong about this. The word “unnatural” gets thrown around when criticizing the cellular farming, synthesizing or culturing of animal materials. We think of frightening laboratories, test tubes, and scientists crouched over bubbling chemicals who are ‘playing god’ or at least Dr. Frankenstein! Our food and clothing should be coming from those bucolic images we see in ads of the quintessential farm with a red barn and two or three happy sheep lazing in a field, right? We cling to the marketed myths of where animal products come from because the images of factory farms, fur farms, leather tanneries or commercial shearing operations are not likely to stir up nostalgia, legacy and heritage. Outrage would be a more accurate reaction, which is why the reality of these industries are kept hidden – and now with AgGag laws, its illegal in many states to even document what’s happening inside these operations.

Image: Joshua Katcher at IndieBio with the BioLoom team, holding cellulose used in production.

Enter Bolt Threads, BioLoom, Modern Meadow, Biocouture, Pembient, and BioFur. They are among the existing and emerging synthethic biology companies who are redefining agriculture, textile manufacturing and the fashion industry in general through innovation on a systems level. Bolt Threads has already developed an exact replica of spider silk without spiders, as Bloomberg recently reported. Modern Meadow is developing lab-grown leather and Icelandic designer Ingvar Helgason is developing BioFur, which is lab-grown pelts. Pembient has grown Rhino Horn in the lab, and will soon take on elephant ivory, while Biocouture developed a leather-like cellulose and now is a biofabrication and design-application consultancy. BioLoom has taken on the water and pesticide-intensive conventional-cotton industry with lab-grown cotton. The exciting thing about all of these companies is that they are just scratching the surface. This is a field of development and production that will be endlessly customizable, increasingly efficient and high-performance, and inherently more sustainable and less cruel than raising animals to kill them.

This is why the fashion community must stop kowtowing to the most sluggish and démodé symbols of luxury: fur, leather and wool that are still grown on an animals’ back.

It seems that if you have an idea for creating sustainable animal products without actual animals, you’ll be in luck because a huge trend in the field of synthetic biology is taking the greatest causes of the worst environmental problems, like animal agriculture, and finding visionary solutions. IndieBio, the San Francisco-based synthetic biology accelerator, recently announced that it’s offering $250,000 in seed funding for people with ideas for these types of startups.

Mock-up of a Muufri synthetic milk carton - the company is aiming for a marketable product by summer of 2015It’s also happening with food. New Harvest, a nonprofit that describes itself as “advancing technologies to feed a growing global population”, has helped launch companies like Clara Foods. Clara foods makes real eggs without hens. New Harvest also led Muufri, a company engineering yeast to produce cows milk without cows, to a similar accelerator. Modern Meadow, in addition to leather, has developed cultured meat, as has Impossible Foods.

The Biofabricate conference, heading into its second year, is a fantastic way to place your finger on the pulse of this movement.

We are on the brink of an industrial revolution and cellular agriculture is at the center of it. Companies like Ouro Botics are figuring out ways to take these developments into our homes and places of work by combining 3D printing technology with Bioprinting, so we’ll soon be able to print three-dimensional objects with organic and biological materials. Electroloom is mastering the technology of spray-on clothing, so clothing could be made of healthy, organic substances that are recyclable or biodegradable and always fit. We have only scratched the surface of what is possible.

the ultimaker 1... great fun repairing... ;-) www.our-botics.comanother ear because we realised we needed two...



Richie Kul isn’t just a model. He’s an Ivy League educated, vegan model with a passion for being a hero. He’s articulate, warm and perpetually using his powers for good. I’d seen Richie in various campaigns from brands like Swatch and VAUTE to organizations like Animals Asia, PETA and Compassion over Killing, so when we finally got to meet in person over some Beyond Sushi in NYC’s East Village, I found that there was much more depth to Kul than first meets the eye.

Joshua Katcher: How did you end up in front of the camera?
Richie Kul: After graduating from Stanford with degrees in Economics and Organizational Behavior, I was convinced that a career in finance was the next logical step. Through stints as an Investment Banking Analyst and Finance Director, I came to realize that a life poring over spreadsheets and company financials wasn’t for me so I reflected back on the times I’d been approached in shopping malls or on vacation about modeling and figured I’d give it a serious go. Ten years, twenty countries and countless memories and friendships later, I’m really glad I took that leap.


JK: I always see photos of you with your dog. What’s her story?
RK: Lily is a rescue and was found abandoned in a foreclosed home in Las Vegas. At the tender age of 4, she’s proven to be a chip off the old block and has already participated in a number of photo shoots and developed quite the extensive portfolio and fan base all her own. In fact, for many of the animal welfare campaigns I’ve shot, it’s been specifically requested that she be featured front and center. She’s vegan as well since I didn’t feel it made any sense to nourish and sustain life at the expense of others. I actively researched how healthy it was to have her on a plant based diet and found that many pups have thrived on them so it was an easy choice. Many people have commented on how energetic and happy she is, and her cruelty free path has inspired others to make similar shifts for their pups and themselves. She’s quite the ambassador for cruelty free living!


JK: Being vegan in the fashion industry can be challenging. Have you ever refused to wear something, or walked off a shoot? Does animal activism and modeling coexist smoothly?
With clients I’ve worked with previously, they’re generally more accommodating and willing to make adjustments. I try to be reasonable and recognize that, with notable exceptions, fashion by and large is not vegan friendly and to help bring about meaningful change, you sometimes have to work from within while sowing well-placed seeds. I have worn products that incorporate wool, silk or leather but if I find that it’s egregious and obtrusive like a leather jacket or fur coat, I’ll opt out. Sometimes stylists and clients are receptive, and sometimes I’ve simply had to walk away. Work is not life and life is not work, but the daily decisions you make contribute greatly to shaping who you are, and at the end of the day you have to be able to put head to pillow knowing you stood up for what you believe in and didn’t compromise your integrity.


JK: What is dating like for a working model with strong principles?
Early on, I was fortunate to have found someone who shares my principles of compassion and non-violence and that’s proven to be a major source of comfort and strength. So thankfully I haven’t had to contend with the dating scene much but I know it’s a struggle in any relationship to strike that balance between standing firm in your convictions while being malleable enough to allow for personal and shared growth.

JK: You’ve been all over the world, what are some of the best spots you’ve found for food, clothing, and culture?
RK: There are always cruelty free options and outlets available if you’re proactive in seeking them out. On the fashion front, the U.S. is light years ahead of its international counterparts. A number of great American brands have emerged here over the past decade so I like to do most of my shopping Stateside. With regard to food though, I’ve found it easier to find vegetarian and vegan fare in Asia when I’m there for work vs. most places in the States or Europe (New York City, Los Angeles, and London being notable exceptions). In Buddhist countries, vegetarian restaurants are more integrated into the fabric of everyday life, and when I was in Bangkok last month, I overlapped fortuitously with the Thai Vegetarian Festival which ran for two weeks this year. It enjoys widespread participation and it was so easy to find tasty options wherever I went.

Style: "Neutral"

JK: In the fashion world, awareness of race and ethnicity is very heightened due to desired aesthetics. Have you experienced any forms of racism in the fashion world?
Workwise, being different from the conventional standard of beauty has proven to be both blessing and curse. Agents regularly send out casting briefs where clients have explicitly stated “No African American or Asian models.” That brazenness initially irked me but in the end I prefer not to commit time and energy trying to appeal to someone who is completely closed off and not receptive to diversity. I’ve also found that particularly in the high fashion world, clients often accentuate stereotypes and when they do incorporate Asian models into a campaign, they’re rather likely to further a cliché aesthetic of porcelain skin and slanted eyes that doesn’t actually represent many Asians or Asian Americans. On set I’ve been lucky to have met and worked with lots of creative, progressive individuals who see diversity as something worth celebrating and actively promoting. They take note of the growing clout of consumers in the Far East and find that incorporating someone of that background into their brand image enables them to better capitalize on those markets and I respect that. In the end, casting decisions are often very deliberate and well calculated and go beyond whether they like you as a person or think you’re attractive. So while I don’t always agree with those decisions, I also don’t take them to heart.

JK: Books, music, art and ideas… What is inspiring you right now?
The growing awareness of the ethical, environmental and health benefits of going vegan excites and inspires me more than anything. Seeing public figures like James Cameron, Ellen Degeneres, Brad Pitt, Cory Booker and fellow Cardinal Griff Whalen extoling the virtues of a plant based diet gives me great hope that through their words and examples, many hearts and minds will awaken to the idea that we as humans should be caretakers rather than exploiters of our fellow animals. Traditionally, I’ve been pretty conventional in my music tastes and usually listen to a lot of top 40 – Coldplay, One Republic, Sam Smith, Train, The Script. But lately I’ve been getting more adventurous and have been digging some great indy artists slightly off the beaten path like Mat Kearney and Andrew Ripp. My favorite though is Ilse Gevaert, particularly her single “I Am Human”. I love her textured voice and her personal story of overcoming struggles in her life and I appreciate the thoughtfulness with which she approaches her craft. On the art front, I really like the work of Mark Humphrey, a NY based artist who incorporates a lot of thoughtful shapes, textures and colors into his pieces. His work is elegant while still being affordable.

JK: Have you acquired a sense of style since working in fashion? What fashion tips do you have for other guys who may not have been dressed by many stylists?
RK: Day to day I’m admittedly very much a cut off tee, shorts and sandals kind of guy. Every now and again there are opportunities to spruce myself up and in those instances I have definitely benefited from seeing talented stylists at work. Top tips I’ve acquired along the way include ensuring that garments really fit and flatter your body type regardless of the size on the label and being premeditated when it comes to big purchases. Go ahead and splurge a little if you feel you’ll get some long-term utility out of something but make it neutral enough that you can pair it with lots of other pieces. Male wardrobes tend to experience less turnover so it’s all about making those decisions smart and impactful.


JK: You’re in your undies a lot – firstly, what’s your favorite underwear, and second, what do you do to maintain such envious abs?
Being a Miami-based model, you shoot a lot of underwear and swimwear jobs. When I first started modeling it wasn’t something I envisioned doing much of, but as a vegan I’ve seized on it as an opportunity to combat the widespread perception of vegetarians and vegans being sickly and emaciated. Modeling has been a platform that’s allowed me to show people that you can live a cruelty free lifestyle while still being healthy and strong. Plus most underwear is cotton based and thus vegan friendly so that’s a major bonus. I’m not obsessive about fitness but I do make it a point to work out every day. Though a lot of my routine centers around lifting weights, I try to mix it up with battle ropes, muscle ups, TRX, Pilates and various targeted abs exercises like planks and hanging leg raises. My daily cardio I have Lil to thank for as we regularly go for jogs along the beach in the evenings.

JK: What must we all try?
I think we’re happier, more interesting people when we proactively seek out our passions in life. I’ve found that tremendous fulfillment can be achieved in reaching beyond ourselves and helping others, and while everyone is different, I derive great satisfaction and purpose in advocating for rescue, animal welfare, and vegan advocacy groups.

PARSONS hosts “Real Rebels” Fashion Panel

I’m honored to be included in the upcoming panel on fashion rebels at Parson’s The New School for Design. The panel is moderated by designer John Bartlett and features Karina Kallio, Joshua Katcher, Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart and Stephanie Nicora Johns. Unfortunately, it’s not open to the public, but if you’re a student at Parsons or The New School, please come!





ROMBAUT‘s two previous menswear collections received positive acclaim from press and are stocked at a selection of forward-thinking niche boutiques such as Comme des Garçons (Tokyo), Layers (London), Glossy (Shanghai) , Stijl (Brussels), The Number 4 (Kuwait), ODD (New York), Paris Oracle (Rome), to name a few.

For Autumn Wintter 2014/15, ROMBAUT introduces ROMBAUT OBJECTS, a new capsule collection that includes bags and small accessories. Their philosophy and convictions remain the same.  “We reflect the image of a generation that has to grow up in insecure times and which tries to create its own path. We question everything, make informed choices and fight for our ideas. As strong evolutions always come from culture, we’ve been inspired by movements that changed the history of art. Our models’ minimal shapes, fabric contrasts and clean lines refer to the concepts of collage, layering and forward thinking, and respect the fact that every detail is meaningful.”

Artisanally crafted in Italy, ROMBAUT shoes represent a unique crossover between high fashion and ecological awareness. Eliminating toxic and animal-derived substances in the process. ROMBAUT represents more than just a shoe, but a directional fashion concept designed for a more balanced future.


ROMBAUT takes artisanal shoemaking to a natural extreme, while ROMBAUT OBJECTS uses sustainable materials that are strong, durable, and more adapted for every day wear.

Prospector, Treeline, Uniforms for the Dedicated Kingsley


Treeline Cheese is a cashew-based, aged, artisan cheese that ripens in upstate New York’s Catskill mountains. Whether you stuff a date with it, eat it on sliced fruit, mix it into rice or pasta, or use it to top-off any dish that would call for a fine cheese, it seems there’s no way to go wrong with fine vegan cheeses. Sometimes, though, nothing is better than enjoying a glass of wine while simply letting one small wedge at a time slowly melt in your mouth.