Making a jacket out of Alexander McQueen's skin

LONDON • When it comes to fashion, how far would you go to show your appreciation of your favourite celebrity?

Millions of fans choose to dress like their idols. Others buy outfits from clothing lines or cosmetic ranges endorsed or designed by Hollywood stars. But would you - could you - wear a leather jacket or carry a handbag containing their DNA?

Central Saint Martins graduate Tina Gorjanc believes that advances in tissue-engineering technology could create a highly lucrative and hitherto untapped niche within the luxury market. Last month, she unveiled Pure Human, a range of leather prototypes that she theorises could be grown from DNA extracted from hair samples of fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

"Pure Human is a critical design project that also highlights the major legal loopholes around the protection of biological information, particularly in Britain," Ms Gorjanc said at her end-of-year show.

The 26-year-old, originally from Slovenia, was standing near her mock-up collection of stylish biker jackets and totes, now made out of pigskin. The flesh-toned pieces bore freckles, sunburn and tattoo etchings that matched those once found on McQueen's body. A lock of his hair, which came from strands he had sewn into items in his 1992 Central Saint Martins graduate collection, titled Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims, and skinlike samples from earlier laboratory tests were encased in glass cabinets close by.

Though Ms Gorjanc cannot patent McQueen's DNA, she can apply to patent his genetic information samples as the source for a procedure that would result in laboratorygrown leather made from human tissue. This involves taking McQueen's DNA from a hair sample, then transplanting it into stem cells and then multiplying those cells.

She filed that application in May and is now applying for a second patent, this time for the process of extraction itself (not sourcedependent) to bolster the future development of the project.

"If a student like me was able to patent a material extracted from Alexander McQueen's biological information and there was no legislation to stop me, we can only imagine what big corporations with bigger funding are going to be capable of doing in the future," she said.

She added that the Human Tissue Act, passed in Britain in 2004, which regulates the removal, storage and use of bodily tissue, relates to the handling of human genetic materials for medical but not commercial purposes.

Kering, the French luxury group that owns the Alexander McQueen brand, is "aware of the project".

According to an Alexander McQueen spokesman, "Alexander McQueen was not approached by the designer about this project and we do not endorse it".

Friends and former employees of McQueen, who committed suicide in 2010, told Ms Gorjanc that the project was the sort of provocative experimentation he would have enjoyed and encouraged.

"I know many people have been made uncomfortable by the work I've been doing, calling it Frankenfashion, but I think I am prompting the right sort of questions for this industry in the 21st century," Ms Gorjanc said. "The demand for personalised and unique, rarefied products is getting only greater and greater. So is obsession with celebrity, not to mention advances in biotechnology, which could change the way we manufacture garments and their fabrics forever."

At this stage, Ms Gorjanc said no part of her project is for sale. "Eventually, perhaps, this showcased range could go into a gallery, or the hands of collectors, but they aren't intended for commercial use," she said. "At this stage, they are purely to promote the possible application of the technology. The purpose of using Alexander McQueen's genetic information in my patent is to show that the products made from using him as a source - or indeed from anyone - can be patented in the first place."

According to Mr Hugh Devlin, a partner at the law firm Withers Worldwide in London who specialises in advising brands in the fashion and luxury sector, such genetic design work could run into problems in Britain on public morality grounds or if donors did not give informed consent for the use of their cells.

As it happens, Ms Gorjanc's is not the first apparent fashion initiative at the intersection of trend-based luxury and biology. Human Leather, a British-based company, claims to create products from donated human skin "for a small but highly discerning clientele", with prices ranging from €9,000 (S$13,400) for a wallet to €18,000 for a pair of shoes. But given that the website registrant is anonymous, there are allegations that the site may be a hoax. Ms Gorjanc, however, is not joking.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2016, with the headline 'Making a jacket out of Alexander McQueen's skin'. Print Edition | Subscribe