Last Friday, science and fashion had a surprising dalliance that led to a viral moment on social media. Some viewers were in awe and delight, whilst others took to social media to blast the use of airborne ‘synthetic polymers’ to make ‘single-use plastic’ fashion. So what was the environmental and social upshot of the fashion spectacle that overtook instagram for several days?
At the closing of the Coperni Spring/Summer 2023 fashion show in Paris on Friday evening, model Bella Hadid was sprayed with a liquid that solidified on body contact, resulting in a stretchy ‘second skin’ that was coaxed into a dress by hand sculpting and scissor work. One article said “a group of scientists” sprayed the liquid on Hadid and that it contained “cotton or synthetic fibres, suspended in a polymer solution”1.
Many said the scene was captivating and reminiscent of iconic fashion moments by designer Alexander McQueen. His robot spray-painted, titled ‘Dress No.13’, was created live on the catwalk during his Spring/Summer 1999 show. Others cited the influence of Hussain Chalayan, who created fashion as sculpture that ‘grew’ or ‘concertinered’ on the catwalk. But others took to social media to blast Coperni’s “disposable” dress [more on this later] and to question the impacts of the material on the environment — and on Bella Hadid. The model was exposed to the sprayed fibres during the performance. The wording “a group of scientists” was also derided.
It seems that fashion’s message, beyond the creation of a spectacle, is being called into question, as is the narrative fashion uses to describe science.
The iconic fashion moments of Alexander McQueen and Hussain Chalayan took place in the 90s and 00s when fashion shows were the primary outward expression of brands to exclusive audiences of fashion editors. The editors then conveyed the show’s message to the public via traditional media. Since the arrival of social media, access to fashion shows has become instant and democratised (such is the promotional power of platforms like Instagram compared to traditional publications). But today, against a backdrop of visible, tangible climate change and plastic pollution, audiences appear to be listening to the message that such fashion performances convey, rather than simply accepting the spectacle at ‘face value’.
News coverage explained that the performance was aimed at engaging Gen Z with “novelty and fun”. In the same article, Sebastien Meyer, creative director of Coperni, said: “It’s our duty as designers to try new things and show a possible future”2. But on Instagram, comments of excitement and appreciation were tempered by angry ones about using a decade-old technique to spew plastics in the air in the name of gimmickry and promotion. Gen Z might not be so easily convinced.
This type of stunt has subtler effects too. It sets the tone for oversimplification of science’s role and importance and creates a separation between the ‘scientists’ and the ‘creatives’. In practice, these two disciplines enhance each other. This outcome is exemplified in avant-garde and ‘everyday’ examples of fashion and science co-creating. For example, fashion designer Iris Van Herpen’s 3D-printed fabrics and garments push the creative and technical boundaries of clothing and materials. Adidas’s work with Parley for the Oceans’ to make trainers from recycled ocean plastic is an everyday product made possible by materials science, product development and design innovation across technical and creative disciplines.
The Coperni performance, therefore, raises several questions. Why create the impression that scientists move in ‘groups’ affecting moments of wonder for entertainment? Why use a ‘magical science’ narrative at a time when rational, quantifiable science is integral to solving humanity’s burning challenge: the climate crisis – for clicks? Here, the message seems to be that scientists are fashion show ‘extras’, delivering on the creative whims of the designers, rather than being an integral part of the industry and brands moving forward – part of a cohesive whole, rather than a revered and siloed stranger.
So why on earth were the ‘scientists’ and Bella Hadid not wearing masks (perhaps because a mask would signal that the act was polluting?) Furthermore, the New York Times reported that at a rehearsal the night before the show, the model standing in for Hadid “couldn’t control her shivering on the already chilly runway, as the even-colder spray-on material hit her skin, and as she breathed in its thick, glue-like odour”4. When Hadid was asked how cold she felt, she told the Times: “Honey, cold is an understatement… I really blacked out.”
A worldwide display promoting plastic ingestion for the sake of fashion is so far from where the media focus needs to be that it begs the ultimate question: does fashion have a licence to ill?
WWD wrote, “if anyone can make science sexy, then it’s Coperni”, to which I would refer back to my earlier assertions about the unhelpful and misleading narrative that divides science and fashion. The New York Times concluded that: “the [Hadid] stunt was, for many people in the crowd, genuinely impressive”.
The spray fabric technology Coperni used was developed in 2013 by designer and scientist Dr Manel Torres of Fabrican3. According to their website, the sprayed fabric can be washed and reworn or redissolved, then reused in spray form, so not quite the ‘single use plastic’ some had assumed. The website also states that the liquid can be made using “biodegradable fibres and binders in place of fossil-based polymers”, indirectly revealing that it typically contains synthetic polymer binders derived from petrochemicals.
Dr Torres responded over email to the question: What was the textile fibre in the solution and was the binder a synthetic polymer? His response was: “It is a cellulose based formulation that dries instantly”. Clarification has been requested as Dr Manel’s response appears to relate to the fibres only. Any updates will be published here.
Fashion’s licence to pollute is only valid for as long as the public (i.e. consumers) say so since fashion without customers is unsustainable – in financial terms too. This moment was a metaphor for fashion’s relationship between seasonal newness and pollution. Newness is the motivation and pollution the consequence.
Ultimately, it seems the performance was a win in marketing terms. Coperni’s Instagram following climbed from 310,000 to 496,000 within 24 hours after the show – representing a comprehensive win in the pursuit of ‘likes’ and ‘follows’, but not in terms of public sentiment and relevance.