Congdon’s formal art school education saw her specialise in textiles, yet the designer’s current practice straddles textile innovation, fashion and scientific practice. It was at Central Saint Martin’s (CSM), studying for a MA in Textile Futures, that Congdon first experimented with tissue engineering in the sphere of luxury fashion. Tissue engineering first emerged in the mid-1980s and is typically reserved for regenerative medicine: “The goal is to grow replacement parts for the body,” says Congdon. “That is everything from skin and blood vessels through to whole organs, although they are some way off that at the moment.”
Today, Congdon spends the majority of her time in laboratories. As part of a practice-based PhD at CSM, which is run in collaboration with the tissue engineering and biophotonics department at King's College London, Congdon’s current research explores a possible future whereby tissue engineering technology could be applied to the commercial fashion industry. Through applying conventional tissue engineering methodologies to an array of different textiles – including pearls, Swarovski crystals, and natural fibres such as horse hair and cotton – Congdon is able to grow new luxury materials from cells, with the eventual aim to fashion them into pieces of jewellery and fashion accessories.
Congdon’s practice is based upon the creation of textile scaffolds, formed out of the aforementioned materials, amongst others. To provide a straightforward definition, a scaffold essentially acts as a template for tissue formation. The creation of a scaffold is key to the tissue engineering process. “The idea of scaffolds is to give an architecture for cells to grow over,” says Congdon. The scaffold is typically seeded with cells that are then cultured to synthesise tissues which can then be implanted into an injured part of the body. “Usually they go back into the body,” says Congdon, “so if you are looking at fixing a bone, you are trying to mimic its structure.” Instead of synthesising tissue, Congdon uses the methodology of tissue engineering to grow new materials.
The main benefits of laboratory-grown luxury goods is the ethical and sustainable way that it allows for materials to be produced. “For me this technology is really interesting because, “ says Congdon, “if you can grow skin in the lab, why can’t you grow leather? It is thinking about the possibility of you growing animal products without killing the animal. If it can evolve to that point then that would be really interesting.”
In 2004, the Victimless Jacket, a thumb-sized leather jacket formed out of living mouse stem cells, was exhibited at John Curtin Gallery in Perth, Australia (it was later shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2008 where it garnered newspaper columns for having to be “killed” as a result of the cells multiplying at such rapid speed ). The jacket was considered a scientific triumph; achieving a leather material without killing any animals.
The possibility of being able to create animal-based products without causing harm to the animal is still in it early stages of research and development. Currently you can extract cells from an animal using a biopsy that is understood to not harm the animal. Scientists can then expand the cells, growing them into a animal-based material such as leather. This method however is not completely ethical at present. When cells are being grown they are grown in a culture medium which comprises a mix of different cell foods, such as nutrients and antibiotics. Some culture mediums still use foetal bovine serum, an enhancing serum that is extracted from the blood of a calf. “It is not completely victimless at the moment,” says Congdon, "but people are looking at using serum-free mediums. There is a lot of research going into that."
Congdon’s fashioning of luxury items out of tissue-engineered materials is currently limited to pieces of jewellery or small accessories. Working on a larger scale is difficult due to both the expense of such a technical and scientific process, as well as the intricacy of the technique. “I see it more in terms of jewellery just because of the scale you have to work with,” says Congdon. “You could also think about it in terms of embellishing a fabric. For example, you could grow bone polka dots onto the surface of the dress. You wouldn’t be creating the whole dress but you might be embellishing it in the laboratory.”
The early manifestations of Congdon’s PhD research are currently on display at King's College London as part of the university's collaboration with Somerset House for its Utopian Lab series. Engineered Luxuries is presented as a fictitious haute couture showroom imagining a future whereby customers could buy scientifically engineered products in the same way that they purchase luxury fashion items from retail stores. The exhibition features a collection of speculative, tissue-engineered jewellery alongside a series of materials that have been seeded with cells, and images detailing the scientific process of growing cells on each material.
Initially it seems a missed opportunity to display only speculative products however Congdon’s practice-based research is in too early a stage to produce finished products. “The speculative designs are all based on different techniques that I am working on in the lab so they are not science fiction,” she says. “When you read an academic paper or a description, it is difficult to really grasp how that might impact you but seeing it manifested into a object helps people consider what its potential might be.
“I am interested in making it quite seductive visually. Tissue engineering can present materials that are quite visceral and fleshy, which they can be, but if you look at how it could be used in high fashion you could refine it and create really beautiful materials.”