Back in June, fashion critic Sarah Mower posted a photo of some crystallised ballet pumps on her Instagram feed. "Just once in a hundred blue moons a completely 'other' thinker comes along," she wrote. The crystals on those pumps were the solidified sweat of the wearer, a dancer from the English National Ballet School, grown using a chemical process by the artist Alice Potts. "One day, I believe we will be able to grow our own accessories on our skin," Alice told Sarah.
Alice studied MA Fashion at the Royal College of Art, which is where she developed this process of turning bodily secretions into stalagmite-esque art. "I took part in a nine-month project in my first year at the RCA, called the BioDesign Challenge, taught by Helene Steiner, who introduced me to biomaterials," Alice tells Refinery29.
"Helene changed the way I thought about a material, stepping away from man-made processes and looking into natural and more sustainable methods. I’ve always been fascinated by how the body functions and how I can use the advances in technology to find ways of combining this into my practice."
So how does it work? We perspire via two sweat glands: eccrine and apocrine. The former doesn’t smell, and is the gland that Alice uses in her work. "I allow the sweat to naturally form, creating its own growth patterns, letting nature sculpt itself." Collecting sweat from individuals – including Bradley Wiggins' cycling team's discarded jackets as well as her own soggy gym gear – Alice has been developing the process over the past two years, extracting the compounds and allowing the salt-heavy sweat to form crystalline shapes on clothes.
While sweat can be a turn-off for many, Alice has found beauty in the body’s natural perspiration. "We all secrete every day but never stop to think about the importance of this bodily response or what it could mean," she explains. "Sweat can tell so much about a person, it captures an emotion beyond an ordinary experience. It shows the beauty of how our bodies respond to our current environment, it also captures a single moment from different points in individuals' lives." In scientific fields, excitement is building around the potential to analyse a person's health and make diagnoses based on chemical and mineral balances in their sweat.
"Sweat covers us in similar ways to clothing, like a second skin, but what I find the most beautiful about it is that it removes global and political labelling," says Alice. "Through my work I want to show that the labels society gives us don’t define who we are and shouldn’t create such divisions between communities. Everyone's sweat is unique and so is each human being; no one is exactly the same and shouldn’t be judged by globalised external factors but who they are internally."
What does this process – and the technological doors it opens – mean for the future of fashion? In the year 3000, will we all be living on Mars, piloting Tesla-made aircraft and wearing sweat crystals instead of clothes? Who can say. What's certain is that Alice has opened up both the fashion and biochemical industries to a new way of creating beautiful forms and patterns that doesn't take a toll on the planet.
"My aims are to introduce designers to a new way of designing, but also to change the minds of consumers," Alice says. "Fashion has always had a bad reputation for being the second most polluting industry, with fast fashion and overproduction. However, this blame falls at the feet of consumers as well. We’re living in a world of overconsumption, where 1.3 billion tons of textiles are wasted a year. I aim to show people that there are other ways to create – but also how our bodies could begin to secrete our own fashion. One that changes and adapts over time but also degrades naturally."
Having debuted her exhibition Sweat at the Athens Biennale 2018, Alice is about to undertake a yearlong fellowship at the Onassis Cultural Centre to take her explorations into the human body even further. Alice's aim is to change the way we view scientific and sustainable possibilities – and we can't wait to see what she comes up with next.