Beautiful Algae Sequin Dress Envisions a Carbon-Negative Future for Fashion

This petroleum-free concept dress proposes an alternative to plastic sequins.

algae sequin dress Charlotte McCurdy Phillip Lim One X One

One X One

It's no secret that the fashion industry has a whole host of environmental, social, and labor issues: from wasteful and polluting fast fashion, to residual toxic chemicals, synthetic microfibers, exploitative labor practices, and the never-ending hamster wheel of setting arbitrary trends so that consumers feel pressured to buy more and more. Even hangers aren't innocent in this global debacle.

Aiming to combine design with science in order to tackle the threat of climate change, interdisciplinary designer and researcher Charlotte McCurdy works to create more sustainable materials and rethink the whole production process altogether. Based out of New York City, McCurdy recently joined forces with another New York-based designer, Phillip Lim, to create a petroleum-free dress that's covered in bioplastic sequins – all made out of algae.

algae sequin dress Charlotte McCurdy Phillip Lim One X One
One X One

Done as part of the One X One incubator project initiated by the Slow Factory Foundation, which pairs fashion designers with sustainability innovators, McCurdy and Lim's algae-based sequined dress aims to present an alternative to petroleum-sourced materials. Sequins may look great on the runway, but like their glittery and microbeaded cousins, plastic-based sequins don't break down naturally in the environment after they are discarded – thus contaminating waterways, oceans, and the marine life that live in them – and the humans who end up eating those organisms. As McCurdy tells Dezeen, it's all in the details:

"Sustainability in fashion is not just about organic, natural or recycled textiles. If we're going to get to zero on our emissions, we need to be thinking about how to replace the 60 per cent of textiles that are currently made of fossil fuels."
"If you're a designer and the rest of your product offering involves deeply, thoughtfully considered sourcing of renewable cottons and sustainable materials, the moment you go to make something with sequins you're reaching for polyester."
algae sequin dress Charlotte McCurdy Phillip Lim One X One
One X One

These innovative sequins are based on an algae-based bioplastic film made out of marine macro-algae that McCurdy had already previously developed, which sucks out and sequesters atmospheric carbon during its life, resulting in a carbon-negative material. Since the original algae-based material came in sheets, McCurdy and Lim decided to create a viable alternative to conventional sequins for their proposal.

algae sequin dress Charlotte McCurdy Phillip Lim One X One process
Charlotte McCurdy

To create the sequins, the algae-based bioplastic sheets are first created by exposing algae to heat, in order to initiate a binding process. Then the material is poured into a mold where it's left to solidify. Glass molds were used so that the reflective qualities of glass were transferred onto the final punch-out sheets of tusk-shaped sequins.

algae sequin dress Charlotte McCurdy Phillip Lim One X One sequin sheets
One X One

Mineral pigments were chosen over conventional dyes to give the translucent sequins their shimmery green color, says McCurdy:

"The majority of our modern dyes and pigments are petrochemical in origin. But we had a huge, rich vocabulary of colour before the Industrial Revolution that was not taking fossil fuel out of the ground, so I looked into traditional approaches to producing oil paints, which involved mineral pigments."
algae sequin dress Charlotte McCurdy Phillip Lim One X One mineral pigments
Charlotte McCurdy

These green gems were then sent off in the mail and sewn onto a dress by Lim's team – a mesh dress made from SeaCell, a cellulose fiber made from seaweed and bamboo. There are a few accents of mother-of-pearl beads here and there, but overall, the dress is both a fashion- and climate-conscious statement, says McCurdy:

"With a little back of the envelope math, the carbon dioxide that has been trapped inside of the sequins of this dress by the algae would fill 15 bathtubs."

In addition, if the dress is composted at the end of its life, about 50 percent of the captured carbon would remain trapped in the soil.

algae sequin dress Charlotte McCurdy Phillip Lim One X One process
Phillip Lim & Charlotte McCurdy

While there are no plans yet to commercialize these plant-based sequins nor the dress, for McCurdy the project presents a visionary concept of what could be possible for the future, "where fashion can be a negative emission technology":

"My hypothesis about how these materials are going to drive impact at scale goes back to the history of solar panels. For 60 years they were a luxury but by being able to exist in that market, more research and development was able to happen, economies of scale developed and now they're cost-competitive with conventional fuels."
"Now, people who don't even care about the environment are buying Teslas because they're gorgeous and they're fast. So through design, we can harness desire to paint a clear picture that a decarbonized future is aspirational and beautiful."

But in the meantime, before that beautiful decarbonized future arrives, we can also all do our part to transform the broader fashion industry, one simple step at a time. To see more, visit Charlotte McCurdy (on Instagram as well), Phillip Lim, and One X One.