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When glitz and glam become sustainable

Elissa Brunato explores alternatives for attractive, shimmering yet environmentally destructive materials, be they sequins or flat glass. She is continuing to work steadily on her project which she presented during last year's Dutch Design Week, and for which she developed a durable alternative for plastic sequins that are used in the textile and fashion industry.
Elissa Brunato

She was intrigued by the modest sequin. The designer, born in Australia and from an Italian background, lives and works in London and refers to herself as a concept designer and experimental materials researcher. Elissa Brunato thinks the small shimmering ornamentation is a fascinating material. "In the past, sequins were made of metal and were a prestigious ornamentation for the wealthy", she says, "but as nowadays it is petroleum-based, it is an economical and ubiquitous little thing that is accessible for everyone; it is applied from the very exclusive world of Haute Couture down to H&M. The sequin came to embody the democratisation of glitter & glamour."

Like so many, Brunato has loved shiny and shimmering materials from a very young age. "It is magical, expressive, I imagine myself in a kind of luxurious wonderland full of glitter & glamour." Lately, she has become fascinated by designs created using living materials, such as bacteria and the ethical aspects involved when man attempts to intervene in a living process, yet she is still enamoured with shimmering and tactile materials. However, her eyes were opened some ten years ago, when, having finished her studies in Fashion Design, she started working in the fashion industry. As managing coordinator, Brunato was responsible for the embroidery design and product development for both Ready-to-Wear and Haute Couture studios.

Bio Iridescent Sequin
by Elissa Brunato

“Sequins are a short-term hit with long-term consequences”

Short-term hit

During this period, she frequently travelled to the production countries, to the traditional workshops in India, China and Italy, where sequins were embroidered by hand. "My work took me all over. At the same time, I was confronted with the realisation that our design choices have a global environmental impact. I gained more insight into how materials travel through disjointed and often fragmented supply chains and how local traditional practices are negatively affected by industrial production chains." What's more, millions of sequins are used in the textile and fashion industry -just think of the dresses worn only once on the red carpet by film stars. These garments are covered with several thousands of shimmering sequins; that, moreover contain toxic and carcinogenic chemicals. The dislodged sequins eventually end up as microplastics in the environment. They are a short-term hit with long-term consequences, she confirms.

This drove Brunato to her decision to withdraw from the fashion industry. Out of interest and a desire to do something good, she completed her Masters in Material Futures at Central Saint Martins in London in 2019. Since then, she has been looking for sustainable alternative materials that can contribute to a better future. “There often is a lack of good alternatives,” she says, “and I see that as a prerequisite for change. In any case, the alternative sequins will have to shimmer, because that is what makes them so popular.”

Bio Iridescent Sequin
by Elissa Brunato
Bio iridescent sequin

She then found a material with enormous potential: cellulose, one of the most common plant polymers on earth, present in all plants and trees. Cellulose is a renewable, abundant and carbon-rich raw material that provides many functional, economical and ecological benefits, Brunato enthuses passionately, which, by the way, can also be obtained from fruit peels, recycled paper, algae or recycled denim. Her bio iridescent sequin, based on cellulose, was developed in conjunction with two scientists of the Research Institute of Sweden (RI.SE), Hjalmar Granberg and Tiffany Abitbol, with whom she made sequins in a laboratory.

It is lightweight, compostable and shimmering, which is not the case with bio-materials developed so far. Just like colourful beetle and butterfly wings shimmer iridescently, the designer researches whether cellulose could have the same effect, so that the light is reflected in lively, shimmering colours  and therefore no chemical treatment is required.

Elissa Brunato is now eager to find fashion brands with whom she can collaborate to make a garment with cellulose sequins to show their potential. This would be an exciting next step, she thinks, because an increasing number of fashion brands are looking for ways to make the industry more sustainable. For instance, Adidas, Stella McCartney and the LVMH group which includes labels such as Louis Vuitton, are endeavouring to do something about this, such as using a silk made by spiders for a one hundred percent biodegradable textile.

Bio Iridescent Sequin
by Elissa Brunato
Destructive flat glass

Last year, she dissected another polluting and shimmering material: at the exposition GEO DESIGN: Sand in the Van Abbemuseum, together with Christoph Dichmann, she presented the research project named Float. Through interviews, they offer insight into the destructive industry of sand and flat glass production in India, Africa, America and Europe.

The technique of producing uniformly thick glass by 'floating' molten sand on a liquid tin bath was developed in the 1960s. Today, almost all of the world's flat glass is produced in this manner, creating an extremely uniform industry, more than half of which takes place in China. With a dazzling speed, pure grains of silica sand as base materials are transformed into a perfectly flat and smooth glass ribbon 24/7, 365 days per year. This requires huge amounts of energy, with resulting high CO2 emissions. Such a production line is 400 m long, the oven is the size of two Olympic swimming pools filled with molten glass and, in this manner, produces flat glass continuously(!) for approximately 15 years to supply the growing cities with this material.

"Designed to be invisible, or literally to look through, glass gives our cities a face that radiates prestige and economic prosperity." Brunato and Dichmann interviewed a number of experts about the lack of official guidelines with regard to the extraction and use of this non-renewable resource: sand. "Increasingly, we are demanding more, better and more efficient glass that does not allow sunlight in, is stronger and can support more weight. We are pushing glass further and further, when we should be demanding less of it. "It is comparable to the sequins. We are seeking changes, by making people more aware of this complex problem and offering good alternatives for the existing options. For instance, she reckons that reusing glass, as well as more efficient uses of recycled glass, will ensure that we produce more sustainably as fewer raw materials are taken from nature and CO2 emissions are reduced during production.

As far as her practice is concerned, she is happy to have moved from Australia to Europe. “Europe has a strong innovation drive; new ideas, experiments and start-ups are encouraged. I think it is a very inspiring place to work and it is fantastic to be part of the collective effort towards a more sustainable future", she says.