Brittanie Dabney and Najah Thomas-Young are both thrifters, but they shop with different agendas.

Dabney looks for understated, sturdy clothes that can survive being worn outdoors during her environmental research. Thomas-Young scours shelves for eye-catching pieces in contrasting cuts, colors and materials.

The duo is combining their sensibilities and science know-how to create new clothing materials that they hope will be less disastrous for the environment than cotton or polyester. Their startup, BAN Lab Detroit, aims to give the city a foothold in the global race to develop new materials for the fashion industry. 

The system that allows us to quickly buy cheap clothes manufactured on the other side of the planet is a massive source of pollution, responsible for as much as 8% of greenhouse gas emissions globally and a substantial portion of the microplastics in the natural environment, which are viewed as an understudied threat to human health.

Take polyester, which you are probably wearing right now. Polyester is made of fine threads of plastic — petroleum, in other words — using a process that pollutes the air and water. It is the most widely used fiber in the world, and in its finished form it sheds tiny tendrils of plastic into the environment that are found virtually everywhere scientists look.

“It’s hard to escape petroleum-based plastics right now, but the point of building this industry is that one day, somebody will be able to easily choose between a product made from sustainable biomaterials versus the petroleum-based plastic alternative,” Dabney said. 

Dabney and Thomas-Young envision their company as one that invents new materials while helping Detroiters design and understand textiles made from what might otherwise be seen as waste. They want to help move the concept of “circular economy” — where everything is used and nothing is wasted — from academic terminology to reality in Detroit.

Breaking into a hot market

The environmental costs of fast fashion has fueled a rush to find new materials made from organic matter or industrial byproducts.

“We’re not just trying to start a business, we’re trying to build an ecosystem of researchers and creators.”

Najah Thomas-Young, co-founder of BAN Lab Detroit

Don’t expect to find these materials in a store soon, at least not in large quantities. Widely used fibers have a head start of decades (polyester) or millenia (cotton) in research and cultural acceptance, according to a 2020 report by Biofabricate, a consulting firm, and Fashion for Good, an investment firm. Developing sustainable replacements and producing them at large scale will require a lot of money, some luck, and time.

Still, companies specializing in bio-based textiles — think clothes sewn from pineapple leaf fibers or grown from mushrooms — have already partnered with global brands, and investors have poured in hundreds of millions of dollars.

BAN Lab, meanwhile, will only have $25,000 to work with — the first-place prize from a entrepreneurial pitch competition run by Wayne State University (WSU). The company is in the first months of an experimentation and development process that often takes a decade

“It’s fun,” Thomas-Young said, of challenges facing the startup. “We’re not just trying to start a business, we’re trying to build an ecosystem of researchers and creators. Yeah, we’re up against the odds as far as being a business, but as far as creating a movement … I think we can build on that no matter if the LLC survives.”

They plan to open a public lab space to introduce designers or the simply curious to what they hope is the future of fashion.

The $25,000 check hasn’t landed yet, so for now, BAN Lab is confined to a shelf in a WSU biology laboratory Dabney uses for her doctoral research. The shelf is labeled “stuff for Brittanie’s experiments.”

Thomas-Young and Dabney met in March, when a leader of the pitch competition suggested they’d make good partners, and they hit it off.

Dabney is a scientist and adventurous home chef who invents a new recipe every time she cooks dinner. 

Thomas-Young is an artist whose interest in biomaterials began last year, when she cultivated a sheet of bacteria and molded onto a replica of her body to make a “bacteria leather” dress.

“The most exciting part (of BAN Lab) to me is Najah’s enthusiasm about materials in relation to fashion mixed with Brittanie’s knowledge and experience with the chemistry behind the materials,” said Melanie McClintock, chair of the Color & Materials Design graduate program at the College for Creative Studies and an advisor to BAN Lab. “They have this really deep curiosity for something that is really new to them.”

Small discs with various earthy colors and soft textures sitting on a white surface.
These samples of prototype textiles developed by BAN Lab Detroit are made of hibiscus powder, banana peel and black-eyed peas, among other ingredients. Can you guess which is which? Photo credit: Koby Levin

Expanding on a cookbook for clothes

On a Wednesday in June, Thomas-Young walked into the lab wearing leather cowboy boots and holding a swatch of leathery fabric made from a recipe that included gelatin (a gooey substance made from animal byproducts and used to make marshmallows) and charcoal.

“It’s cracking,” she said, gingerly stretching the material, which looks a little like elephant skin. Weeks of dry weather in Detroit was a stress test for this fabric prototype, one it didn’t quite pass.

She laid it next to a beaker where Dabney was mixing gelatin with crushed egg shells.

Dabney did not seem upset. The duo has just begun to experiment with new materials, and failure is part of experimenting.

The duo’s prototype materials “are a start, but what really sold me is their plan to develop a lab in Detroit that’s going to prioritize biorenewable materials to make” sustainable products, said Steve Fischer, a mentor-in-residence at WSU’s Office of Business Innovation and Technology Commercialization and one of the judges in the university’s sustainability pitch competition.

Reaching for the shelf, she pulled down a tray of colorful discs, each one a sample textile that was mixed in a petri dish using one of BAN Lab’s own recipes.

The ingredients are readily accessible, contain no plastic and would be biodegradable if their wearer threw them away.

One of the textiles is made from ground-up black-eyed peas. Others use powdered basil or an expired dietary supplement made from blue-green algae that Dabney pulled from her kitchen. Egg shells and wool fibers are mixed into some of the samples for strength.

These prototypes are leathery or plasticky, lightly textured or smooth. They wouldn’t seem out of place in a slick, modern handbag, a jacket or an outfit for Movement Festival. One made from banana peels is coarse and hard, like the sole of a shoe.

The duo is planning a meticulous stress-testing process that mirrors quality control procedures already used in the fashion industry. How much does each material stretch and bend? How much weight do they hold? How much air passes through them?

Once they’ve identified the most promising fabrics, Thomas-Young will put her design skills to work, making something with the new fabrics. But both partners are equally focused on using their products to help show Detroiters the possibilities of biomaterials.

“Let’s use the resources that we have to make the things that other people want us to buy,” Thomas-Young said. “Let’s keep local materials here, supporting this environment and giving to this place.”

That vision is bigger than a single startup. Even as BAN Lab develops its own products, the founders want to convince other Detroit designers to invent more new materials. They’ll need buy-in from designers, retailers and customers.

When the prize money arrives, Dabney and Thomas-Young say the first step is to get lab space where they can start making their case.

“We think there will be more and more people interested in biomaterials as time goes on,” Thomas-Young said. “We want to build that infrastructure, and have available resources for people who want to get into these things, and kind of stand there with our arms open.”

Koby (he/him) believes that love drives people to fight for their communities, and that curiosity is food for love. He enjoys the many moods of the Detroit River.