FIT Grows a Pair of Baby Shoes

baby shoeIf you had told me when I first arrived at FIT—almost 20 years ago—that during my tenure, FIT students will be creating their own color dyes from plants they grow on our terraces, developing knitting yarn from fungi, and “growing” baby shoes from plant materials, I would certainly have accused you of indulging in too much science fiction. Yet here we are having achieved all three and becoming a growing institutional presence in that elevated realm of innovation where design, science, and technology converge.

It was just a year ago that FIT took first place in the first annual Biodesign Challenge, an international competition created by a group of leading scientists, designers, and educators. Its goal is to encourage students to explore the potential of biological design to make a difference in our environment. I have been bragging about the infant tee-shirt our team of fashion design students created from algae ever since. While we didn’t take home a trophy this year, our team was one of only 20—out of 400 who submitted projects from 22 universities throughout the world—selected to present at the competition Summit this summer.

Using all natural processes and materials, our three students—Arianna Wong, a fashion business management major, and Danielle Esposito and Dylon Shepelsky, both Textile Development Marketing majors—“grew” a pair of baby shoes from plant material in just eight weeks.

Guided by Science and Mathematics Professor Theanne Schiros and Textile/Surface Design Professor Susanne Goetz , with assistance from Accessories Design Professor Ann Markia Veploegh Chase, the team employed a remarkable mix of cutting-edge science and old-world technology.

team members

First, I am told, they used bacteria, yeast, and mycelium to transform wood-shop waste into a very organic “leather.” Second, they turned to Native-American tanning and preservation techniques to make the shoes water-repellent and flame-retardant. Pineapple fiber was blended into a thread that team members used to stitch the pieces together. Oh, and as though that weren’t enough, the team also infused plant seeds into the material itself so that, upon reaching the end of their useful lives, the shoes can be planted in the ground to grow a batch of carrots.

Twenty years ago, it would not have occurred to me that one of our business students might be part of a team designing and developing a shoe. That kind of interdisciplinary participation, while not science fiction, was still on the distant horizon. Today, one of my mantras is the strength of interdisciplinary activity to fuel innovation, and I think that this amazing biological shoe, developed by an interdisciplinary team of students, advised by faculty from science and design, is proof. I congratulate the students and their advisors for their outstanding effort. Their selection into the narrow circle of competitors in the Biodesign Challenge underscores the numerous ways that FIT, as Professor Schiros so aptly put it, is actively working to dissolve the boundaries between art and science.