Iridescent algae: eco-friendly sequins in Pakistan

Designer Anuje Farhung is creating a commercially viable, non-pollutant alternative to one of fashion's most harmful materials.
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With slow fashion, like with most environmentally focused buzzwords, there are often questions surrounding what ‘sustainability’ really means. In a global context, cultural norms and language barriers often mean that the climate crisis and the role that the fashion industry plays in it are even less understood. 

That's why Pakistani designer and creator Anuje Farhung, founder of fashion brand House of Farhung, wanted to focus on finding sustainable options that stayed true to South Asian traditions and crafts.

In fashion, and especially within Pakistan, there's often a gap between educating yourself on sustainable methods and then deploying those methods, says Anuje. ‘I love traditional wear and couture, but [I] also want to create slow fashion and be more experimental,’ she says. 

The sequin problem

After working with fashion brand Oscar De La Renta and studying at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, Anuje launched her own couture brand in Islamabad in 2017 – House of Farhung, which offers luxury, formal and bridalwear. 

Much of Pakistan's fashion sector is led by wedding trends, but changeable seasonal styles mean it's been hard to bring slow-fashion choices into play. Domestic fashion is dominated by the use of materials like sequins, polyester and other microplastics that contribute to pollution and environmental degradation. ‘Pakistan has so much mass production and fast fashion, but we have no concept of waste management or where it goes,’ Anuje says. ‘Materiality has always intrigued me, playing with bio-friendly materials and bioplastics.’

It was this interest that led her to explore creating an eco-friendly alternative to Pakistani fashion's most popular material – the sequin. Sequins are typically made from plastic and can last for hundreds of years; with some outfits stitching on as many as 200,000, the potential for pollution if a garment ends up in landfill is extreme – not to mention the wastage that occurs during manufacturing.

While there are already many brands producing recycled plastic sequins, Anuje believes that they're not truly solving the problem. But she isn't the first designer to experiment with biodegradability: London-based Elissa Brunato has created a cellulose-based alternative through her bio-iridescent sequin project, while Phillip Lim and Charlotte McCurdy used marine micro algae to create a natural bioplastic sequin. Producing them at scale and at a cost-effective price for the mass market, however, remains elusive.

Research and development

Anuje's work began in 2020 when she started collaborating with biologist Sarah Khan. Sarah studied for a master's degree at the National Centre of Excellence in Geology at the University of Peshawar in Pakistan, which involved planet-oriented synthetic biology and bio-art projects. 

At Sarah's lab, the duo started experimenting with different materials to replicate conventional sequins. After trying various starches, they eventually settled on red algae ‘due to its luminous qualities that we could achieve with our particular method’, Anuje says. The prototypes were then tested under multiple conditions for long periods of time – dark cupboards, room-temperature environments and exposure to moisture or heat – to see how they would age compared with their plastic alternatives. ‘Some were too brittle and a needle piercing them would cause a break, or they weren't sheer and light giving.’

However, the pair are confident that they're making progress. ‘Currently, our final prototype is pretty close, because its feel is much like current sequins, while having a natural shine and glitter,’ Anuje says. Yet there are still more than a few steps to go before commercialization is possible.

Cost considerations 

Of course, there's the financial side to consider. Anuje and Sarah have independently funded their research so far, making use of Sarah's lab and Anuje's home space while testing small batches at a time. But Anuje reckons things will likely get trickier when they move on to testing with microbial dyeing, an expensive alternative to conventional toxic dyes, which uses living bacteria that isn't harmful to the environment.

Then there's the production cost and retail price of the sequins. After all, when it comes to mass production, they need to make sure they're creating something that's biodegradable but still long-lasting. ‘One ounce [of traditional sequins] can be roughly 400 to 700 pieces, and can range from PKR50 to PKR200 [$0.28-$1.12] per ounce. If it's a different shaped sequin or novelty piece, it can value higher. We're aiming to produce a prototype [that] wouldn't be more than a 30% markup roughly, but we're still working on this,’ Anuje says. 

‘It has to mimic the actual product, which is plastic, so longevity is one of the struggles. Users might need to take more care with this product. Sequins normally are everlasting, so competing with that shelf life will be hard.’

The vision

The sequins are but one of Anuje's many biomaterials projects currently coming to life. In February, for instance, she worked with a zero-waste Parisian brand that showed in an exhibition by fashion design community Tranoï, which involved creating biomaterials from natural dyes and scraps. 

But Anuje's main goal is to create space within the South Asian fashion industry to push big brands and sellers into change. That's why proving there can be alternatives to widely used items like sequins seemed like the best way forward. Her other conceptual projects, like creating ‘clothes that you can grow’, might not quite be as easily digestible for the wider industry just yet.

Anuje and several other sustainably focused brands are finally starting to make some noise in Pakistan, and she believes that collaboration to support the cause and create publicity can make a real difference. After all, change will come one step at a time, but as Anuje says, you've just got to keep pushing.

By Anmol Irfan.

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