The company’s patented fiber, Brewed Protein, has been used in limited-edition collections with brands including Japanese streetwear label Sacai and outdoor clothing specialists The North Face Japan.
Currently ramping up production and preparing for a full commercial launch of its textiles, Spiber hopes its technology will help “solve some of the big global challenges we face,” says Higashi.
That’s why friends Kazuhide Sekiyama and Junichi Sugahara, the founders of Spiber, decided to create a synthetic material molecularly identical to spider silk. The duo started experimenting as students at Keio University in Yamagata Prefecture in 2004 and founded the company in 2007.
Spiber has studied “thousands of different spider species,” as well as other silk-producing species, and compiled a database of silk varieties, Higashi says.
After successfully producing the alternative to spider silk, the team then developed a range of Brewed Protein fabrics by altering the protein sequence, Higashi explains.
Spiber fibers are made by fermenting water, sugar and nutrients with specially modified microbes in steel tanks, similar to those used in beer making, to produce protein polymers. The polymers are introduced through a nozzle and spun into a fiber, Higashi explains.
It has not been an easy journey, however. In 2015, Spiber partnered with The North Face Japan to produce a limited run of 50 “Moon Parka” jackets to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landings.
But during the design process, the team discovered that spider silk shrinks when wet, and had to modify the protein to make the fiber suitable for an outdoor jacket.
It took four years “to produce a garment that met their standards,” says Higashi. The parkas were selling for ¥150,000 (worth about $1,400 in 2019) and the small collection was sold out.
A recycling revolution
According to Higashi, Spiber’s biodegradable textiles are expected to generate only a fifth of the carbon emissions of animal fibers once they are in full-scale production, according to a life cycle analysis conducted by the company.
However, Spiber still wants to reduce its impact on the environment. The company currently uses sugarcane and corn for its fermentation process — crops that use large volumes of land and divert food resources, Higashi says.
To solve this problem, Spiber is developing a process called “biosphere circulation” that will convert discarded clothes made from natural materials like cotton into the sugars needed for fermentation.
Higashi says the scale will help bring down the price of brewed protein and allow Spiber to expand beyond the high-end designer market.
“We have the means to create solutions to enable more circular fashion,” says Higashi. “It’s our mission to bring these solutions to the world.”