Developing technology inspired by nature’s iridescent colour, Radiant Matter is producing alternatives to plastic sparkle that keeps their allure but lessens the environmental debacle they are causing in fashion. Franca Davenport speaks with Founder and CEO, Elissa Brunato, for Undaunted’s Climate Innovations Up-Close blog series.
Small is beautiful when it comes to sequins but the beauty begins to fade when we consider their impact on the environment. These small shiny discs are made out of layers of plastic, often with toxic coatings or metallized parts. They are not biodegradable and their size, between 1 and 6 mm, defines them as microplastics. During one festive season, it has been estimated that 33 million sequined garments are bought in the UK alone and around 1.7 million of those end up in landfill after five years.
Despite growing awareness around the potential harm of sequins, they have an intrinsic allure that is difficult to substitute. Our attraction to sequins is not simply aesthetic but, according to research, has been built into us through years of evolution to enable us to find water from afar by detecting shimmering and glinting reflections. With this in mind our love of the shiny stuff is not likely to disappear soon so we need a good alternative.
Naturally inspired and using a natural material
Radiant Matter is creating the world’s first BioSequin™ which is made from cellulose – a material that is both plant-based and abundant. Inspired by the iridescence seen in the shells of beetles, the wings of butterflies and peacock feathers the company is utilising a natural technology and engineering ‘structural colour’.
Unlike colour from pigment, structural colour arises from the reflection of light from tiny complex structures. This means that the colour changes depending on the angle of view. By working with cellulose, which can mimic similar miniature structures, they have produced an environmentally friendly BioSequin™ that matches and supersedes the sparkle of its traditional counterpart. This product is the first of many environmentally conscious alternatives to sparkle that Radiant Matter plans to bring to a wide range of markets.
“People will always want sequins and sparkle and, coming from the fashion industry, I wanted to create an alternative that didn’t sacrifice the aesthetics. Something beautiful, vibrant, brilliant, ethical and truly sustainable. We are building a whole new category of sparkle.”Elissa Brunato, Founder, Radiant Matter
Journey from concept to sample
Slideshow: Radiant Matter’s iridescent technology and Biosequins™. (Photo 1 credit: Maël Hénaff)
Radiant Matter founder, Elissa Brunato, become acutely aware of the global and environmental impact of design choices when she was working in fashion and overseeing production sites and workshops in India, China and Italy. She also recognised that the industry had no sustainable options for embellishment components.
Teaming up with expert material scientists and engineers, she started work on developing the first Bio Iridescent Sequin and in 2020 founded Radiant Matter. The first samples were developed during her Masters studies in Materials Futures and these triggered huge interest from the fashion world and further afield. A range of industries could see the potential of recreating this natural iridescence.
In 2022 the company successfully gained a place on The Greenhouse accelerator and has continued to develop the product with the help of mentors to discuss strategy, alongside learning from fellow start-ups on the cohort. “The mentors have such a wealth of knowledge,” says Brunato. “And can really guide you on what’s important to grow your business.” Radiant Matter has since received grants from Innovate UK to further develop their material and have trialled a pilot production of their BioSequins™. “It was a great achievement to produce at a relative scale.”
Better than the ‘real’ thing or is it the real thing?
Radiant Matter is developing their capacity to produce their BioSequins™ at scale and have forged a number of select partnerships with fashion designers. Initially they produced bag accessories as prototypes to test the material and its durability and, as their capacity to scale increases, they have started to use the BioSequins™ on larger pieces and garments. In April 2023 Stella McCartney debuted the world’s first garment crafted from Radiant Matter’s BioSequins™ on the cover story of American Vogue. The all-in-one piece was a jumpsuit worn by model and eco-activist Cara Delevingne that was handmade at McCartney’s London atelier.
The response to these samples testifies that there is plenty of interest in the first sustainable alternative to traditional sequins and the fashion industry has demonstrated that consumers are ready to embrace plastic free alternatives to a new type of shimmer. McCartney described the BioSequins™ as being ‘even more stunning than conventional options’ suggesting that they may be aesthetically superior as well as environmentally superior. “We tend to get a lot of comments that it’s a more luxurious effect,” says Brunato. “The sequins we produce look more natural as if you are actually looking at that fantastic glimmer you see with insects and birds. It’s quite dazzling.”
With a sequin that is potentially more attractive as well as better for the environment, Radiant Matter has a clear business case for a product where, in this instance, ‘all that glitters is gold’.
Climate Solutions Up-Close
Take a deeper-dive into innovative climate technology by exploring other posts in Undaunted’s Climate Solutions Up-Close blog series.
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