“It puts the lotion on its skin…” No this is not an artist’s attempt to bring Silence of the Lambs to life, and yes it is completely true. A London-based designer, Tina Gorjanc, is using the late Alexander McQueen’s DNA to produce a line of leather goods for her material futures program at the Central Saint Martins fashion school, which happens to be McQueen’s alma mater. The project is entitled, “Pure Human.”
Disturbed? You should be. Gorjanc’s intention behind the project is not to simply shock her audience, but to make them question how much legal ownership a person actually has over their own genetic material. Her idea for the project came after reading about Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were taken without her consent in 1951 and have been used to create the first line of immortal cells, the HeLa cell line. This same cell line has been used to develop the polio vaccine and have become so important to medical research that they were commercialized. This is not the only time a person’s cells have been used without their consent. In 1984, John Moore went to court against a doctor who patented a cell line from his tissue without his knowledge. The doctor won the rights to the patent, with the court deciding that a patient’s discarded tissue and cells can be commercialized as they are no longer the patient’s property.
So what about the legality of Gorjanc’s project? It’s complicated. Gorjanc obtained the DNA from McQueen’s hair, locks of which were sewn into garments in his 1992 collection entitled “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims” to represent how prostitutes (the victims of Jack the Ripper) would sell their hair. McQueen publicly confirmed that he used his own hair in the collection, and Gorjanc is reasonably sure that the DNA she obtained is authentic. She was granted permission to take a sample of the hair by the collection’s owner. So, the DNA’s current owner, the owner of the garment, is allowing its use, but McQueen himself cannot consent, providing a legal and ethical gray area. She said:
“The project is about how our biological information isn’t protected…because of these loopholes, we are able to extract genetic information from a human source…and then produce something out of it and patent it, which is an interesting concept.”
As of right now, Gorjanc’s project is incomplete. The designs she has showcased so far have been presented using pig skin as a stand-in to demonstrate what the final items will look like. Gorjanc is manipulating the genes controlling freckles, moles, and sunburn, as well as placing tattoos in the exact locations, with the proper size and identical design to McQueen’s on the products in an effort to make them as lifelike as possible. In an interview with Quartz, she said, “With the tattoos and manipulations of freckles and sunburning, I wanted to showcase the material. I think that was really important in terms of getting this connection between the jacket and McQueen.”
It is difficult to say what McQueen would have thought of this project. Gorjanc told reporters that the Alexander McQueen fashion house had no problem with her project:
“At my final degree show, one of the McQueen representative came to see my project…they were really fascinated with the idea and I’ve had a really positive response from them.”
However, the brand itself says differently. A spokesperson reportedly told WWD, “Contrary to some press reports, the company wasn’t approached about this project, nor have we ever endorsed it.” McQueen himself was known for pushing boundaries in the fashion world, and his works were always highly personal, oftentimes making a political statement. At the very least Gorjanc seems to be attempting to capture the spirit of the late designer in her work.