At the forefront of Vogue Singapore’s mission is a commitment to its values and vision statement—that is, to create impactful visuals and intelligent narratives that inspire our readers to dream and innovate.
Cue the second iteration of the Vogue Singapore Innovation Prize. Presented in collaboration with Singapore Fashion Council, it aims to hone Asian entrepreneurial talent. This year, 10 businesses from cohorts of The Bridge Fashion Innovator programme participated in a two-day boot camp. At the end of it, four shortlisted applicants moved on to the mentorship phase, with ProjectEx taking home the grand cash prize of $15,000.
The Vogue Singapore Innovation Prize sits within the Vogue Singapore Foundation, which aims to nurture regional talent, break down barriers to creative education, and elevate the ASEAN fashion industry. In collaboration with key partners, the Foundation offers a series of initiatives to help drive change for good and promote growth across the industry.
Helmed by South African fashion designer Adrian Furstenburg and Singaporean biomedical engineer Dr Viknish Krishnan-Kutty, ProjectEx is a cell-based leather business looking to make a strong entrance into the luxury fashion market. Combining the worlds of fashion and science—namely, Furstenburg’s expertise in design under his eponymous handbag label and Krishnan-Kutty’s expertise in cell-based applications such as meat cultivation via his biotech company Cellivate Technologies—the duo hopes to fill the gap in the market of cruelty-free exotic leathers.
“ProjectEx is very exciting for us because it’s a realm where both fashion and science can come together in a synergistic way.”
“As a designer, it’s my responsibility to look at more sustainable and beautiful materials for my clients. This is how ProjectEx started. I’ve noticed a gap in the luxury market where we’ve been dependent on animals such as crocodiles, alligators and ostriches because they produce beautiful patterns. But there’s been nothing to replace that yet,” explains Furstenburg. “ProjectEx is basically giving the high-net-worth individual a brand-new material that has the same properties as exotic leather goods such as the pattern, finish and shine. We don’t want to takeaway from the properties that the animal kingdom has given us and thanks to technology, we don’t have to harm animals in the process.”
The duo are perfecting their endeavour over an 18-month period that will eventually lead to their entry into the market. This consists of various components: from fundraising in the US and working on the company’s minimum viable product (MVP) to market research and establishing connections within the industry. Furstenburg and Krishnan-Kutty speak to Vogue Singapore on the motivation behind ProjectEx, their current goals as well as what we can expect from them in the coming months.
How would you describe ProjectEx?
Dr Viknish Krishnan-Kutty (VK): The way I look at it, ProjectEx is a steam engine compared to a horse carriage. We are able to create leather for the luxury industry from cell up and not the other way around. This is no longer going to be limited by the animal but rather, is going to be up to the designer’s imagination. Imagine a car seat made entirely from lizard leather. This is very exciting for us because it’s a realm where both fashion and science can come together in a synergistic way to create magic.
How did you decide to embark on this together?
Adrian Furstenburg (AF): I come from the design side which includes the product design, manufacturing and customer-centric experience and Viknish comes from the science side, which is at the total opposite of the spectrum—the cell, where it all starts. We had a conversation and realised that we are both vegetarian, we work in meat- and animal-related industries and we had the opportunity to create something completely new. The real ‘aha’ moment for me was when Viknish said that it was possible to create crocodile leather in a laboratory.
“ProjectEx is a steam engine compared to a horse carriage. We are able to create leather for the luxury industry from cell up and not the other way around.”
Why do you think ProjectEx is the solution when it comes to ethics, quality and durability?
AF: After numerous conversations with both Viknish and our advisers in the tanning department, we zoned in on the environmental impact of leather. A lot of toxins and chemicals get added to water to remove an animal’s flesh from its skin and that has a big impact on the environment. In the exotic leather industries, these animals get bred and culled only for their skin and die in the name of fashion.
VK: One reason why we chose exotics apart from it being premium is that there’s nobody around the world doing it. Other companies that are trying to do something similar are trying to do it with bovine leather, which really is a by-product of the meat industry. So we wanted to differentiate ourselves from them.
What are some challenges that you’ve faced along the way?
VK: I come from a dermatology laboratory and we are very accustomed to growing skin cells. This skin is for applications, like cosmetic testing of real human skin, to learn how compounds and chemicals disperse and affect the skin. So what we’re doing is we’re translating this expertise into making animal skin that can be made into leather. At the same time, when we speak about exotic leather, there are very few or maybe no one in the world who has experience with growing it from cells. I think one of the biggest challenges we have is to develop the recipe from scratch, from the point of extracting cells from animals, to getting the right nutritional media broth that these cells need to grow in, to making the different layers of skin, such as the dermis and epidermis, to developing the glue that holds them together and to eventually making sheets of skin.
Why was the Vogue Singapore Innovation Prize a natural next step for you?
AF: Vogue is a pioneer in the fashion industry and always will be. What fascinates me is that Vogue Singapore is focused on technology and innovation within the fashion industry and it has some cool takes on current affairs but with a bright and interesting approach to future affairs too. When it comes to the Vogue brand and innovation, Vogue Singapore has that down to a tee and lastly, from a business perspective, having won the Vogue Singapore Innovation Prize is a fantastic first step into launching a business that will not only disrupt the exotic leather industry, but also pave a brand new way for incredibly innovative materials.
How do you hope Project Ex will impact the fashion and leather industries in Singapore?
AF: The world is changing dramatically, especially with the introduction of artificial intelligence. And a country like Singapore, being a gateway to China, Asia Pacific and Australia, is an innovation hub. We want to be the first landing on the moon when it comes to creating the world’s first handbag made out of lab-grown exotic leather. This is a gateway to a whole new industry.
“We hope this will be an inspiration for other people who apply for the Vogue Singapore Innovation Prize, as well as a motivation to other innovators to tap into this unique space of cell-cultivated leathers.”
What products are you looking to create?
AF: Our first entry to the market will be to provide luxury horology brands with a range of exotic leather watch straps. One of the main reasons for this is that there has been no suitable alternative to date and the industry is ‘hungry’ for more innovative materials. Then we will move into small leather goods and handbags.
And finally, what can we look out for over the next 18 months?
AF: We are raising our pre-seed round and MVP development will happen in the next couple of months. Keep a lookout for some very exciting news by the end of this year.
VK: We are just starting now and we should definitely have some leather samples ready within the next few months. We hope this will be an inspiration for other people who come in to apply for the Vogue Singapore Innovation Prize in the future because based on our example, they’ll know that there is a continuation of growth and support for the company. We also hope that this will be motivating for other innovators to tap into this unique space of cell-cultivated leathers.
Photography Sayher Heffernan and Chong Ng
Styling Jasmine Ashvinkumar
Stylist’s assistant Kyann Fong
Hair and makeup Eunice Wong Wan Yun using Chanel Beauty and Kuene hair cosmetics
The March ‘Roots’ issue of Vogue Singapore is available for sale online now and in-store from 10 March 2023.