YKK Showroom Places the Spotlight on Material Designer Riina Õun

The YKK showroom in London, which has become a go-to resource for emerging designers and brands, highlights the innovative work of material designer Riina Õun in its latest window display. Õun, a multi-disciplinary designer and researcher, who focuses on bio-design, materials research, and development within the circular economy, has transformed the windows of the YKK showroom in Shoreditch into an exhibition space to display handbags and accessories made of the SCOBY-compo material.

The exhibit highlights the innovative designs and the process behind the sustainable, vegan, leather-like material, which she has developed from the waste of the local kombucha drink industry as part of her final project for MA Material Futures at Central Saint Martins.

To celebrate Riina Õun’s window going on display, we asked the material designer about how she got into bio-materials and developed her sustainable material and the inspiration behind her YKK exhibition.

Can you tell us a bit about who you are and what made you want to become a material designer?

My background is in leather accessories design and making, specialising in hand-crafted luxury leather gloves for my brand Riina O.

A few years back, I had a conversation with a client about what the so-called “vegan leather” is made of and if it’s a sustainable option. Most commercially available “vegan leathers”, especially those suitable for making gloves, are PVC- and PU-based plastic, which is not a sustainable material at any stage of its life cycle – of course, no animals are directly and physically harmed. Still, the toxic production process and a very long degradation time after a relatively short life cycle of the product is harming the environment, indirectly affecting the living creatures in this environment. This trail of thought led me to start looking for new materials and taking on the Material Futures Masters course at CSM, where I concentrated on biodesign and developing a fully sustainable and organic vegan leather-like material.

What was the inspiration behind your YKK window?

My YKK window displays the collection of handbags and accessories made of SCOBY-compo material that I developed as my final project at MA Material Futures. The material development process shown in the windows, reveals where this material comes from and what its creation involves. In addition, there is a fish tank full of kombucha – the fermented tea drink – growing layers of bacterial cellulose as the exhibition progresses, the lab set-up giving a glimpse into my working space at my studio, and a beautifully poetic video, created by Tayla Horn, portraying the material making process.

The inspiration came naturally from the space and the ideas I wanted to convey.

Image: Riina Õun

Why did you want to exhibit in YKK London Showroom?

YKK Showroom is such a vibrant place in the heart of Shoreditch that it has hosted numerous artists´ and designers´ exhibitions, so it was a great honour for me to be invited to showcase my work here. In addition, I think the window exhibition gives an excellent opportunity to bring the ideas to a broad array of people, who might be just walking by Commercial Street, to learn something new without even having to enter the gallery, as the exhibition is on the windows, facing the street.

Image: Riina Õun

Your handbags and accessories are made from a SCOBY-compo material – can you explain what that is and how you developed it?

SCOBY-compo is an entirely vegan, organic leather-like material that I started developing during my material research residency at Green Lab in London back in 2019. Instead of growing my own kombucha SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast), I started collaborating with kombucha drink producers around London, collecting their leftover bacterial cellulose and reprocessing it into the SCOBY-compo material.

Through rigorous and meticulous experimentation and the use of natural oils, waxes, and organic compounds, the material I have developed is water-resistant, flexible, and strong. I have also enhanced the smell by using essential oils to develop a pleasant scent of its own. The result is a fully commercial, market-ready product that I can create in large quantities as a viable alternative for the fashion industry.

To evidence the viability of my material, I have crafted a collection of Riina O SCOBY-compo handbags that each demonstrate a different technique for production – from traditional stitching to modular tessellation and liquid moulding.

Image: Riina Õun

How did you become interested in working with bio-materials?

Looking for synthetic leather substitutes, it made sense for me to explore bio-materials.

The summer before I started on the Material Futures course, I was on holiday in the countryside of Estonia, where I’m from. One morning I stumbled upon this video about SCOBY leather. It was something I had seen before and wanted to try out myself but never really had time. So, I thought: I am on a holiday now and have the space and the time, why not give it a try? SCOBY wasn’t easy to find in the middle of nowhere, so I tracked it down from across the country, ordered it to a nearby mailbox, and just started experimenting. Funnily enough, the very first experiment turned out to be one of the best for a while, which helped and encouraged me to continue with it and believe there is potential.

I work closely with local communities. My aim is to create a fully circular, closed-loop system where the organic waste material can be harvested, processed, sold, and eventually home composted at the end of its life cycle and nurture it, rather than contaminating the environment.

What’s next for you?

I want to carry on developing SCOBY-compo material and possibly expand the production. I am currently talking to some scientists to continue the research and eventually bring this material to an industrial production scale. In addition, I am looking for partners and investors to help grow this further.

Is there anything you and YKK have in common?

As YKK corporate philosophy is closely connected to society, sustainability and innovation, we share the same values. Therefore, engaging the community and educating them about the essence of the materials is equally important for my brand Riina O.

The YKK x Riina Õun exhibition will be on display at the YKK London Showroom on Commercial Street until 13th March 2022.

To find out more about Riina and her work, you can visit her website or Instagram.