Who doesn't love a personalised product? With the world at our keyboards, we can personalise just about anything we want: bikes, stationary, accessories and, lest we forget, those coffee table books recounting our last holiday. With personalised products, there is often a fine line between tacky and cool. But whoever woke up one morning and thought, "You know what sounds like a great idea? Genetically-customised stingray shoes," obviously wasn't familiar with the concept of crossing it.
Rayfish Footwear is the company that felt so inclined to produce such fishy kicks. The Thailand-based company has been operating for over a decade, but in 2011, its team of mad - and apparently fashion conscious - scientists made a breakthrough. Unbeknownst to the greater scientific community, they developed their first fully bio-customised ray.
According to the company's CEO, Raymond Ong, the patterned transgenic animal was an inevitable new stage in Rayfish's business plan. "The era of mass production is over. We've entered the era of mass customisation, which means that end users personalise their products before they're made," said Ong at the Next Nature conference in 2011. His belief, however, is that bio-customisation is the next step. After all, what's cooler than rattlesnake skin sneakers? Rattlesnake patterned stingray sneakers, of course.
Thanks to the company's apparently ingenious vision, you might soon be able to custom-commission the growth of your own shoes. Patented technology will enable customers to choose from a library of DNA, where you can decide the pattern and colour of rays from dozens of animal species ranging from ladybird to octopus to cheetah. The animal is then bred with the necessary genetic imprint to create the desired design, "harvested" and - voilà - makes the miraculous transition from aquarium animal to a valued member of your shoe collection.
If that hasn't already got you sold, wait, there's more! Like a promotion, this is a two-for-one deal; Rayfish has a "one fish, one shoe" policy, meaning two rays are used to create your personalised set (after all, if you endorse genetic engineering for cosmetic purposes, cloning probably isn't going to bother you).
All this and an increased risk of being the target of a PETA paint bomb, for upwards of $14,800. Ouch! But don't worry; the price is set to drop rather dramatically to $1,800 once production becomes regular in late 2012.
But seriously: is bio-customisation a step too far when it comes to personalised style?
Much of the current curiosity and condemnation by members of the public has been focused on the use of stingray leather, whilst the avant-garde "grow a sneaker" concept appears to have been dismissed as arbitrary. "You are some really sick people - exploiting animals so people can wear skin on their feet...get real," was the comment of one, of many, apparently outraged member of the public on Rayfish's Facebook page.
On the issue of animal farming, Ong himself has addressed public hypocrisy, "It seems many people are unfamiliar with the use of stingray leather in fashion, which is a relatively common application. Rayfish Footwear shoes come from stingrays raised for fashion - as does any leather from cows, pigs, alligators, ostriches and so on."
Although I hate to admit it, Ong is right. "Shagreen," as ray leather is known, has been used for centuries, from ancient Egyptians to French artisans in the 1700s. While ray leather isn't as popular in the West as it is in the East, no one can argue the fact that we've technically been growing our shoes since, well, forever.
Genetics aside, the only uncomfortable difference with Rayfish sneakers is that you are being made individually responsible for the animal's production. From this perspective, it may well seem that we are happy to revel in the finest Italian leather shoes from any cow so lucky to be endowed with the honour, but less comfortable about knowingly creating an animal purely for shoes' sake. It might be hypocritical on our part, but it's why we buy our meat at the supermarket.
|"Grow Your Sneaker" by Rayfish.
But if you were preparing to envision sidewalks as de-constructed aquariums, don't be so trusting. Rumours have begun circulating since the brand's web infamy that the shoes are not just fake but scientifically impossible. "To the best of my knowledge, there is no way to do what they claim," said biologist Randy Lewis from Utah State University.
But Rayfish has been quick to fight back, summarising the science behind the shoes on its blog for those believing it "so utterly fantastic they couldn't believe it to be true." But if that didn't convince you, the company pulled out the big-guns by alluding to a future peer-reviewed paper on the science. As far as hoaxes go, this would be one dedicated April Fools' joke.
Technicalities like the truth aside - hypothetically - if we are going to produce an animal for fashion, is there really much wrong with being a little bit more "selective" about how we do it? As our technological and scientific horizons continually broaden, we will always be faced with new moral conundrums. Our decisions have become less about what is right and wrong, or good and bad, but about that grey area that shoppers know far too well: necessity.
Distinguishing between what we need and what we want has never been a forte of the fashion forward. But when presented with an opportunity, we usually tend to grab it - except maybe when it comes to transgenic stingray shoes, which probably weren't the beacon of innovation the fashion world was searching for.
Although the possibility of such extreme-personalisation is intriguing, in this instance, I'm not a fan. But if you're eager to get on board the bandwagon (if there is one), Rayfish is holding an online competition, where you can design your own stingray in this science-come-fashion phenomenon. If you win, you'll save yourself more than some spare change, with the chosen designs being turned into an animal - or a shoe, depending how you see it.
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