Due to misstatements from the sources cited in this article, we have decided to retract it in its entirety.–Ed.
We’ve been able to customize products for a while, from Levi’s that are perfectly sculpted to our posteriors to Timbuk2 bags in our own triad of colors, and the result is always “custom” but not always so unique. These end products are only as diverse as the choices that go into them–a lesson I learned years ago when my brand-new Timbuk2 matched a friend’s almost perfectly.
Rayfish Footwear is looking to offer consumer customization, not by dye or stitching, but at the genetic level. On their site, you can mix and match various patterns of stingrays, and Rayfish will combine their DNA to match the design of your choice, actually growing you a genetically manipulated pair of stingrays to harvest as the leather for your shoes. The colors are bold. The patterns are intricate. And every pair is inherently unique. “It would not be feasible for ordinary people to code their desired pattern in the DNA, so we made a design tool that allows them to create a pattern that we can actually grow on the stingrays,” says Dr. Raymond Ong, head of Rayfish Footwear. That tool eschews esoteric DNA snippets for a graphic-laden UI, allowing you to drag and drop up to nine patterns into your shoe, selected from a library of 29 styles of leather. With so many choices combining into such an array of designs, the possibilities seem endless, though obviously there are some natural limitations to just how specific users can be about a shoe that is ostensibly grown. “We cannot breed any desirable shape or logo on the fishes, as our patterning process works by recording and recombining DNA of existing animals…. Squares are for instance not possible, as the expression of the DNA on the skin doesn’t allow it,” Dr. Ong explains. “Also, the patterns that grow on the actual fish sometimes slightly differ from what you see in the design tool. Although it is almost perfect, we are still developing the mapping between the design tool and the DNA encoding further.” For these practical reasons, Rayfish is honing their product while soft-launching their line with a series of design contests. You can go on their site now, try out their tool, and submit your own stingray shoe design. Winners will be given a free pair of shoes, which is a hefty prize: These bio-customized kicks will start at $1,800 when they hit the market later this year. But it does raise the question: While I can conveniently forget that the leather in my shoes was once the skin of a cow, is there something different in knowing that the cow had been bred and slaughtered just for me? Is this a farm-to-table situation, where it’s more ethical to name the pig that you’ll eventually eat? Or am I creating the most majestic animal I could imagine just to thieve its gorgeous skin? Truthfully, I’m not sure if Rayfish’s addictive mix and match UI makes me feel like a hip consumer or an all-consuming monster.