Currently confined to high end designs, the Earth-friendly alternative could soon become much more accessible as it becomes more popular, from clothing and bags to car upholstery.
Look out leather, there’s a new player in town: mycelium ‘leather’, grown from fungi, is poised to take over Earth-conscious consumers’ wallets. Mycelium can be grown on trays to mimic calfskin or sheepskin.
Speaking to the Guardian before a talk at the Business of Fashion Voices conference in Oxfordshire, Dr Matt Scullin, CEO of biomaterials company MycoWorks, forecasts that mushroom leather could be a sustainability gamechanger, “unlocking a future of design which begins with the material, not with the object.”
MycoWorks has recently collaborated with the traditionally leather-based handbag and outfit maker Hermes with a mycelium leather they call Sylvania: “It is an exclusive collaboration by Hermès and MycoWorks, and the first object made with Fine Mycelium, the patented technology from MycoWorks that enhances mycelium as it grows.”
“It can give the same emotional response as an animal leather. It has that hand-feel of rarity,” says Scullin. According to James F Mar, “Leather creation is a very labor and cost inefficient process, to say nothing of the environmental impact from chemical tanning that makes up the bulk of this issue.” Mar also writes that “while plastic-based vegan leather alternatives have existed since the explosion of plastic use in the 1940’s and 50’s, mycelium shows great promise in making plastic leathers a thing of the past.”
Along with such usual suspects designers Vivienne Westwood and Tommy Hilfiger, the Business of Fashion Voices conference is also hosting Merlin Sheldrake, a biologist and author of Entangled Lives: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures. Sheldrake says he is “interested to talk to people in creative industries about how the possibilities of fungi can help open the mind to new ideas.”
Sheldrake adds that he is “excited to support the fashion world in its efforts to become more sustainable. There is so much potential in fungi to overcome some of the problems we face.”
Statista Luxury Leather Goods Report notes that “The segment Luxury Leather Goods accounted for 15% of the Luxury Goods revenue in 2019.” With a revenue of $48 billion expected to increase to $64 billion by 2025, leather is doing well and fine. But its challenger mycelium leather is a great eco-friendly, sustainable, and equally luxurious alternative.
MycoWorks isn’t the only player in the game. There is also Mylo Unleather produced by Bolt Threads, who note on their website that “Our technology moves away from petroleum-based polymers, toxic processes, non-biodegradable materials and towards renewable inputs, green chemistry, biobased materials.” Bolt Threads has collaborated with famously vegan UK designer Stella McCartney on a bag, the Frayme Mylo for her Spring Summer 2022 collection.
Mushroom leather is not as cheap and plentiful as bovine leather yet, and so its impact on the Earth’s wellbeing is arguable at the moment. “We are working with luxury fashion first because they are ahead of the curve when it comes to sustainability,” says Scullin. “These are brands which are in a position to think big and to think long term.”
Yet MycoWorks suggest they are planning to work with mass market brands sooner than later, with a second factory in the United States in the pipeline. While the mycelium leather could one day soon be worn or show up as car seats, Scullin warns that companies that make use of mycelium leather also need to think sustainably while incorporating the raw material into their end designs. “We can bring biodegradability to brands, but there is a big problem in the industry with thinking sustainably about a finished product,” he points out.
Sheldrake says examining fungi teaches us, “reforming the way we think about waste. If fungi didn’t do what they do, our planet would be piled metres high in the bodies of animals and plants”.
He thinks that the new material could affect us more than just tempting us with the next exciting purchase. “We have been trained as consumers to think in terms of a straight line whereby we buy something, use it and throw it away. Fungi can inform thinking about fashion on lots of levels. This is about material innovation, but it’s also about the culture of making endless new things, and what we can learn from thinking in terms of nature and of cycles instead.”
THUMBNAIL PHOTO: Courtesy of Hermes
HEADLINE PHOTO: Courtesy of Stella McCartney