It is the essential Hermès bag of the season. And it is made from mushrooms | Fashion
Iwe can say that Hermès knows handbags. The luxury fashion house’s Birkin and Kelly bags are among the most expensive ever sold; demand exceeds supply so much that you can’t even get on a waiting list. Acquiring one is a matter of luck and contacts. So when Hermès announced that this season’s handbag would be in vegetable leather, it marked a new era in designer accessories.
The Hermès Victoria Fall / Winter 2021 (prices start from around £ 3,500 for its previous leather version) will be made from Sylvania, a leather made from mushrooms, before being crafted in France in a perfect Hermès handbag.
Mushrooms, pineapples, grapes, cacti and apples are just a few of the plants that receive billions of dollars in research and development funding to create leather and plastic substitutes. Most of the first generation vegan alternatives used plastic, which also has devastating environmental consequences and can take hundreds of years to decompose. The new materials are made using biotechnology.
The growth of vegetable leather is being driven by the fashion industry’s efforts to improve durability, although it is also used in the automotive and furniture industries. Fashion creates a high level of pollution – from the overproduction of clothing and synthetic fibers, but also from the production of animal leather.
“Cattle ranching is already the main driver of deforestation in the Amazon,” says Carry Somers, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, the world’s largest fashion activism organization. “We urgently need to repair our relationship with fashion to end unsustainable farming practices. We must turn to circular economy alternatives, including the use of agricultural residues to create bio-leathers. “
Although conventional leather uses animal by-products, the production also involves toxic chemicals.
“Even in fully modernized tanneries, it is almost impossible to recover the pollutants generated by the tanning process,” says Adrián López Velarde, co-founder of Desserto, a Mexican company that manufactures cactus leather. “Typically, tanning one ton of hide produces 20 to 80 cubic meters of polluted wastewater, not to mention preparation effluent and pesticides to stop mold growth during transport.
There has also been a change in attitude among consumers. Customer concern about supply chains and production methods was increasing before the pandemic, but has accelerated in the past 18 months.
“There is a huge desire for transparency,” says Carmen Hijosa, founder of Ananas Anam, a company that manufactures pineapple leather. “This is especially important for young people, but we all become more empathetic, we understand that we have to respect nature and be kind to each other.”
This change of priorities is the motivation of many companies developing bio-leathers. The people behind these new materials come from diverse backgrounds – fashion and art, science and business – and they bring a new perspective to the world of textiles.
Dan Widmaier, Managing Director of the biotextile company Bolt Threads, says: “It’s personal to me. Bolt is based in northern California. I and our employees have been massively affected by climate change and fires. The truth is that the challenges are so great right now that the demand for innovative solutions far exceeds the supply.
Bio-leathers are made from agricultural by-products or specially cultivated crops. Mycelium, the root structure of the fungus, has become a favorite in the luxury industry.
Hermès worked with California-based MycoWorks to make Sylvania, which uses a technology called Fine Mycelium. This produces a strong cellular material which can be transformed into luxury leather. “It’s more than a new material – it’s a breakthrough in manufacturing that offers designers new levels of customization and creative control,” says Sophia Wang, co-founder of MycoWorks. “Our materials are basically made to order and there is complete transparency about what is made and how. We control the size, strength, flexibility, thickness of each sheet. This customization creates a range of design possibilities, minimizes waste and ensures consistent quality.
Because these companies were formed with sustainability in their DNA, good agricultural practices are at the forefront. Desserto’s organic cactus plantations in Zacatecas, Mexico use 164,650% less water compared to animal leather and 190% less than polyurethane.
Bolt Threads developed and produced Mylo, a mycelium leather used by designers like Stella McCartney. Widmaier is proud of its product and says: “Mylo’s processing and finishing chemicals are evaluated and selected according to the principles of green chemistry and are free of substances such as chromium and DMFa, two of the most common chemicals. harmful used in animal and synthetic leather respectively.
For supporters of the circular economy, bio-leathers using by-products are of particular interest. Piñatex, the leather, made by UK-based Ananas Anam from pineapple leaves, is one of the best established. Hijosa, the founder of the company, had been a consultant for leather goods before setting up her company in the 90s. She had the idea of a new bio-leather made from fibers of pineapple leaves – by-products from local farms – while working in the Philippines.
Piñatex is made from 95% renewable resources – the fibers are coated with a bio-based polyurethane rather than a petrochemical-based coating – while the sale of the leaves gives Filipino farmers another source of income.
“I was just thinking – you have amazing natural resources here, great skills. Wouldn’t that be a better deal than making animal leather bags with accessories imported from Hong Kong? Hijosa said.
While mycelium-based bio-leathers are typically grown to specific requirements, materials such as Piñatex can be produced on a larger scale, allowing them to be used for consumer and high-end designs.
Mira Nameth is the founder of a London-based biotextile start-up called Biophilica, which manufactures Treekind, a leather created from green waste collected from London parks, including Hyde Park and Fulham Palace Garden. “Treekind can be scaled,” says Nameth. “The beauty is that it is ‘species independent’, so we can source basic materials from gardens, parks, forests, municipalities and the agricultural industry. [but also] worldwide. Shipping adds significant greenhouse gas emissions to the footprint of materials and products. We can support localized supply chains and dramatically reduce negative environmental impacts.
The bio-leather boom looks like a perfect match between industry and consumer demand on the one hand, and technical innovation and creativity on the other. As Nameth says: “We are in a new era of combining plants with science and design, just as scientists and designers have done with plastics and leather. It is an exciting journey and the results will benefit humans, animals and the environment as a whole. It is a journey that must be taken. While Hermès is unlikely to swap cows for mushrooms in the near future – even the Victoria bag has a calfskin handle – the environmental impact of our current level of consumption is going to force us to change.
“Last year, the market for tanned hides was $ 45 billion,” says Widmaier. “We envision a future where consumers and brands can opt for an animal-free material like Mylo without having to compromise ethically or aesthetically. But as disposable income increases around the world, so will the demand for meat and leather goods. This demand cannot be met by using the land and water needed to raise livestock. We need smarter, more sustainable alternatives.
By-products of the Italian wine industry are used to create this bio-leather by the Milanese company Vegea, founded by architect Gianpiero Tessitore in 2016. Last year Vegea collaborated with the French sportswear brand Le Coq Sportif to make sneakers. Each has been marked with the vintage of the grape used to produce the material.
Engineer Ankit Agarwal discovered that the majority of the 8.4 million tonnes of waste from flower offerings used on religious festivals in his hometown of Kanpur was dumped into the Ganges. He developed “flowercycling technology” in 2017 to recycle as much as he could. He now uses plant material to make many products, including feathers.
The nopal cactus is the raw material of this leather made by Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez in Mexico. The two founders of the parent company Adriano Di Marti worked in the fashion, furniture and automotive sectors before launching Desserto in 2019 in response to the problem of plastic pollution. They chose the cactus because it needs little water and grows on land that cannot support other crops.
Kering – the parent company of fashion brands Gucci, Stella McCartney, Adidas and Lululemon – announced last year an investment in this mycelium leather, produced by California-based Bolt Threads. Bolt Threads was founded in 2009 by a biochemist, biophysicist and bioengineer.
One of the most established bio-leathers, Piñatex was created by Carmen Hijosa. She learned to weave and did a PhD at the Royal College of Art to develop this pineapple leather, which was used by Nike, H&M, Paul Smith and Hugo Boss.
Hannes Parth founded Frumat in 2008. The company is based in South Tyrol, Europe’s largest apple producing region, and Parth has turned to local cultivation to make its product. AppleSkin was first used in stationery but has now been developed as leather. It was used to make sneakers for Tommy Hilfiger and handbags for Luxtra.