Plant leathers are the hot new thing in fashion – and among them, mushroom leather is gaining ground quickly. Just last year, iconic French fashion house Hermès (which is known for its leather goods) launched a bag made from mushrooms. Rooted in tradition and mindful of heritage, Hermès was perhaps the last brand many expected to make a move like this. But it's a sign of the times that vegan leather is reaching even the most elusive corners of high fashion.
By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist, and vegan fashion expert.
Of course, Stella McCartney was way ahead of the game as usual, launching the Frayme Mylo bag in July. In collaboration with Bolt Threads – a US-based material innovation company known for its vegan spider silk, among other innovations – Stella unveiled a sleek, sophisticated design worthy of any high-end label. Only this one was made from mushrooms instead of a cow's skin. Danish fashion brand Ganni, who has also pledged to move away from newly produced leather, has worked with Mylo on a range of accessories.
There are many reasons why this vegan leather, made from the root structure of fungi, is touted as the material of the future. Firstly, it saves lives. Leather kills approximately one billion animals every year, most of them having lived their entire lives in factory farms where they endure extreme confinement and agonising mutilations such as tail docking, branding and castration without pain relief. In countries like India and Bangladesh, cows killed for leather are often made to walk up to 60 miles to get to the slaughterhouse, where they are often killed in view of other animals. Around the world, the stunning used in slaughterhouses isn't always effective, meaning that cows are sometimes conscious as they are dismembered. Needless to say, none of this is an issue with plant-based leather.
Secondly, mushroom leather is a win for the environment. Dr Matt Scullin, CEO of biomaterials company MycoWorks, has said that this sustainability game-changer could “unlock a future of design which begins with the material, not the object.” MycoWorks' textile eliminates the need to farm millions of animals for leather (and yes, animals are often farmed and killed specifically for their skins.
Contrary to what the industry may have you believe, leather is not a “meat by-product”. It is a lucrative co-product that props up polluting animal agriculture, raising its total value), and tan and process their skins, thus contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution, and climate change. Mushroom leather also replicates the look and feel of cow skins very closely, which may be one of the reasons why Hermès were enamoured with it.
How exactly are mushrooms transformed into leather? The journey starts with mycelium – a root-like fungus structure. MycoWorks' process starts with engineered mushroom cells grown into 3D structures which form a tough, resistant material which boasts the durability and longevity of animal leather. Bolt Threads (Stella McCartney's collaboration partners) grow mycelium cells on beds of sawdust and other organic materials, to then harvest and process the resulting intertwined network of cells. Any remaining materials are subsequently composted. This material is also certified bio-based and on its way to becoming plastic-free.
The production process of mushroom leather requires very little water and energy to produce, further minimising its environmental impact compared to animal skins. And after many years of research, the material is ready to compete with cow skin in terms of aesthetics – it's no wonder that it's making its way into high fashion and big-name brands are starting to look to mushroom leather to replace animal skins. Bolt Threads' Mylo material has not only stepped onto the catwalks with Stella McCartney's Frayme bag, but also entered fashion history: McCartney's Mylo Falabella has been featured in the Victoria & Albert museum in London. And while today these materials are still a rarity, we're without a doubt moving towards a future where mushroom leather will just be...leather.
By Sascha Camilli
Sascha Camilli is a vegan fashion writer, speaker and activist. Her book Vegan Style is out now on Murdoch Books. For more about Sascha, you can read our interview with her. You can also follow her on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.
All photos via Bolt Threads
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