It’s fair to say that Hermès knows handbags. The luxury fashion house’s Birkin and Kelly bags are among the most expensive ever sold; demand outstrips supply by so much that you can’t even join a waiting list. Acquiring one is a matter of luck and contacts. So when Hermès announced this season’s handbag would be made from plant leather, it marked a new era in designer accessories.
The autumn/winter 2021 Hermès Victoria (prices start from about £3,500 for its previous leather version) will be made from Sylvania, a leather grown from fungus, before being crafted in France into a perfect Hermès handbag.
Mushrooms, pineapples, grapes, cactus and apples are just some of the plants on the receiving end of billions of dollars of research and development funding to create leather and plastic replacements. Many of the first generation of 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 plant leather is driven by the fashion industry’s efforts to improve sustainability, though it’s also used in the car and furniture industries. Fashion creates a high level of pollution – from overproduction of clothing and synthetic fibres, and also from animal leather production.
“Cattle ranching is already the largest driver of deforestation in the Amazon,” says Carry Somers, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, the world’s largest fashion activism organisation. “We urgently need to fix our relationship with fashion to halt unsustainable agricultural practices. We need to look towards circular economy alternatives, including the use of agricultural residues to create bio-leathers.”
Although conventional leather makes use of animal byproducts, production also involves toxic chemicals.
“Even in fully modernised tanneries it’s nearly impossible to reclaim pollutants generated by the tanning process,” says Adrián López Velarde, co-founder of Desserto, a Mexican company that makes cactus leather. “As a rule of thumb, tanning one tonne of hide results in 20-80 cubic metres of polluted waste water, not to mention the offal effluence from preparation, and pesticides to stop mould growth during transportation.”
There’s also been an attitude shift among consumers. Customer concern about supply chains and methods of production was growing before the pandemic, but has accelerated in the past 18 months.
“There’s a huge drive for transparency,” says Carmen Hijosa, founder of Ananas Anam, a company that makes pineapple leather. “It’s especially important to young people, but we’re all becoming more empathic, we understand that we have to respect nature and be kind to each other.”
This change in priorities is the motivation for many of the companies developing bio-leathers. The people behind these new materials come from diverse backgrounds – fashion and art, science and business – and they bring fresh perspective to the world of textiles.
Dan Widmaier, chief executive of the biotextile company Bolt Threads, says: “This is personal for me. Bolt is based in northern California. I, and our employees, have been massively impacted by climate change and fires. The truth is, the challenges are so great right now, that the demand for innovative solutions far outstrips the supply.”
Bio-leathers are made either from agricultural byproducts or specially grown crops. Mycelium, the root structure of fungus, has become a favourite in the luxury industry.
Hermès worked with the Californian company MycoWorks to make Sylvania, which uses a technology called Fine Mycelium. This produces a strong cellular material that can be processed to become a luxury leather. “It’s more than a new material – it’s a manufacturing breakthrough that gives designers new levels of customisation and creative control,” says MycoWorks co-founder Sophia Wang. “Our materials are essentially made to order and there’s complete transparency into what is being made and how. We control each sheet’s size, strength, flexibility, thickness. This customisation creates a range of design possibilities, minimises waste and ensures consistent quality.”
Because these companies have been formed with sustainability in their DNA, good agricultural practice is front and centre. Desserto’s organic cactus plantations in Zacatecas, Mexico, use 164,650% less water compared with animal leather and 190% compared with polyurethane.
Bolt Threads developed and produces Mylo, a mycelium leather used by designers including Stella McCartney. Widmaier is proud of his product and says: “Mylo’s processing and finishing chemistries are evaluated and selected using green chemistry principles and are free of substances such as chromium and DMFa, two of the most noxious chemicals used in animal and synthetic leather respectively.”
For advocates of the circular economy, bio-leathers using byproducts are of particular interest. Piñatex, leather, made by UK-based Ananas Anam from pineapple leaves, is one of the best established. Hijosa, the company’s founder, had been a consultant for the leather goods business before setting up her company in the 1990s. She dreamt up the idea of a new bio-leather made from pineapple leaf fibres – byproducts from local farms – while working in the Philippines.
Piñatex is made of 95% renewable resources – the fibres are coated in a bio-based polyurethane, rather than a petrochemical-based coating – while selling the leaves gives Filipino farmers another revenue stream.
“I just thought – you’ve got extraordinary natural resources here, great skills. Wouldn’t this be a better business than making animal leather bags with fittings imported from Hong Kong?” Hijosa says.
While mycelium-based bio-leathers are typically grown to precise requirements, materials such as Piñatex can be produced on a bigger scale, allowing them to be used for mainstream as well as high-end designs.
Mira Nameth is founder of a London-based biotextile start-up called Biophilica, which makes Treekind, a leather created from green waste gathered from London parks including Hyde Park and the garden at Fulham Palace. “Treekind can be made to scale,” says Nameth. “The beauty is that it’s ‘species agnostic’, so we can source the basic material from gardens, parks, forests, municipalities and the agriculture industry – they all work well, which makes it work locally [but also] on a global scale. Shipping adds significant greenhouse gas emissions to the footprint of materials and products. We can support localised supply chains and greatly reduce negative environmental impacts.”
The boom in bio-leathers feels like a perfect match between industry and consumer demand on 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 like scientists and designers previously have for plastics and leather. It is a thrilling journey and the results will benefit humans, animals and the environment as a whole.” It’s a journey that has to be taken. Though Hermès is unlikely to swap cows for mushrooms altogether 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.
“The market for tanned hide last year was $45bn,” says Widmaier. “We envisage 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 incomes rise around the globe, so will the demand for meat and leather goods. This demand cannot be met using the land and water it takes to raise cattle. We need smarter, more sustainable alternatives.”
Byproducts of the Italian wine industry are used to create this bio-leather by Milanese company Vegea, which was founded by architect Gianpiero Tessitore in 2016. Last year Vegea collaborated with French sportswear brand Le Coq Sportif to make trainers. Each was marked with the vintage of the grape used to produce the material.
Engineer Ankit Agarwal discovered that the majority of the 8.4m tonnes of waste from flower offerings used in religious festivals in his home city of Kanpur were being dumped into the Ganges. He developed “flowercycling technology” in 2017 to recycle as much as he could. He now uses the plant matter to make numerous products – including fleather.
Nopal cactus is the source material for this leather made by Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez in Mexico. The two founders of parent company Adriano Di Marti worked in the fashion, furniture and car industries before launching Desserto in 2019 in response to the problem of plastic pollution. They chose the cactus because it needs little water and grows in land that can’t sustain other crops.
Kering – the parent company of fashion brands Gucci, Stella McCartney, Adidas and Lululemon – announced investment in this mycelium leather, produced by California-based Bolt Threads, last year. Bolt Threads was founded in 2009 by a biochemist, a biophysicist and a bioengineer.
One of the best-established bio-leathers, Piñatex was created by Carmen Hijosa. She learned to weave and took a PhD at the Royal College of Art in order to develop this pineapple leather, which has been used by Nike, H&M, Paul Smith and Hugo Boss.
Hannes Parth founded Frumat in 2008. The company is based in the south Tyrol, the largest apple growing region in Europe, and Parth turned to the local crop to make his product. AppleSkin was first used in stationery but has now been developed as a leather. It has been used to make trainers by Tommy Hilfiger and handbags for Luxtra.