Fungus fashion: Mushrooms used as an alternative to animal leather
Out west, where cattle ranches have long held sway, cowhide leather may be losing its luster.
"You can't grow a cow to spec," said MycoWorks co-founder Sophia Wang. "Cows just do what they do. So, that is what's remarkable about a natural material that you can grow to form."
This material, an alternative to animal-hide leather, is made from mushrooms, under the watchful eyes of Bay Area technicians. The all-natural, plant-based alternative has none of the environmental or cruelty concerns that can come with animal skins.
Bolt Threads is one of a handful of companies engineering mushroom leather through mycelium, the underground network of fibers that is the basis of mushrooms. By partnering with such firms as Lululemon, Stella McCartney and Adidas, the company is turning heads with what their plant-based leather is capable of.
But for now, expect to pay a premium for this experimental alternative. "It's phenomenal material," said Bolt Threads co-founder & CTO David Breslauer. "Everybody loves their leather, whether it's for their clothes or their car."
Correspondent Lilia Luciano asked, "What do you think is the trajectory of this? Is it going to replace leather?"
"Sustainability will come from replacing how we use a lot of leather," Breslauer replied. "Doesn't mean leather will go away, but we can't continue to scale cows to clothe the population."
Breslauer is approaching the issue from a scientist's perspective. He said leather is a huge industry to take on, but the fashion world has always embraced innovation, especially the kind that helps fight climate change: "The fewer cows we grow industrially, the less emissions we're going to have," said Breslauer. "So, this is a huge impact to climate change, and for almost all major fashion brands. Their biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions are from the cows that make their leather. And there's deforestation, biodiversity loss, ecological collapse – the list goes on and on."
But in order for consumers to adopt mushroom leather, it needs to last, be durable, workable, and – most importantly – look and feel like the real thing.
Beatrice Amblard, a leather artisan with four decades of experience, said this keeps with the trend of finding plant-based alternatives to what we eat and wear. "I believe people are ready for changes, they're ready for innovation," she said. "For me, combining old techniques with biomaterials is an incredible opportunity."
Describing what it's like to work with mushroom leather, Amblard said, "This is amazing. It's an incredible feeling. It's combining the two."
She works with MycoWorks, another Bay Area company that's got the fashion industry doing double-takes.
Wang, and her MycoWorks co-founder Phil Ross, have been pushing the boundaries of leather since 2003. They're proprietary Reishi leather appears close to the real thing. "I see this material working everywhere where leather goes," said Wang.
Luciano asked, "What kind of testing are you guys doing to make sure that it is durable?"
"We do accelerated-wear testing, exposing Reishi to the elements just to demonstrate that this material is competitive to leather in terms of durability and strength and resistance," Wang replied.
Their product finds purpose, from potentially life-saving sheets interwoven with bullet-proof Kevlar, to incorporating conductive wiring in the fibers, allowing for "smart" fashion that connects to your devices, and even leather enmeshed with gold thread, redefining luxury.
Said Wang, "We work with our partners to actually grow our materials to those customized needs, which is not something you can do with any other natural material."
She said that if you can think of a luxury brand, they've probably worked with them – like Hermes, the high priest of French leather products. The company worked with the storied brand on an iconic bag in 2021.
It all points to a future where guilt-free fashion could be the norm. And instead of traditional leather on your back, or in your hand, we'll be making room ... for mushrooms.
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