Sunday, March 3, 2024

The Ethical Luxury Fashion Promise of Mushroom Leather That Started With Hermès


The shift away from conventional leather is taking the luxury fashion world by storm with labels from Gucci to Louis Vuitton all exploring sustainable alternatives. But none is more highly anticipated than the promise of a mushroom leather bag from the French luxury label Hermès.

FormerHermès CEOPatrick Thomas joined the board of directors for San Francisco-based MycoWorks last year. The company makes sustainable leather out of mushrooms. Thomas’ board appointment came months afterHermès and MycoWorks announced they were working on developing the luxury label’s first bag made with the company’s vegan leather.

Long a holdout in exploring alternatives to leather, Hermès made good on its promise to take the label in a more sustainable direction last March when it announced the reimagined version of its popular Victoria travel bag was in the works.

“New materials are going to boost some teams, in terms of their creativity and product development; they’re going to be triggered to do things in ways they’re not even considering today,” Thomas, who served as CEO at Hermès for a decade, said in a statement. 

Courtesy BoltThreads

“MycoWorks’ vision and values echo those of Hermès: a strong fascination with natural raw material and its transformation, a quest for excellence, with the aim of ensuring that objects are put to their best use and that their longevity is maximised,” Hermès artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas said last March.

Sustainable leather

The MycoWorks’ Fine Mycelium, which it calls Reishi, uses a patented fungal technology that creates petroleum-free and eco-friendly vegan leather.The material is then tanned and finished like traditional animal leather by craftspeople in Spain. 

The partnership between Hermès and MycoWorks has been three years in the works. According to the luxury label, the company is exploring ongoing partnerships and more sustainable offerings.

Hermès may be at the forefront of fashion design, but it’s long fallen behind its competitors in moving toward more sustainable initiatives. Prada recently raised €90 million in a third sustainability funding round; Chanel and Hugo Boss have both used pineapple leather in recent collections. Balenciaga has worked with cactus and mycelium leather. Stella McCartney has been leading the charge in sustainable luxury design for nearly two decades, including mushroom leather.

Last year, Dole, the world’s largest fruit and vegetable producer, announced it was routing its pineapple leaf waste to London’s Ananas Anam, the brand behind Piñatex vegan pineapple leather.

Courtesy Karl Lagerfeld

Last April, supermodel-turned-sustainable-fashion-designer Amber Valletta released a line of vegan accessories under the Karl Lagerfeld label, including a handbag made from sustainable cactus leather in a partnership with Mexican firm Desserto.

The sustainability champion says she was inspired to help consumers make better choices. She praised the Lagerfeld brand, once known for its excessive use of fur, for its shift to sustainable practices, materials, and design.

“They were great about letting me ask deeper questions about the factories, how they operate, their certifications and things like that,” Valletta said in an interview with WWD. “They were very open, conscientious and took the time to answer difficult questions. That’s really how we’re going to change things: being able to ask difficult questions, pivot once we know we found a better solution, and make better choices.”

We speak the same language and that has a huge impact. She is so literate and so passionate about sustainability, and was able to talk at eye level throughout our organization.

Pier Paolo Righi, CEO Karl Lagerfeld

Karl Lagerfeld’s CEO, Pier Paolo Righi, told WWD that Valletta has been an amplifier internally “to create further excitement and making certain measures more concrete.”

“We speak the same language and that has a huge impact. She is so literate and so passionate about sustainability, and was able to talk at eye level throughout our organization.”

Valletta also praised Desserto, which was first to market with cactus leather. “They showed me a fabric I’d never seen before,” she said. “That was great to learn something new and hear about this material.”

Valletta said the K/Kushion bag pays homage to Lagerfeld, who passed away in 2019. He was known for traveling with a pillow from his childhood.

“That’s an homage to Karl because that cushion that he carried his whole life was an intimate object of his. And so we chose something that was very classic and iconic to the brand, but also very meaningful to Karl.”

Sportswear embraces sustainable leather

German sportswear giant Adidas has been aggressively working to shift the bulk of its product offerings to “more sustainable” materials and processes by 2025. The announcement is part of the company’s five-year plan to overhaul its sales and sustainability strategies. It says 90 percent of its products will meet its minimum sustainability criteria before 2025. Beginning in 2024, only recycled plastic will be used. The shift to sustainable materials also means a phase-out of animal leather.

“People understand that their behavior has an effect,” Carla Murphy, general manager of Adidas Outdoor told earlier this year. “Now we need to be part of the solution – not the problem.”

Courtesy BoltThreads

The company frequently partners with Parley for the Oceans, a sustainability-focused organization that removes plastic from the oceans, beaches, and remote islands. It turns that plastic waste into yarn. Adidas and Parley made history five years ago with their first partnership on a plastic waste shoe; the range now boasts a dozen items including shoes and tracksuits.

“The next step in our journey to help End Plastic Waste begins with reimagining the iconic white court sneaker, the Stan Smith,” the brand says on its website. “The forever platform represented a new approach to sustainable design and signaled a new era for the classic silhouette. The sneaker features a white PRIMEGREEN upper, a series of high-performance recycled materials, matched with a recycled rubber outsole.”

Like upcycled plastic, the alternative leather plays a key role in the company’s sustainability shift; it released plant leather in its Stan Smith Stella McCartney collaboration in 2018. The newest version of Adidas’ iconic Stan Smith sneakers is also made from mushroom leather.

Why brands are shifting away from leather

The livestock industry, of which leather is a significant part, is a leading cause of climate change. United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates put it at 14.5 percent of total emissions, but other sources suggest it could be much higher—as much as 51 percent.

Leather tanning is also one of the most toxic industries, according to a number of studies. It produces acids, natrium, and ammonium salts from the chrome used in the tanning process. This has been linked to increased risks of developing certain types of cancer.

There are ethical implications, too.Hermès was long a target of animal rights organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), for its use of exotic skins and animal leather. But the organization was quick to praiseHermès for its mushroom leather announcement.

Dairy Cattle
Courtesy David Dolenc | Unsplash

“It took five years of protests, stockholder action, and heated pre-pandemic meetings, but today, PETA is toasting Hermès for switching from calfskin to mushroom leather for its Victoria bags,” PETA’s former Senior Vice President Dan Mathews, who showcased vegan leather to Hermès in Paris in 2018, said in a statement.

PETA bought shares in the company in 2016 and 2017 in order to protest the company’s use of animal skins. Those protests stopped in 2018 when Hermès agreed to look into alternative materials.

To celebrate the victory, PETA sent the label a vegan chocolate Champagne bottle.

“At one point, we thought it would take magic mushrooms to get this company to switch,” Matthews said. “[B]ut it’s proved that it can modernize when its leaders put their minds to the task.”

Funding a sustainable future

There is no shortage of leather alternatives, but the mighty, magic mushrooms are indeed having a moment. From food to medicine to fashion, the global mushroom market is expected to surpass $86 billion by 2025.

In January,MycoWorks raised $125 Million in a Series C funding round, bringing its total funding to more than $187 million. It’s backed by celebrity investments from Natalie Portman and John Legend, as well as a number of undisclosed “major” fashion brands.

“We have plans to expand quite significantly,” Matt Scullin, CEO of MycoWorks, said in a recent statement.

“There is just this huge desire from [brands in] the luxury industry to expand their offerings to include non-animal, non-plastic leather,” said Scullin. “[Demand] has reached a fever pitch.”

‘Magic’ mushroom boom

Ecovative Design, a New York-based materials science startup, raised $60 million in a Series D funding round last year. It’s now raised more than $100 million for its mushroom leather and meat.

The funding was led by Viking Global Investors, Senator Investment Group, AiiM Partners, Trousdale Ventures, among others.

Founder and CEO Eben Bayer said the funding “will produce immediate results” for the business and the planet. “We have a track record of scaling and shipping mycelium-based products. This growth will accelerate our deployment of these important solutions at greater scale and across more industries.”

Courtesy BoltThreads

Ecovative has used mycelium, the threaded mushroom-producing fungal fibers, to create alternatives to traditional foam packaging, furniture, leather, and even bacon.

“The demand for new biomaterials in the fashion industry, such as mycelium, far outstrips the current supply. Ecovative is tackling this challenge head-on, committing to building a next generation platform capable of producing mycelium at scale,” Katrin Ley, Managing Director of Fashion For Good, said in a statement. 

Ecovative is no stranger to partnerships. Its success has been built on relationships with companies including Dell and IKEA, which use the company’s mushroom packaging as a sustainable alternative to traditional packaging materials.

“It seems like there’s a need for somebody who could not be a branded supplier,” said Bayer, “but to be someone who can provide scalable mushroom leather.”

MycoWorks x General Motors

Earlier this month, MycoWorks announced its first foray into the automotive sector, following a number of alternative leather producers’ leads, including Desserto, which partnered recently with BMW.

MycoWorks is bringing its mushroom leather to the automotive industry
MycoWorks is bringing its mushroom leather to the automotive industry | Courtesy

MycoWorks announced a partnership with General Motors to develop vegan car interiors made from mycelium materials. GM Ventures, the automotive company’s investment arm, will fund MycoWorks.

“Working with General Motors to introduce Fine Mycelium to the automotive industry is an enormous step forward in the global new materials revolution,” Scullin said. “MycoWorks’s collaboration with GM is a first for us outside of the fashion industry, demonstrating the enormous potential and applications for Fine Mycelium.”

So, where is the Hermès MycoWorks bag, anyway?

For all its promise of delivering on the texture and versatility of conventional leather, mycelium has been slow to market. Stella McCartney, Lululemon, and Balenciaga all recently released limited edition products made with mycelium, which still fetches unrealistic prices for most; the new Balenciaga coat retails for €9,000.

Hermès announced the mushroom leather bag in March 2021—a retooled version of the Victoria travel bag using the mycelium leather called Sylvania.

“It’s more than a new material—it’s a manufacturing breakthrough that gives designers new levels of customization and creative control,” MycoWorks co-founder Sophia Wang, said last year. “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 customization creates a range of design possibilities, minimizes waste and ensures consistent quality.”

The Hermès MycoWorks bag doesn’t have a launch date yet | Courtesy

“Sylvania represents how nature and biotechnology can work in concert to create a material with the highest standards of quality,” said Scullin.

“[It] is the result of a shared vision for growing the future of materials and a quest to unlock new design possibilities.”

Dumas said Sylvania is at the heart of what Hermès has always been, “innovation in the making.”

More than a year and a half after it was announced though, Hermès still has not released a launch date for the bag.

But Hermès certainly seems to be moving toward it. At its newest store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which opened earlier this month, elements of its nature-inspired innovation are widespread. The store draws on leafy motifs, branches, and, perhaps a bit of foreshadowing: jacquard wall coverings made by textile artist Grethe Sorensen using patterns from the undersides of mushrooms.

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