In early 2021, fashion brand Stella McCartney showed off some fashion concept pieces that made an industry sensation: leather leggings paired with a sports bra. They certainly look elegant and classy, but the highlight was not the clothes themselves, but what they were made of: mushroom leather, a new innovation in material science that we should definitely pay attention to.
The English designer’s house is already known for its ethical stance against the use of animal parts, particularly leather, in his collection. His latest work only adds to the long list of sustainable fashion pieces that McCartney has been featuring and selling for years.
A staple among fashion enthusiasts and the masses alike, leather has long been the subject of controversy and protest from activists and human rights groups for the way it is manufactured – cruelty to animals. However, when you develop leather from other sources, say mushrooms, you eliminate the need to get it from cattle. But can this vision of vegan leather become a reality?
Ecological fashion in mushroom skin
Stella McCartney is not alone in this effort, but sustainability has always been in her values. The latest black leather chic pair of hers is not only stunning and beautiful in terms of design, but the intention behind the outfit is extremely remarkable. To make this possible, the brand partnered with Bolt Threads, a materials engineering company that develops biomaterials.
Inspired by nature to create avant-garde pieces, Bolt Threads has developed and patented its own mushroom skin material called Mylo. A biotechnology company has managed to create Mylo, which has properties similar to real skin, based on mycelium, a type of organism that gives rise to fungi. It’s not technically fur, but the resemblance is unbelievable, except for the animal part!
Bolt Threads not only worked with Stella McCartney, but other fashion brands also took their first steps towards this new leather movement. Adidas also released a concept shoe that featured Mylo. The Stan Smith Mylo combines iconic Adidas style with an eco-friendly material derived from fungal roots. This is one of the shoe company’s attempts to reduce plastic waste.
Another biotech company, MycoWorks, has also patented Fine Mycelium mushroom skin. The company has teamed up with luxury fashion giant Hermès to bring us Sylvana, a glamorous bag made from mycelium developed by MycoWorks. Hermès worked on the bag at its French facility using Fine Mycelium provided by the biotech company.
Before the mushrooms: meet the mycelium
Okay, if you’re wondering how mushrooms turn into leather, this is more nuanced. In fact, scientists and fashion brands are searching for an underground root system of a fungus called Mycelium or Mycelia. Instead of collecting them yourself from the woods or forests where they are abundant, the material used for the so-called fungus skin is grown in laboratories.
The mycelium is the only representative of the fungal kingdom that can form complex structures. While not all mycelia have fungi, all fungi grow from mycelium. Under different conditions, the mycelium can form different structures. The mycelium necessary for mushroom skins is grown in laboratories, where various parameters (such as temperature and humidity) can be changed to create specific fibers. Biotech companies then convert them into useful materials using a variety of means. They can register their own formula or patent the process as they may differ from each other.
Other companies can use the clean mycelium to make their own products, such as packaging and now clothing. Getting mushroom roots would also be very ideal and practical because the growth of the mycelium only takes a few weeks or even days.
Surprisingly, thousands of species of mycelium have been discovered to date and many have yet to be classified. Who can say, maybe one of them will one day become a new fashion item and even end up in your wardrobe!
Bolt Threads, the company behind the Mylo brand of mushroom leather, refers to the introduction of its material as a way to “reverse leather.” And phasing out animal fur production is not only welcomed by many human rights groups, it’s also very good for the environment, as it’s extremely energy efficient.
For example, Bolt Threads claims that making Mylo produces less greenhouse gas compared to raising animals because less energy is used. This could significantly reduce the carbon footprint of leather-like materials for fashion and accessories. Creating leather from cattle is already an environmental nightmare, exacerbated by the chemical processes involved in processing. This is in addition to the already criticized meat industry for its significant contribution to global emissions.
It is also easier and less time consuming to grow mycelium, just a few weeks, as evidenced by biotech companies. Compare this to animal husbandry, which is much longer if you count the years. Therefore, it is potentially viable from an economic point of view. In addition, they are completely renewable, so their scarcity and depletion are the least of your worries.
And most importantly, mycelium-based products are biodegradable. This means that when your mushroom skin suit wears out, it can easily break down if you throw it away. While other types of leather use some fossil fuel-based chemicals in the process, mushroom leather avoids this. Therefore, its impact on the environment is reduced.
When will the green future arrive?
With the aforementioned promising benefits, fashion houses can create and develop products of the same quality that imitate leather, without all the frowned upon compromises. However, right now, these pieces that boast of being made with mushroom skin are still not available for public use. The uncertainty may lie in the various properties resulting from the development of the mycelium.
But with a little bioengineering magic (it’s science, but we think it’s magic), companies like MycoWorks and Bolt Threads promise to deliver the same high quality expected from regular leather. Additional research is currently underway aimed at fully exploiting the full potential of the mycelium outside of materials science.
We could only hope and wish that more fashion brands, local fashion stores or others would join this important cause victory. Bolt Threads mentioned on their website that their sustainable leather could be released to the public in 2022, and they are already partnering with other companies like Adidas and Stella McCartney to bring the concept of vegan leather to life.
As fashion continues to evolve, we shouldn’t just marvel at style changes and trends that come and go. We must also watch how the industry advances with awareness of its impact on the environment. Definitely one of the trends we need to pay attention to is being eco-friendly, striving to be sustainable and fashionable at the same time. And mushroom skin makes that dream come true.
According to the book’s author and biologist Merlin Sheldrake in an interview with The Guardian: “I am delighted to support the fashion world in its quest to become more sustainable.” He added that mushrooms can solve many of the problems we face. Perhaps mushroom leather is just the beginning of the concept of sustainability that is synonymous with elegance and fashion.
We think these vegan fashion items may first appear as luxury items, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed that they make it to fast fashion as soon as possible. Truly, this natural gift, combined with some engineering advances, can help us create a future where what we wear is 100% proud of our Mother Earth.