Could Mushroom-Based Leather Be High Fashion’s Next It Material?

mycelium leather bag

In March, the material entered the high fashion world for the first time as a Hermès Victoria bag. MycoWorks

Could mushrooms create a vegan leather that doesn’t harm animals or contribute to the climate crisis?

In the past year, high fashion has turned to a material called mycelium, which can be grown from fungi in weeks but has the look and feel of calfskin. Experts think that working with mushrooms could give designers a more sustainable relationship with waste.

“I am excited to support the fashion world in its efforts to become more sustainable,” biologist Merlin Sheldrake, who wrote Entangled Lives: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, told The Guardian ahead of the Business of Fashion Voices conference Thursday. “There is so much potential in fungi to overcome some of the problems we face.”

Mycelium is another word for the threads that make up the vegetable part of mushroom-producing organisms, according to designboom. However, biomaterials company MycoWorks has developed and patented a material called fine mycelium.

“Fine Mycelium engineers mycelium cells as they grow to create three dimensional structures that are densely entwined and inherently strong,” the company website explains. “Fine Mycelium is a patented process to grow materials with superior strength, durability and performance.”

In March, the material entered the high fashion world for the first time as a Hermès Victoria bag.

“MycoWorks’ vision and values echo those of Hermès,” Hermès artistic director Pierre-alexis dumas told designboom at the time. “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 maximized.”

Another company called Bolt Threads is also using mushroom-based leather to work with Stella McCartney on a handbag and with Adidas on various products, according to The Guardian.

The rise of the new material comes as there is growing awareness of the environmental harms caused by animal agriculture. The livestock sector is responsible for 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and a recent report found that major fashion brands including Coach, Prada and Adidas are sourcing their leather from tanneries and manufacturers linked to Amazon deforestation.

The rise of alternative materials reflects a real desire from consumers to buy more sustainable and ethical products, sustainability blogger Sara Anne Leeds told Input.

“It’s a company and it exists for profit,” she told Input of Hermès’s foray into vegan leathers. “If its supply chain had been operating fine with real leather, the only reason it would change its leather is because consumers were demanding sustainable alternatives.”

This movement towards mushroom-based leather is so far starting with high fashion.

“We are working with luxury fashion first because they are ahead of the curve when it comes to sustainability,” MycoWorks CEO Dr. Matt Scullin told The Guardian. “These are brands which are in a position to think big and to think long term.”

However, he said partnerships with more affordable brands are “on the radar.”

If that happens, though, there is a risk the sustainability factor could decrease. While plant-or-fungi-based materials are preferable to animal or plastic-based leather options, they still encourage the production and consumption of a steady supply of new goods, Leeds pointed out.

“If consumers spend $4,000 on a Gucci bag, they’ll keep it around,” she told Input. “But with a recycled label, consumers may think they don’t have to keep it for long, thinking the product will have a low impact [on the environment] once put in a landfill.”

She said the most sustainable leather option was to buy real leather second hand.

Sheldrake, however, thought the use of mushroom materials themselves could teach designers and consumers a new relationship with waste.

“If fungi didn’t do what they do, our planet would be piled metres high in the bodies of animals and plants,” he told The Guardian. “We have been trained as consumers to think in terms of a straight line whereby we buy something, use it and throw it away. Fungi can inform thinking about fashion on lots of levels. This is about material innovation, but it’s also about the culture of making endless new things, and what we can learn from thinking in terms of nature and of cycles instead.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Adidas and Stella McCartney were walking together on a project with Bolt Threads, in fact they are both working on different projects with the company.

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