(Bloomberg Businessweek) —
Everyone wants a piece of the mock-leather market, which was valued at $33.7 billion in 2021 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 8% until 2030, according to Grand View Research. Most of that is plastic “pleather,” though vegetal alternatives now include cowhide-mimicking materials made from things such as cactus and apple peels.
But fungi are proving to be the most interesting and potentially viable alternative because of mycelium, mushrooms’ filament like root network that, in nature, spreads beneath the forest floor and under the bark of trees.
Those fine mycelial threads are as tough as, well, leather: Their cell walls contain chitin, a rigid polymer also found in shrimp shells. As they grow—branching apart, fusing, and intertwining—they form the basis for a material that’s remarkably strong.
Gavin McIntyre, co-founder and chief commercial officer of “mycelium technology company” Ecovative Design LLC in New York, says the mycelium that anchors a single polypore—one of those woody shelflike mushrooms that grow on tree trunks—can support his entire body weight, about 200 pounds.
Different species of fungi, he adds, impart different physical properties; some are more pliable than rigid or offer strength over suppleness. “In our strain library we have over 500 individual strains representing probably hundreds of individual species,” McIntyre says.
In May, Ecovative announced a deal with apparel company Wolverine Worldwide Inc., whose portfolio includes shoe brands such as Merrell and Sperry, to use its Forager mycelial material. It began a similar partnership in December with PVH Corp., which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein.
Two Bay Area startups with a fungal fixation are also getting the attention of the fashion crowd. On July 7, British designer Stella McCartney released a $2,950 edition of her Frayme handbag made with Mylo, a mycelium-derived “unleather” produced by Bolt Threads. And biotech company MycoWorks has developed Reishi, which hat designer Nick Fouquet used to make his $810 Reishi Boletus bucket hat, announced on July 18. In the coming months, Hermès will offer a travel bag made with Sylvania, another mycelium-derived material produced in cooperation with MycoWorks.
Plasticizers are often used in textiles (even leathers) to make them more durable and pliable, but MycoWorks takes a different approach with Reishi. Matthew Scullin, the company’s chief executive officer, says it can embed a fabric, such as cotton, into mycelium as it grows to give the latter different characteristics. “We can tune things like the drape, softness, or feel, because the fabric helps to coerce the mycelial cells into entirely new structures—not like naturally occurring mycelium that you find in the forest and not like fabric,” he says. “It comes out as a unique product.”
Reishi’s uses were readily apparent to Fouquet, who was so excited when he received the first sheets that he created a hat within 24 hours. Prior to taking up hatmaking, Fouquet studied environmental science and sustainable development. “Finally being able to incorporate it into my field is a bit full circle for me,” he says.
Mycelium’s ability to grow quickly holds as much potential as quality. The same way mushrooms seem to pop up overnight after a rainstorm, it can flourish with remarkable speed. MycoWorks has a $107 million factory under construction in Union, S.C., which, when it opens next year, will be able to produce more than 1 million square feet of its Reishi material annually.
Ecovative, likewise, can grow a tannery-ready 27-by-1.8-meter (523 square feet) sheet of mycelium for its Forager material in only nine days, using technology that can be implemented in preexisting mushroom-growing facilities. Its first dedicated farm will be able to annually produce more than 3 million square feet of Forager hides on an acre of land.
Impressive as those numbers sound, McIntyre says, “animal hide leather is something like 31 billion square feet a year—an absurd amount thrown off from our meat-eating habit.”
Indeed, of all the justifications for faux leathers, a shortage of animal leather ranks low on the list. “Some 5.5 million hides went to landfill in the US alone in 2019,” says fashion industry analyst Veronica Bates Kassatly—about 275 million square feet of leather. “If, on the other hand, the aim is to replace plastics—well, that’s a real boon.”
To contact the author of this story:
Matthew Kronsberg in New York at email@example.com
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