People are constantly on the lookout for new ways to live. We love material things, so it’s no surprise that the fashion industry should be at the epicentre of exciting new technologies and materials.
First coined by London-based designer Suzanne Lee in 2003, the term “vegan leather” encompasses an animal-free approach to fashion and homeware goods designed to mimic the texture of animal hide.
Whether you’re devoted to animal welfare or just interested in science, the market is full of pleasant surprises. From vegan suede to fish leather, new materials are challenging traditions with their durability and quality. Businesses are finally looking to the future for inspiration.
So what kind of options are there for the discerning vegan consumer these days? When it comes to human ingenuity, the possibilities are endless. A crossover between traditional craft techniques, modern science, and fashion trends is paving the way for a world of new materials.
What is vegan leather made of?
It’s almost easier to ask what vegan leather isn’t made of—there are so many choices! Other than “not cows”, leather alternatives can be made from fruit, mushrooms, plastics, rubbers and a host of other compounds.
There’s currently a lot of buzz surrounding MycoWorks, a company which makes leather from mycelium and agricultural byproducts. The process is so clean that founders Sophia Wang and Phil Ross even claim to be “carbon negative”.
Mycelia are the branching hyphae of fungi (the underground roots used to transport nutrients). Despite what you might think, it’s an incredibly versatile, durable material. As it grows, natural polymers form to create a leather-like consistency.
MycoWorks takes the mycelium tissues from nature and places it in jars of organic material. Not only can this process be used to recycle agricultural waste like corn and sawdust, it only takes 3-7 days for the mycelium fibers to expand and form the base material (which is then molded and left to harden).
Looking for something fruitier? Piñatex produce a leather alternative made from pineapple leaves. Useful fibers are extracted and the rest are used as fertilizer, making this a particularly green process. What’s more, farmers in the Philippines get extra income for produce they would otherwise be throwing away.
These pineapple leaf fibers are then processed into a substrate in Manila before being shipped to Spain for finishing. The end product is a wonderfully rich, highly-textured material with a characteristic off-white colour.
Source: Ananas Anam
For large scale manufacturing, synthetic materials still win in terms of cost and ease of production. Although man made goods seem at odds with a message of environmental positivity, they’re still superior to traditional leather.
PVC was once the most popular vegan choice, but this is slowly being replaced by compounds like polyurethane. Made from different processes, polyurethane, vegetan and microfiber present a light, malleable alternative to leathers, ideal for things like vegan shoes which need to be breathable but strong.
Other alternatives to leather
Okay, so we’ve established that vegan friendly leather is great, but what about fish leather? This diverse, beautiful and scaly material is currently being touted as the future of fashion. With its natural durability and strength, fish leather is incredibly versatile (and hand-washable). In fact, shark leather is around 5 times stronger than normal leather.
A byproduct of the fishing industry, skins were often dumped in the ocean along with harmful chemicals. Now there’s a reason to save them and save the waters: the wholesale repurposing of skin into exotic leathers is making big waves in the fashion world.
Although not strictly vegan, the production of this leather has a tiny environmental impact and relies on the more common species of fish. The tanning process is also greatly reduced as fish skin doesn’t need to have hairs removed (a process that would typically involve industrial acids).
Fish leather is priced competitively when compared to other exotic/reptile goods. The natural perfection of most animal skins can still be enjoyed without the major environmental costs.
Source: Atlantic Leather
What are the benefits of these leather alternatives?
One of the best things about leather alternatives is that they help fuel creativity. Instead of being limited to traditional manufacturing processes, new materials come with new properties. Rather than having to work with the limited size of a single animal’s hide, sheets of synthetic and bio-leathers can be made to measure.
Materials like Piñatex’s pineapple-derived leather also bring exciting new textures—lying somewhere between a traditional leather and unbleached cloth with an earthy, organic sheen.
As manufacturers shift their focus towards greener practices and consumers become more informed, the market is opening up to the possibility of new materials. Hundreds of years of fashion rules are being superseded by environmental, ethical and practical demands.
So what does the future hold? A team of scientists and fashion students in Queensland, Australia have been experimenting with leather grown from kombucha tea. This opens up the possibility of homegrown leather and a new world of artisanal, domestic operations—using little more than kombucha and a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast).