“Leather” and fabrics from wine, from orange peels and now from mushrooms. Behind the innovation, scientific research and the surprising approach to materials, the main objective remains that related to ethical mass production: sustainability. The new technique was developed by the startup Bolt Threads founded by Dan Widmaier, which already specialised in the production of a silk thread similar to a spider’s web, Microsilk. The raw material of this ecological leather is mycelium, which is essentially a mass of cells on the roots of mushrooms. The “leather” that comes from mushrooms can be grown in the laboratory using a renewable and relatively simple process. The material extracted from the hyphae resembles a dense foam, but it is strong and durable and leads to the production of a material with a knurled appearance. But how do you turn mushrooms into leatherette? The process starts by extracting the mycelium cells that grow until a fibrous mass is created, to which is added a substrate of corn stalks and organic nutrients. When it has grown sufficiently, it is cut and subjected to a process similar to that carried out in tanneries specialising in vegetable dyeing. Mycelium, unlike animal leather, does not rot and therefore does not require the massive use of chemicals and salts, which cause water pollution. They say the look and feel is similar to that of animal leather. “We are convinced that there is a need in the world for better materials that perform well and are sustainable for a growing population,” the founder of the San Francisco startup told Forbes Magazine. The final product is called Mylo™ and is obviously biodegradable, with a prototype unisex bag available for pre-order on Kickstarter. The vegetarian designer, Stella McCartney, has already used the innovative material for a version of her world-famous Falabella bag which is on display at the Victoria&Albert Museum.
Changing the way things are made is a founding principle for Sophia Wang, co-founder of the biotech company MycoWorks. When she first encountered the mycelium sculptures of renowned artist Philip Ross in 2007, Sophia immediately saw the potential of mycelium as a material with endless aesthetic expression, since she grew up in a family of molecular biologists and trained as an artist and writer. She also understood the fundamental role that art and storytelling would play in communicating the potential of mycelium to the world. Today Ross and Wang are the co-founders of the biotech company Mycoworks. With his pioneering vision for sustainable materials, Phil works with CEO Matt Scullin and his team of artists, engineers, biologists and material scientists. At the NY Fashion Week 2020, they launched Reishi™, a biodegradable mushroom-based material that has almost the same characteristics as leather. To make it wear-resistant while growing in the lab, biologists force its cells into a woven structure. It is then vegetable-tanned or naturally dyed.
Biotechnology companies such as Bold Threads and Mycoworks highlight the fact that lab-grown materials do not produce waste. Animal hides come in irregular shapes, and are often marked or have scars and insect bites, which can mean that a percentage of animal skins regularly go to waste. This does not happen with biofabrication. As David Breslauer, scientific director and co-founder of Bold Threads, explains: “The global textile industry has not been able to renew itself in recent decades. The bio-engineering technology we have developed represents an opportunity to revolutionise the old world of production and make it more sustainable. Our approach allows us to minimise the environmental impact compared to the existing options that rely on the petrochemical industry.”
Designer and researcher Alice Potts has a very interesting vision. A graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, she is making a name for herself with her wonderful creations obtained through a chemical process that transforms sweat into biocrystals, which can be a more sustainable alternative to the plastic decorations normally used in the fashion world. The young London designer believes that the greatest technology humankind possesses is our own bodies, and learning about them is one of the most important results we can achieve. In fact, Alice Potts has collaborated with several athletes who, by lending their body fluids, have allowed the designer to transform common personal items such as shoes and clothing into crystal-covered works of art. Alice Potts’ project seems like pure science fiction, but in reality it is the product of an idea that, by combining fashion and technology, breaks the barriers of the conventional and opens new horizons in the universe of biodesign.