Hermès’s most iconic product, the Birkin bag, regularly sells for upward of $200,000 at auction. But will these coveted bags be perceived as less valuable if they aren’t made from supple, buttery leather and are instead made from . . . mushrooms? We might soon find out.
MycoWorks, a material science company, just announced that it has spent the past three years collaborating with Hermès to create a material called Sylvania that looks and feels like leather, but is significantly more sustainable because it is made from mushrooms. By the end of 2021, Hermès will incorporate the material into its “Victoria” travel bag.
This partnership is worth watching, because if it’s successful, it could pave the way for the rest of the luxury industry to explore swapping traditional leather with more eco-friendly alternatives.
For thousands of years, people have used leather to create everyday objects like footwear and bags, prizing the material for its durability and beauty. But over the past century, the fashion industry has mass-produced leather to churn out billions of shoes, purses, and accessories, with the global market for leather goods valued at more than $400 billion. This has come at a terrible cost to the planet.
Cows generate methane, a greenhouse gas significantly more potent than carbon dioxide, thereby accelerating climate change. Tanning and dying leather requires chemicals that go on to pollute waterways. Then there’s the animal rights component: Last November, Hermès came under fire from animal rights activists for its plans to build one of the biggest crocodile farms in Australia to produce exotic leathers for its bags.
Scientists and fashion companies have spent decades developing sustainable and humane alternatives to leather. Some brands have created “vegan leather” from plastic, but this is also problematic since the material does not biodegrade and sheds microplastics that end up in our food chain.
Over the past five years, tech companies have been on a mission to come up with plant-based plastic alternatives. Bolt Threads, for instance, creates a mushroom-based leather called Mylo; Stella McCartney and Adidas have included it in a few of their products. Allbirds just announced it is investing $2 million in Natural Fiber Welding, which is developing a plant-based leather that it plans to use in future shoes. Then there’s MycoWorks, which raised $45 million last year from a range of investors, including celebrities John Legend and Natalie Portman.
MycoWorks, which is based in Emeryville, California, grows mycelium—the network of filaments in mushrooms and fungus—in a way that mimics leather. While some alternative leathers on the market compress mycelium to make it sturdy, MycoWorks says the strength and durability of its material comes from its cellular structure, which has an interlocking pattern.
MycoWorks unveiled its material at the 2016 Venice Biennale of Architecture. The following year, it partnered with Hermès to create a custom version of its product. Sylvania will be manufactured in MycoWorks’s California facility and shipped to France, where Hermès experts will tan it and incorporate it into products. Last year, MycoWorks launched Reishi, which will be available for any fashion brand to use.
Whether these leather alternatives will successfully displace real leather at scale depends on how closely they are able to mimic the real thing. That’s why the Hermès partnership with MycoWorks is worth watching. The French luxury house launched 184 years ago as a purveyor of leather saddles and has developed a reputation for using the highest-quality materials on the market.
The fact that Hermès is dipping its toe into alternative leather suggests that it believes the materials may one day be on par with top-quality leather. “(Sylvania) offers potential to match Hermès standards,” a company spokesperson tells Fast Company. “This collaboration pairs expertise in tanning the highest-quality materials with the tools of biotechnology. Both companies share a common interest in natural raw materials crafted for strength, longevity, and aesthetics.”
The industry is a long way from ditching its addiction to leather. In Hermès’s case, the company makes it clear that it is not phasing out cowhide or exotic leathers. “Sylvania was created to offer a new material alongside our existing Hermès materials, not to replace them,” the spokesperson says. “It is complementary.”
Still, the fact that one of the most traditional, heritage-bound brands in the industry is willing to explore sustainable new materials suggests that change is on the horizon.