Have you ever worn shoes made of “grape skin”? Or gloves in “cactus skin”? How about a “kombucha leather” jacket and a “mushroom leather” bag?
With the push towards more sustainable fashion, the thriving world of animal-free “alternative skins” is becoming more and more popular. This week saw the launch of the new sustainable trainer brand Lerins, from Dune founder Daniel Rubin, including a £130 shoe made in a leather-like material made from grape skins left over from winemaking.
The so-called “vegetable skin” promises many victories for the planet. Lerins not only increases existing waste streams (as does the “skin” made from apples, bananas, and pineapples), but also cuts ties to the livestock industry, and with it, issues of greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and animal welfare.
Lerins joins a growing number of brands working with plant-based skin alternatives, including Allbirds, Herms, Reform and Stella McCartney.
And it’s not just “vegetable skin” that gets the attention. This week Leonardo DiCaprio and Dry, the parent company of fashion brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, this week invested a “significant” sum in the skin startup developed at the California lab, VitroLabs. The process of making leather in the laboratory involves cultivating stem cells to replicate animal skin, so the skin is expected to be strong and durable like conventional leather.
“We are at a turning point,” said American journalist and author Dana Thomas. “When I wrote Fashionopolis [in 2019, covering the future of sustainable fashion]it’s in testing phase, now being commercially launched – it was thrilling to see it happen.”
This August, Stella McCartney launched a grape skin shoe and bag, and later this year, a mushroom leather bag, made of mycelium, the structure of the mushroom root. Allbirds’ first crop leather boots, made with vegetable oil and natural rubber, are expected “in due course”.
Nicole Rawling, CEO of the California-based charity Material Innovation Initiative, which brings together brands, scientists and investors to accelerate the next generation of animal-free materials, said last year $980 million was raised for fabrics that replace animal-based materials. materials (including silk and wool).
However, it has proven difficult for vegetable leather alternatives to compete with the durability of cowhide, which is problematic if it affects product lifespan. Take plant-based shoes, says Dr Laetitia Forst, a postdoctoral researcher in sustainable fashion at the University of the Arts London. “Even if the initial impact was lower, if you had to replace it every year as opposed to every 10 years, the overall impact would be much higher.”
The solution, so far, is – controversial – plastic. Many of these leather alternatives use a polyurethane (PU) coating for increased durability. (Both McCartney and Lerins work with biomaterials company Vegea, which uses water-based polyurethane, and say it is “the most environmentally responsible polyurethane available”; Allbirds claims its “plant skin” is 100% plastic-free.)
“If you combine natural and synthetic materials, there will be problems at the end of their life,” says Philippa Grogan of Eco-Age. “Plastic will harm the biodegradability of the product.”
There’s no doubt that the plant-based leather industry wants to solve this problem: “No one likes to have petrochemicals in their products,” says Rawling. He is optimistic that competition will force companies to develop more sustainable solutions.