Mushroom Leather Is About to Bloom for Fashion

·6 min read

Make room for ‘shrooms: The world of fashion and the world of mushrooms converged in 2021 through fungi-inspired looks on the runways and the introduction of mycelium vegan leather designer products.

But those examples might just be a trickle compared to what comes next.

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Following a $60 million Series D funding round in March, Ecovative Design, a pioneer in mycelium material science, is planning to bring its mushroom biofabrication technology directly to fashion, footwear and accessories. The company told WWD that it’s in talks with brands and aims to drop new partnership announcements in the coming months.

The arrangement would mark a notable shift from Ecovative’s typical model, which licenses the technology to market partners. They then produce their own mycelium textiles and other items, using the mushroom root to create materials like packaging, vegan leather and food for brands and other businesses.

The dealmaking is a show of confidence, and perhaps with good reason. The company holds most of the patents in this field — some 60 percent to 70 percent, according to chief executive officer and cofounder Eben Bayer. It also built a new mycelium foundry, allowing it to explore a large number of strains at the same time, radically accelerating its research and development capabilities.

“It’s basically to create a whole suite of ‘hides’ from the forests that are based on mushrooms and not animals,” explained Bayer.

He might be regarded as the father of mycelium materials — his first invention goes back to 2006, when he was a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His work on mushroom-based insulation wound up birthing a movement, with other companies now working with mycelium fabrications.

Of course, it goes far beyond packaging. With its mycelium foundry, Ecovative believes it has achieved breakthroughs on a new breed of high-quality faux leather that can replace alligator, cow and pig hides without compromise, through its Forager Hides mycelium leather.

It’s logical, if one considers the natural world. “Fungi and animals are actually much more closely related than plants, so if you’re going to make a hide-like thing, mushrooms make sense,” Bayer said.

The mycelium hides that his company produces through the foundry today benchmark very similarly to existing bovine leathers across tear strength, tensile strength, drape and feel, he added. His team focused on the science to produce this quality, and do so consistently, to make it suitable for business applications.

Bayer also believes the timing is ripe. In the past, the public wasn’t ready or may have had reservations about vegan leather, considering it inferior or lower quality than animal hides. “But I think we reached a tipping point, particularly in fashion, and across the globe, [with] people wanting these kinds of solutions,” he explained.

“I think more specifically within the fashion industry, and as a technological solution, mycelium has been identified as the best alternative to using an animal skin — or potentially something that can, I believe, be even better than the animal hides.”

The sentiment rings true for cinematographer, director and producer Louie Schwartzberg, whose 2019 documentary “Fantastic Fungi” captivated fans on Netflix.

This weekend, Schwartzberg is holding the Fantastic Fungi Summit to dive into different areas of mushroom application, from cooking to wellness and, of course, mycelium science. Speakers include Deepak Chopra, Rick Bayless, Michael Pollan and others, including Ecovative’s Bayer.

A shot from Louie Schwartzberg’s film “Fantastic Fungi” on Netflix. - Credit: Courtesy photo
A shot from Louie Schwartzberg’s film “Fantastic Fungi” on Netflix. - Credit: Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

When it comes to the fashion world, “clearly what is new is the use of mycelium product to replace leather. Stella McCartney has a new handbag, maybe the first mycelium-made handbag,” Schwartzberg told WWD. “And mycelium is being used in a lot of other applications, as well as replacement for leather.”

McCartney used Mylo, a vegan mushroom-based leather produced by Bolt Threads. When the relationship kicked off in 2018 — with the designer’s first Mylo prototype bag, the Falabella, on display in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum — Bolt was licensing Ecovative Design’s original mycelium technology. The companies fell out, and following a legal dispute, are no longer connected.

Over the summer, McCartney released a bustier and utility pants made of the material, followed by the Frayme Mylo bag during Paris Fashion Week. It’s the first product heading to the consumer market using Bolt’s Mylo leather.

Mushrooms hold more influence on fashion than mere textiles, however.

Fans of the documentary often say that the most mind-blowing aspect of the fungi world is its interconnectedness, and the theme seems to have resonated for fashion this year, at least on an aesthetic basis, with designers indulging pattern replication and other nature-inspired prints.

“The best thing about the movie for me, which I had no idea when I started, was this idea that the mycelial network, this underground internet, is a shared economy for ecosystems to flourish without greed,” Schwartzberg explained. “That is how nature works.…You can see the mycelial network connects the mother tree with the baby tree, the trees that’s in the shade with the trees that’s in the sun. They share nutrients; they share information. It’s how everybody survives.”

Cinematographer, director and producer Louie Schwartzberg. - Credit: Courtesy photo
Cinematographer, director and producer Louie Schwartzberg. - Credit: Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

He described the phenomenon as “nature’s intelligence or biomimicry,” as a replicated network rippling out and facilitating communication between fungi and other plants. It’s evident in the visible patterns seen in the forest and, he said, it’s even extended to the runways.

For the filmmaker, “the part that really blows my mind is the fact that a lot of the designers are saying that the fungi has inspired their fashion design. You look at the patterns in their fabrics, like shots of turkey tail and lion’s mane [mushrooms]. I think it’s exploded.”

Indeed, designers like Johanna Ortiz said that “Fantastic Fungi,” specifically, influenced looks in her fall 2021 collection.

“That, I think, is the big surprise — that it’s actually creating and shaping art and beauty, by taking these rhythms and patterns from the natural world and bringing them into fashion,” he continued.

In that sense, perhaps it’s not so surprising. In Schwartzberg’s mind, fungi and its intelligent network are beautiful, and people are hardwired to respond to beauty.

“I think people are waking up to incorporating the patterns and colors of nature — to be more natural, to be more organic. And that’s why I think we saw this explosion this year, with fungi meeting fashion,” he added.

“I mean, I never thought it would be a part of couture fashion. And now it is.”

The next step, according to Ecovative, is to breed the mushrooms at sufficient scale for mass adoption.

“For us and everyone involved in the space, the remaining step is to prove true industrial scale production. Because materials that perform well, that you can only see in a museum or get as a one-off or special sale, really, is not satisfying to the public, who wants these goods,” Bayer said.

He knows that massive scaling is critical to this effort, and his road map aims to achieve that over the next five or six years.

“We are building, at this moment, the world’s largest aerial mycelium farm, capable of producing millions of pounds or millions of square feet,” he added.

The hope is that mycelium leather adoption will experience what every brand wants for their products: a major mushrooming effect.

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