Mushrooms are being transformed into sustainable luxury materials
The fashion and sportswear brands on a mission to create a greener future with fungi, from Stella McCartney to Lululemon
Mushrooms are currently enjoying a cultural renaissance beyond the kitchen. Psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic ‘shrooms’, is being touted for use in the treatment of anxiety and depression, while Japanese snow fungus and fungi-derived kojic acid are believed to encourage a dewy, blemish-free complexion. Meanwhile, in science labs across the globe, start-ups are cultivating fungal innovations not only for the wellness and beauty industries, but for the fashion and sportswear sectors, too.
Mycelium, the thread-like root structures of fungi, has the ability to be transformed into sheets of biomaterial, remarkably similar in composition to durable, strong and softly patinated leather, piquing the interest of the fashion world. A kilogram of leather requires 17,000 litres of water to produce, farming livestock makes up approximately 14 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and around 70 per cent of the Amazon’s deforested area is now used for cattle pastures, so the quest for more eco-friendly fabrics has fostered an increasing number of collaborations between luxury groups, labels and scientific start-ups.
In October last year, Adidas, Stella McCartney, Lululemon and Kering (which owns the likes of Saint Laurent, Gucci and Balenciaga) announced they had teamed up to form the Mylo consortium, a partnership with Silicon Valley material solutions firm Bolt Threads, aimed at commercialising Mylo, a supple, mycelium-derived alternative to leather. Meanwhile, in March this year, Hermès unveiled its partnership with MycoWorks, reimagining the fashion house’s classic ‘Victoria’ travel bag in sylvania, a mushroom leather created using the Californian biotechnology company’s patented Fine Mycelium technology.
The magical materiality of mushrooms
One benefit of mycelium is its ability to be cultivated with less of an environmental impact than petroleum- or animal-derived products. Bolt Threads’ Mylo is cultivated in indoor vertical farming facilities, where mycelial cells are fed sawdust and organic matter in climatic conditions similar to the forest floor. Mycelium is grown into a foamy mushroom-like layer, which is harvested, processed and dyed into sheets. At MycoWorks’ California facilities, the Fine Mycelium is grown in proprietary trays, designed to induce optimal conditions. ‘We capture data at every stage of growth, which is then used to refine each sheet’s strength, flexibility and thickness, according to our partners’ specifications,’ says Matt Scullin, MycoWorks’ CEO.
It’s prescient that Hermès, famed for its leather making, is making moves towards mycelium. ‘Since its earliest days, the maison has created new materials that respond to the needs and uses of our time,’ says Hermès’ artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas of the three-year development of sylvania, which has been crafted to ‘complement, not replace’ its current offering. Dumas praises the material for being ‘surprisingly plump, springy and incredibly soft’.
To create Mylo, rigorous R&D and testing processes are carried out by Bolt Threads’ team of scientists. ‘We try many different avenues at once of any material,’ says the company’s VP of product development, Jamie Bainbridge, who is thrilled by the breadth of the brands that Bolt Threads is collaborating with. ‘They all have different market constraints and product creation cycles,’ she says. ‘But they’re all invested long term in our journey.’
Stella McCartney, who has never used leather, feathers, fur or skin in her designs, first began working with Bolt Threads back in 2016, later unveiling a Mylo prototype of the brand’s signature ‘Falabella’ handbag. In March this year, McCartney debuted the second design in her Mylo mission, a black bustier top and trousers in recycled neoprene with mycelium leather panels. ‘I chose to create ready-to-wear pieces to show the true breadth of what this material can do, which, in turn, is a world first,’ she explains. A month later, Adidas debuted its first Mylo design, a version of its signature Stan Smith trainers, with a mycelium leather upper, marking the first time Mylo has been used in footwear. ‘It has become the brand’s franchise shoe for innovation,’ says Bainbridge about the Stan Smith. In November 2019, the German sportswear behemoth teamed up with McCartney on a vegan iteration while, in March this year, it unveiled a version crafted from Primegreen, a performance fabric that contains no virgin plastic.
In July, Lululemon also showcased its debut Mylo designs, two yoga bags that will go on sale in early 2022, alongside a conceptual mat made entirely from mycelium leather. ‘Leveraging a material like Mylo demonstrates our commitment to creating a healthier environment through lower-impact products,’ explains Lululemon’s chief product officer Sun Choe. ‘The feel and performance of our fabrics and materials is key to product experience.’
There has been a clear shift in the fashion industry’s mindset towards learning from the natural world rather than plundering it. ‘We’re harnessing whatever nature has designed to make materials for our use,’ says Bainbridge. McCartney adds, ‘It’s so encouraging to see this shift. We need more designers helping to implement this, taking responsibility, making changes and not being afraid.’ §