Mylo, the ‘unleather’, can by dyed and embossed like normal leather
Where sustainable fashion is concerned, the leather goods industry hasn’t been setting the best example.
Though ethical and environmental concerns have pushed the wider industry to become increasingly eco- and animal-friendly, the leather goods market—which is valued at $414 billion globally—is still dominated by animal offcuts.
While ‘genuine leather’ holds sartorial clout for some, the byproducts emit greenhouse gases, consume finite natural resources (particularly through the rearing of livestock), and pollute the environment through tanning and dying processes.
The most obvious solution would be to opt for vegan leathers, of course, but their credentials aren’t always much better. While a handful of brands have poured money into developing plant-based alternatives, the world’s most prevalent and widely-used ‘vegan leather’, polyurethane (or ‘PU’), is little more than a throwaway pollutant itself.
As it’s derived from fossil fuels, in fact, ‘PU leather’ not only releases toxic materials into the atmosphere but takes hundreds of years to biodegrade in landfill.
To so-called ‘conscious consumers, the choice is less than ideal. At least it was before biotechnology company Bolt Threads created a leather alternative special enough to get attention—and investment—from major fashion brands.
Mylo vegan leather looks and feels like genuine leather
The ‘unleather’, Mylo, has taken three years and approximately 4,000 iterations to finesse. Unlike anything else on the market, it is grown from mycelium cells (the ‘roots’ that fungi use to grow), fed with sawdust, rested, and harvested over the course of two weeks, making it one of the most naturally- and infinitely-renewable materials on Earth.
It follows Bolt Threads’ first innovation, Microsilk, which was launched in 2017 to replicate spider-spun silk using lab-grown proteins, fermented yeast, sugar and water.
The material piqued the interest of Stella McCartney, who went on to design a handbag and dress using Microsilk, but there were few ripples in the industry’s waters otherwise.
With Mylo, however, Bolt Threads hit the jackpot.
“Today, when you touch Mylo, you get the same feeling as when you’re touching a natural leather,” says Dan Widmaier, CEO of Bolt Threads. “Many people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Mylo and leather by touch.”
In a major cross-industry first, Stella McCartney, Adidas, Lululemon and Kering (the luxury group behind Gucci, Saint Laurent and more) have just announced they’re joining forces to invest in the material and secure exclusive access to it, too.
As part of the newly-established consortium, the brands have each agreed to spend seven-figure sums to bolster Mylo’s production capabilities and create a supply chain that would allow it to be manufactured at a commercially-viable scale.
“This is a physical product technology, so scale up is slow and filled with details,” says Widmaier. “It takes years to reach a scale where initial products can be launched by brands at the quality and quantity we expect.”
Additionally, scale drives cost, and access to the average fashion consumer relies on the cost of sustainable technologies competing with that of existing materials.
Still, even in the intermediate term, Widmaier is optimistic. “We will see the spread of sustainable materials expand quickly,” he says. “The consumer demand is there, and part of our mission is to make these materials more accessible as quickly as we can.”
Stella McCartney agrees, too. “Many people associate leather with luxury but, since the beginning, I always wanted to approach things in a different way,” she says, “because killing animals for the sake of fashion is quite simply not acceptable.
“I cannot wait to launch Mylo products to market.”
McCartney and her consortium fellow will launch Mylo-crafted products, separately, starting early 2021.
“Without diving into too much detail, you can imagine that we are pulling from fpur billion years of evolution across the whole planet,” Widmaier adds. “Saying we are only scratching the surface of what is possible is a giant understatement.”