The science behind Hermès' new mushroom-based leather bag


The science behind Hermès' new mushroom-based leather bag

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Written by Danielle Olavario

Last month, Hermès sprouted a new vegan alternative for its classic Victoria travel bag, one made out of a mushroom-based sustainable textile known as Sylvania. The project is a three-year long collaboration with California-based start-up MycoWorks. The partnership was praised by Hermès Artistic Director Pierre-Alexis Dumas, saying: “With Sylvania, Hermès is at the heart of what it has always been: innovation in the making.”But from what exactly is this new material made, and how sustainable is it?

Hermès has relaunched its classic Victoria travel bag

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A key stage in the mushroom life cycle

When we think of mushrooms, we usually think of its fruit body- think the caterpillar's seat in Alice in Wonderland. But how this fruit body comes into being is largely hidden from view. When moisture, temperature and nutrients are favourable, spores drop from a mature mushroom and are germinated into hyphae. As hyphae grows and branches, it makes connections with other hyphae to create the mycelium, which will eventually grow into the mushroom fruit body.

This process is the bread and butter of Hermès’ new product. Sylvania was created through MycoWorks' patented Fine Mycelium technology. It's different from 'mushroom leather' which compresses mycelium to create textile. Instead, Fine Mycelium is custom-grown in a lab, giving it inherent strength and durability. Mycoworks says its properties can even be customised, lending to even more versatility. “People, for a long time, have grown something called mushroom leather,” CEO Matt Scullin told Cool Hunting in an interview. “It’s compressed down into something more like expanded PVC or yoga mat material and it’s very weak. What we do is, while our material is growing, we coerce the mycelium cells into a woven structure. This gives it much more strength and durability. After we harvest, we can then go into tanning.” The result? Material that looks and feels like real leather, without compromising quality and durability.

Hermès' new mushroom-based 'leather' bag, and exactly how sustainable is it?
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The future of sustainable fashion?

Sustainability issues in the livestock sector is well documented. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, livestock responsible for about 14% of all greenhouse emissions from human activity. Raising cattle represents about 65% of those emissions. Moreover, leather tanning is a long process that is energy- and resource- intensive, not to mention the amount of sludge it produces. Growing mycelium from leather is a natural biological process that compared to obtaining leather from cattle, is low-maintenance. It only takes weeks to manufacture a finished 'fungi leather', whereas it takes years to raise a cow to maturity. Although the process is simple and can be completed with minimal equipment and resources, it is easy to be industrially scaled for mass production.

Hermès sprouted a new vegan alternative for its classic Victoria travel bag, one made out of a mushroom-based sustainable textile known as Sylvania

Photo cred: Hermès 

A move towards more sustainable materials

Hermes isn't the only one looking at alternative materials. On Wednesday, Ecovative, a company that also creates textiles and other products from mushrooms, secured a $60 million funding. Meanwhile, Stella McCartney recently launched products containing Mylo, a mycelium material developed by Bolt Threads, with other “Mylo Consortium” members including Adidas, Lululemon and Kering.

The global market for leather goods is valued at more than $400 billion, and an overnight change in the way the system works is highly unlikely. But it’s extremely promising that Hermès, a company that built its reputation on high quality leather, is investing in mycelium.“We could not imagine a better partner than Hermès to present our first object made of Fine Mycelium. Hermès and MycoWorks share common values of craftsmanship, quality, innovation, and patience,” Scullin said in a statement. “Sylvania is the result of a shared vision for growing the future of materials and a quest to unlock new design possibilities.” With such a promising start, this magical new material is likely to mould the future of the fashion industry.