In the heart of San Francisco, the next frontier of luxury fashion accessories is taking root, and it’s not where you’d expect. The unassuming mushroom, or more accurately, its underground network, mycelium, is sparking a revolution in the world of luxury fashion and beyond. Leading this charge is a dynamic startup named MycoWorks, on the brink of launching its first large-scale commercial production facility in South Carolina.
The Pioneers of Mycelium-Based Luxury
While the majority might only acknowledge the mushroom in culinary contexts or as a staple in various global cuisines, MycoWorks sees it as the foundation of a sustainable future for leather alternatives. The company has fine-tuned a technique that transforms mycelium into a luxurious leather substitute. Their upcoming facility is projected to churn out millions of square feet of this novel material annually.
A testimony to their success so far is their roster of high-end clients. Household names such as Hermès, Ligne Roset, and even General Motors are exploring partnerships with the company. The latter, an automobile giant, is considering swapping traditional leather with MycoWorks’ sustainable alternative for their vehicle interiors.
Matt Scullin, the visionary CEO of MycoWorks and an accomplished materials scientist, shared insights into their growth trajectory. “Our establishment and expansion were made possible thanks to our esteemed partners. Their faith and investment have positioned us to make significant inroads into the luxury and fashion sectors,” he stated.
Why Sustainable Fashion and Why Now?
The global fashion industry, over the years, has come under scrutiny for its environmental impact, from vast carbon footprints to overwhelming plastic waste. As many brands scramble to set climate targets and commitments, there’s a pronounced shift towards seeking sustainable alternatives. Specifically, there’s a massive push to replace animal-based or plastic-infused leather with more environmentally-friendly alternatives.
These changes haven’t gone unnoticed by investors. According to the Material Innovation Initiative, over 100 startups have sprouted, aiming to develop sustainable alternatives to mainstream materials. In 2022 alone, these next-gen materials-focused startups secured an impressive $457 million in investments.
However, MycoWorks’ journey isn’t an overnight success story. Scullin mentioned that the transformation from conceptualization to commercialization spanned decades. The venture has accumulated funding to the tune of $187 million to date.
A Reality Check: The Scale of Impact
While MycoWorks’ progress is commendable, it’s essential to understand the broader context. The anticipated production from their new facility will only cater to a fraction of the colossal 23 billion sq ft of leather produced worldwide annually. A significant portion of this leather finds its way to the footwear industry.
This is not to dismiss the potential impact of alternative materials. Still, it underscores the reality that these innovative solutions currently form a small fraction of a vastly established market.
Challenges in the Horizon
The road to sustainable fashion isn’t without its hurdles. A notable example is Bolt Threads, another company in the mycelium leather sector. Despite securing over $300 million in funds since 2009 and boasting partnerships with fashion icons like Stella McCartney and Adidas, they had to halt production recently. Funding challenges forced the CEO, Dan Widmaier, to contemplate selling their pioneering technology to ensure it doesn’t get lost in the annals of history.
However, the industry remains ripe for investment. A separate startup named Ecovative, venturing into mycelium-based bacon, textiles, and packaging, recently secured over $30 million in funds.
The Hermès Influence and Broader Implications
Anne Higonnet, a distinguished art history professor at New York’s Barnard College, highlighted the significance of iconic brands like Hermès adopting sustainable materials. “The brand’s aura stems partly from the exclusivity of its products, like the globally renowned Birkin handbag,” she said. “Their backing can significantly boost experimental companies, driving them to scale up and refine leather substitutes. The overarching aim is to transition away from both leather and plastics.”
Scullin envisions a world where MycoWorks’ flagship material, Reishi, becomes mainstream. He believes the distinguishing factors for Reishi are its unparalleled quality and a unique production process, where sheets of mycelium are cultivated in compact trays.
Concluding on a profound note, Scullin said, “While sustainability forms a core part of our narrative, it’s not the entirety of it. We’ve deliberately positioned ourselves differently from our competitors. We believe in offering consumers top-tier quality without compromising on sustainability, and this resonates with brands as well.”
As the lines between luxury and sustainability blur, companies like MycoWorks represent a hopeful transition to a future where high fashion doesn’t come at the planet’s expense. Only time will tell if mycelium becomes a staple in luxury fashion, but the seeds of change have undoubtedly been sown.