Deep science meets high design: the future of sustainable fashion relies on mushrooms

By Alma Fabiani

Published May 20, 2021 at 02:51 PM

Reading time: 5 minutes

Having previously covered Coeio’s biodegradable mushroom ‘infinity burial suit’, and being as involved as possible in the sustainability aspect of the fashion industry, I already knew that lab-grown materials represent a promising alternative to leather and all its environmental hazards, not to mention its cruel practices. And you probably had an inkling too. In fact, in May 2020, Screen Shot predicted that the UK and the US would soon wake up to a potential solution that the rest of the world has been aware of for years: you guessed it, shrooms. That being said, I never thought 2021 would be the year that big names like adidas, Stella McCartney and lululemon would be selling clothes made from these innovative materials. Introducing Mylo, the material that is everything you love about leather without everything you don’t. So, how is it made exactly, and how did it prove to fashion giants that it is the future of sustainability?

What is Mylo exactly?

When I say Mylo’s material is made out of mushrooms, it’s actually slightly more complicated than that. In fact, it is made from mycelium—a sprawling, infinitely renewable, interlaced web that threads through soil, plant bodies, and along river beds to break down organic matter and provide nutrients to plants and trees. It’s literally the world wide web, and mushrooms are its fruits. “The complex latticework of underground fibers so strong they hold the planet together,” reads Mylo’s website. The material is soft, supple, and less harmful to the environment. Duh.

Made possible by the world-class scientists and engineers at Bolt Threads, Mylo is just one of their unconventional technologies—the other ones being Microsilk and B-silk protein. The idea-driven company developed Mylo by engineering mycelium into a material that is near-identical to real leather. It is certified bio-based, meaning it’s made from predominantly renewable ingredients that can be found in nature. To deliver millions of square feet of Mylo, Bolt Threads has built a supply chain that maintains its product’s high quality while continuously minimising its environmental impact.

 

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The company’s European tanning partner has five generations of experience working with leather and meets top certifications in sustainability, including a gold rating from the Leather Working Group. Meanwhile, its mycelium partner is the world’s expert in growing mushrooms; it operates a state-of-the-art facility in the Netherlands that utilises vertical farming to minimise its ecological footprint. And as mentioned above, Mylo will become available to the world through its consortium partners.

What is the Mylo consortium?

First thing first, a consortium is defined as “an association of two or more entities coming together to join forces and work together in achieving a common goal.” In this case, Bolt Threads knew Mylo could change the world, but it also realised that it couldn’t do so alone. “In a resource-constrained world, the time has come to develop smarter solutions through advanced science and a shared commitment to a better future,” explains the company.

Enters the Mylo consortium: adidas, Kering—the multinational corporation specialised in luxury goods that owns brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Bottega Veneta among many other—lululemon, and Stella McCartney. Selected based on mission alignment, high standards of quality, and the ability to scale worldwide, these partners banded together to invest in meaningful material innovation with Mylo. Sounds almost utopian, right? And it might just do the trick.

Let’s be realistic here; leather has served us for centuries, but people evolve, and so should our materials. In our resource-constrained world with a growing population, we are overdue for a renewable, sustainable alternative to leather—or to anything, really. But leather is a good place to start.

Shall we have a closer look at some of the brands that are part of the consortium and exactly how they’ll be using Mylo?

Stan Smith Mylo by adidas

Debuted by adidas in April 2021, the Stan Smith Mylo is the first-ever shoe made with the lab-grown material. A limited-edition drop of the shoes will be available “in the near future.” By reimagining the brand’s iconic shoe silhouette with Mylo, adidas pays homage to a classic with a new pledge of responsibility to find material solutions inspired by nature.

This reimagined classic enables adidas to quickly scale Mylo through a globally beloved silhouette. The outer upper, perforated three stripes, heel tab overlay, and premium branding are all made with the material, and the midsole of the shoe is made with natural rubber.

 

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As a company, adidas has been a longstanding pioneer in using eco-innovative materials to minimise its environmental impact. The brand has proven its commitment to sustainability through innovative partnerships and material exploration. “As a consortium member, adidas has provided critical feedback in the development process to help give Mylo the strength and performance it demonstrates today,” adds Mylo’s website.

Stella McCartney

In April 2018, Bolt Threads collaborated with Stella McCartney to create a prototype of her iconic Falabella bag, made with Mylo. The bag premiered at the Fashioned from Nature exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

In March 2021, Stella McCartney was the first to debut Mylo items from the consortium with a bustier top as well as trousers. According to Bolt Threads, the current items are only a peek into McCartney’s design process with Mylo and an exploration of what the future will look like with sustainable materials at the forefront. And who better to ‘conquer the world’ with than McCartney, who’s known as “fashion’s conscience” for redefining luxury by never using animal leather, skin, fur, or feathers in her collections?

“I believe the Stella community should never have to compromise luxury and design for sustainability, and Mylo makes that a reality,” said the designer about her new sustainable collaboration. Although her Mylo garments only debuted in March, both the bustier top and trousers were already worn by actress and environmentalist Paris Jackson in a Vogue exclusive feature. The clothes were handcrafted from panels of Mylo laid on recycled nylon scuba at the Stella McCartney atelier in London.

 

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Interest from big brands equals the fabric of the future?

While lululemon and Kering are yet to reveal how they’ll be using Mylo through their brands’ products, other smaller companies have already jumped on the bandwagon. Chester Wallace has collaborated with the company through a Kickstarter campaign that was funded in only seven days. As a result, the Driver bag became the prototype for the first commercially available bag made with Mylo.

All in all, Mylo consumes significantly less land and emits fewer greenhouse gases than raising livestock. The mycelium used to make Mylo is grown from mulch, air, and water in just a few short weeks—versus the land and other significant resources it takes to raise cattle over the course of years.

Using Green Chemistry principles, Mylo is created through a highly efficient process that is rigorously designed to reduce environmental impact from start to finish. The fashion industry remains one of the most polluting sectors in the world. By growing its material from mycelium, Bolt Threads is hoping to offset some of this environmental impact. “The truth is, this industry remains an environmental ticking time bomb and is full of outdated technologies,” chief executive and founder Dan Widmaier told The New York Times in 2020, when the company announced its consortium.

“We had to convince these industry competitors that this was about tackling a bigger challenge together than any of them could solve alone,” he further explained, declining to specify the exact amounts invested by the four brands other than that each had committed “seven-figure sums” to the partnership. “This kind of innovation is really expensive,” Widmaier added.

Making mushroom leather happen for once and for all

It might surprise some of you, but inventors have actually filed patents for fungal mats as a material for a range of other products since the 1950s, and Amadou, a spongy, Romanian leather-like material sourced from the fruiting of tree fungi, has been around for thousands of years.

But it is only in the last decade that Bolt Threads, alongside other bio-materials companies like MycoWorks, has really begun targeting the fashion industry, one of the most polluting sectors in the world. The technology behind mushroom leather, although far more advanced today, had been there for quite some time. It only needed to be convincing enough to big fashion companies in order to become available for consumers. And we’ve finally reached that point.

 

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In an email, Francois Henri-Pinault, Kering’s chief executive, wrote that luxury companies (which have far larger profit margins than affordably-priced retailers) had a responsibility to lead the way in the fashion and textile industry, both creatively but also by investing in the innovation that would drastically reduce emissions in its supply chain. “Mylo is one of the very promising solutions that we have identified,” he said.

Seeing such names put aside the competitive aspect of the fashion industry in order to change their impact on the planet might be the first step towards real sustainability. Looks like there’s about to be humongous fungus among us!

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