Cactus as arm candy: handbag industry turns to plant leathers

The hardy succulent makes for a viable alternative for an increasingly eco-conscious fashion industry, alongside apples, mushrooms, mangoes and more

Native Dubai creates its woven handbags from cactus leather.
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The next time you are in the fruit and vegetable section of your local supermarket, or even browsing through succulents in a nursery, consider that your next luxury handbag may well have its origins there, as more designers and brands seek to craft this accessory from plant-based leather.

Apples, pineapples, mushrooms, grapes and even mangoes are being turned into forms of synthetic leather, while orange fibre and castor beans are sources being investigated for fashion textiles. The idea of using plant-based leathers to replace traditional calfskin for a luxury handbag may sound bizarre, but it is becoming big business. Driven by vegan and sustainable demands, the fashion world is exploring animal-free alternatives.

Why is leather so bad for the environment?

While leather is a luxury staple, it is typically a resource-intensive process, involving vast amounts of water, land and energy to rear cows, as well as releasing potentially hazardous chemicals that harm the environment to treat and dye the hide.

Fruit leathers are lighter in comparison to calfskin, but the biggest advantage is they don’t require the toxic tanning process of animal skin. About 80 per cent of the world’s leather is tanned with chrome, a metal that leaves chrome on the surface of the soil when it breaks down. The rest are tanned with aldehyde, which is banned in most countries, or with vegetable tanning, which is the best of the bunch.

Cactus leather to the rescue

Desserto cactus leather totes by Luxtra.

Plant-based leathers are also continuing to evolve and improve in both look and texture. Rachna Malkani, who, with her husband Rahul, owns the accessories brand Native Dubai, has been exploring environmentally ethical practices, but has been held back by a consistent lack of supply, choice of colours, durability issues and finishes luxurious enough for the UAE market.

It has taken the couple four years to find a solution for their vision. Better known for its calfskin, camel leather and exotic skins (all sourced from ethical tanneries), the brand hosted a pre-launch pre-order campaign on its website for a collection of handbags constructed from patterned woven material and cactus leather, a fully sustainable vegan-friendly product, last month.

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This plant should be among the miracles of nature. It is the only crop that can be trusted where all the others have failed
Marte Cazarez, co-founder, Desserto

“Cactus leather felt very Native Dubai in its essence,” says Malkani. “You think of cactus and you think of the desert, and that complements our origins.” Malkani was drawn to the durability and tensile strength of this particular plant-based leather, plus the range of colours in matte and lacquer finishes.

The cactus leather comes from a specialist producer in Mexico called Desserto, founded in 2019 by Adrian Lopez Velarde and Marte Cazarez, who previously worked with leather in the automotive and fashion industries where they identified the very serious problems of environmental pollution.

Looking for a sustainable alternative to animal leather and plastics for fashion accessories, they hit upon cactus, particularly prickly pear cactus. This doesn’t require much water, absolutely no chemicals and it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Another advantage, Cazarez points out, as we face the challenges of climate change with prolonged droughts and desertification, is that cactus farming could be the answer in places exposed to drought, where there are high temperatures and poor soils.

“This plant should be among the miracles of nature,” says Cazarez. “The cactus is capable of growing on land where other crops won’t prosper. It can be used for the restoration of degraded land in many countries. It is the only crop that can be trusted where all the others have failed.”

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The texture, weight and overall composition of [apple skin] leather are as close to the real thing as I have ever seen or felt
Tyler Ellis, accessory designer

The mature leaves of the cactus are harvested and, in a patented process, washed, mashed up and left out to dry before being mixed with non-toxic materials, coloured and finished in whatever texture desired. A key issue the pair are working on is durability: currently, the leather needs a small amount of polyurethane for strength. This means it is not biodegradable and fossil fuels are still required to produce the PU. “We are working on solutions and our aim is to achieve 100 per cent organic content in the material,” says Cazarez. “At present, we are at 80 per cent.”

Another accessory brand working with Desserto’s cactus leather is Luxtra, founded by Jessica Kruger, who ran a vegetarian restaurant in London for a few years before venturing into plant-based leather accessories. She has experimented with mango, pineapple leaves, corn and apple leathers – all cellulose-based materials. The cactus leather is soft and malleable and therefore suitable for totes. Kruger admits the need for PU for durability is an issue. “It is a trade-off right now between eco-leather and durability, but it is up to what the customer decides they want,” she says.

Apple skin handbags

A Luxtra handbag made from apple skin leather.

Another leather Kruger favours is apple skin, a byproduct of the fruit juice industry. An estimated 3.7 trillion apples are thrown away annually for imperfections. In a patented process pioneered by Frumat in Italy, the unwanted peels and cores are ground and dried into a powder, which is then mixed with a binder and pigment to spread on to a canvas, and then it turns into a leather-like material. The textile is created by an Italian ecologic textile developer Mabel, which operates near the accessory-making centre of Florence.

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The younger generation are ... becoming more aware and conscious of the urgency of our environmental safety
Rachna Malkani, co-founder, Native Dubai

Attractive and versatile, the apple leather also has devotees in the US. In Los Angeles, accessory designer Tyler Ellis, daughter of renowned American designer Perry Ellis, has turned to apple leather because she has clients who lead plant-based lifestyles and do not want calfskin handbags. She uses AppleVogue.

“The texture, weight and overall composition of AppleVogue leather are as close to the real thing as I have ever seen or felt, and I am able to use it on almost every one of my silhouettes,” says Ellis. “It’s lightweight, and has a beautiful, refined and durable finish to it. I challenge you to tell me the difference!”

Accessory designer Tyler Ellis says it is nearly impossible to distinguish between apple skin and 'real' leather.

Apple leathers such as AppleVogue are bringing a momentum to the fashion world. “It’s inspiring to see products we consume daily, like fruit, repurposed for the greater good of the environment, and I’m thrilled to incorporate it into my work,” says Ellis.

Other brands on the plant leather bandwagon

Evidently, there is a shift in the luxury market away from a reliance on calfskin and exploring vegan alternatives. Even a house such as Hermes, synonymous with luxury, has designed a travel bag using mushroom-based leather called Sylvania – an amber-coloured fungi thread derivative grown in a laboratory.

Stella McCartney, a pioneer of sustainability, showcased the Frayme bag in her spring/summer 2022 collection reimagined in a mushroom material called Mylo, which she has been working on since 2017. The threadlike root structures of fungi are grown in labs, using no water and barely any electricity. They are compressed and formulated into a faux leather for this bag that’s limited to 100 pieces. These will be at a higher price point than the average leather bag, but McCartney describes it as “the beginning of something new”.

Swedish brand H&M is similarly looking at alternatives for small capsule collections, having designed pieces using cactus leather, pineapple leather and orange silk. Currently, it is using Vegea, a leather partly made from waste from the winemaking industry and other sustainable materials in a capsule menswear collaboration with actor John Boyega.

The move to animal-free leather is a reflection of how brands are grappling with a changing consumer base. In the UAE, Malkani believes the market is becoming aware of the need for sustainability in personal and lifestyle choices, and she points to how the UAE’s leadership is adopting innovative ideas to reduce carbon footprint. “We feel the younger generation are taking the lead from our leaders, and getting inspired by their vision and becoming more aware and conscious of the urgency of our environmental safety.”

Updated: January 06, 2022, 4:36 AM