When Bentley Motors announced that it was looking into developing interiors for its vegan millionaire customers at the Future of the Car Summit in London in May, it nudged the term "mushroom leather" further into the design lexicon. Otherwise known as muskin – a term coined by Italian textile developer Grado Zero Espace – this leather-like material is made from spores extracted from the upper button or "hat" of the Phellinus ellipsoideus mushroom.
Animal hides top the list of contentious substances sourced in the name of fashion, and a number of brands and buyers are now looking to produce and purchase cruelty-free leather. Notably, Stella McCartney presented her autumn/winter collection for this year in an alternative suede material that she dubbed "skin-free skin". The conscientious British designer said she had avoided using faux leather before because it had "never looked luxurious enough".
Muskin, on the other hand, is processed in the same manner as animal leather, but it does not require the use of tanning toxins or other chemicals, making it 100 per cent natural. The resultant vegetable leather is hygienic, versatile and breathable. It also repels water and resists bacteria, making it suitable for close-to-skin use.
Importantly, for consumers and designers who are both fashion- and environment-conscious, the fabric rivals the softness of suede and the sturdiness of leather. And muskin's pliable texture means that it can be shaped into three-dimensional forms, such as shoe insoles, watch straps and purses.
As mycologist and author Paul Stamets puts it: “Mushroom leather is not only durable, but the process of creating it is painless and the carbon footprint is minimal compared to animal leather. Thanks to it, you do not have to kill an animal to acquire your next fashion accessory.”
The author of six books and founder of the Fungi Perfecti organic company in Washington, Stamets is the world’s leading expert on the many medicinal, ecological and lifestyle applications for mushrooms. His recent TED talk on Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World reached out to four million people, while a teaser of his upcoming film Fantastic Fungi has more than five million views. He even has a character in the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery named after and inspired by him. In the series, Starfleet Lieutenant Stamets (played by Rent actor Anthony Rapp) studies high-potential space fungus.
Back here on Earth, the real Stamets and his team work on discovering and developing the anti-viral properties of mushrooms; the effect they might have on insects, with a view to replacing toxic pesticides; and a mushroom-bee research initiative to protect food biosecurity. While these are mainly work-in-progress projects, the company also dabbles in making mushrooms more accessible and interesting to the general public.
For instance, in addition to organic gourmet mushrooms, the Fungi Perfecti store sells hats and purses made from the amadou mushroom, and the team is currently working on a mushroom-based skincare line.
"Studies have shown that our chaga mushrooms [an immunity-boosting superfood] have superior antioxidant properties, so we are using them to develop the You Are Beautiful product line, in close consultation with the American Association of Dermatologists," Stamets says.
Leather, then, is not the only by-product of mushrooms. While muskin is sourced from the mushroom head, the fleshy underpart, or root, of reishi, shiitake, maitake and other varieties yields a fine, thread-like fabric of cells called mycelium. Like muskin, mycelium also has a range of industrial and lifestyle uses.
For instance, San Francisco-based start-up MycoWorks has used it to develop bricks, panels and tiles that it guarantees can be used to build the houses of the future. Co-founder and Stanford professor Phil Ross and his team develop the fireproof, impact-resistant construction blocks by combining the cobwebby mycelium fibre with agricultural waste, such as wood dust, corn husks and pistachio shells, in a carbon-free process. As is its nature, the fungi grow as one with the material and form natural bonds. The resultant material sticks together like glue and is sealed by a closed-loop baking process to kill any organisms that would cause the mushrooms to sprout again. Ross has already built a range of baskets, stools, chairs and tables by filling a mould with sawdust and inoculating it with mycelium.
Mycelium can also be crafted into wearable textiles. In 2014, Danish product designer Jonas Edvard combined oyster mushroom spores with hemp and linen to create myx, a fabric with a felt-like texture, which he used to design lamps. Dutch textile designer Aniela Hoitink created a fabric she named MycoTEX and even tailored a dress from it last year.
“I was always interested in mimicking skin and all its dynamic, changeable and living aspects, by altering or adding to the properties of textiles,” says Hoitink, who worked with brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Gaastra, before launching Neffa, a textile-innovation company, in 2004. The end goal was to create a textile out of living material and then develop a real garment from it. To do this, Hoitink combined mycelium with textiles to create a flexible, composite product, eventually developing a fabric composed exclusively of pure mycelium.
"My inspiration came from the observation of 'soft bodies' species," she explains. "Such organisms grow by replicating themselves over and over again, following a modular pattern. So I built a textile that does the same; a solution that provides a number of important benefits. For one, it's easy to repair and replace the garment without interfering with the look of the fabric.
“Furthermore, the garment can be built three-dimensionally and shaped while being made, fitting the wearer’s wishes. Thus, it is possible to create mycelium patterns, to adjust the length of the garment or to add elements – say, sleeves. This allows us to grow just the right amount of material needed, eliminating any potential waste during the making process.”
Hoitink’s experimentation resulted in the “mushroom dress”, which can be adjusted to adapt to changing fashions and can be repaired when needed. Once the garment is not in use anymore, it can easily be composted.
"It is very difficult to change people," says Hoitink, who is currently working on a collection of MycoTEX accessories. "So, instead, we are changing textiles into eco-friendly disposables, which have a positive impact on the environment. By using a natural and biodegradable textile, we eliminate waste, make soil more fertile, and reduce the use of energy, water, chemicals and transport, to try to change the high position the fashion industry currently occupies on the pollutant list," says Hoitink, who is currently working on a collection of MycoTEX accessories.
"I want to prove that it is possible to completely rethink the future of clothing and other items, because today, fashion is all about being innovative, sustainable, ever-changing and always cool."
Stamets adds: “The increasing use of mushrooms in fashion and luxury motoring signifies that this is a hot subject. The increasing popularity, especially among the younger generation, is because this innovation is not only good to the touch, but is also eco-conscious, unexpected and simply brilliant.”
As is the case with any transitional trend, though, mushrooms do have a handful of detractors. These critics argue that while the material's eco-friendly and chemical-free properties – a bona fide need of the hour – cannot be denied, what is being touted as a sustainable material may eventually run out.
Its fans counter that this could not be farther from the truth, however, because the beauty of fungi lies in its ability to proliferate.
"Once you have a mushroom strain in the lab, you can create cultures for hundreds of years," Stamets notes. "We can grow mycelium en masse, by the tonne, from a tiny piece of mushroom tissue that is one-hundredth the size of your little finger nail. We will never 'run out'."
Hoitink confirms that the mycelium she uses also comes from a laboratory where it is especially cultivated under the right conditions. “Mycelium can be made to grow exponentially, which means it doubles every day,” she says.
And if the idea of wearing an outfit or carrying a bag made from what is, essentially, fungus, still doesn't appeal, rethink the idea in relation to the friendly mushrooms of your childhood, such as Mario's power-boosting plant and Enid Blyton's cheery toadstools and fairy rings. Even Santa Claus's red-and-white suit was based on the colours of the fly agaric mushroom, rumoured to house gnomes and elves in the enchanted countryside of many a writer's imagination. Because – and this has to be said – these modern-day mushrooms really are nothing short of magic.