PARIS — Skins grown in a lab. For shoppers of luxury leather goods, such a concept could take some mental adjustment. But with fur a taboo subject and premium skins limited in supply, biofabricated alternatives to animal byproducts could soon be part of the scenery.
Deep science takes time. But over the past five years, pioneers of a new animal-free material world have emerged on the landscape. These include New York’s Modern Meadow, a bioleather specialist that counts luxury veteran Anna Bakst on its board, and Bolt Threads, the Emeryville, Calif.-based materials innovation start-up specializing in synthetic spider silk.
Influencing the movement are factors such as the vegan trend and the mind-set of the Millennial consumer, an increasingly influential demographic that brands cannot afford to ignore.
These companies driving massive change have also caught the attention of Silicon Valley venture-capitalist firms. (Reportedly, Bolt Threads has raised more than $200 million in funding from Formation 8, Founders Fund, Baillie Gifford and others, while Modern Meadow is said to have raised more than $50 million.)
Venture-capitalist firms investing in consumer materials marks a big sea change. But they have also attracted keen interest from luxury groups and brands that already count premium tanneries in their portfolios. Modern Meadow confirmed it is developing a material for an anonymous partner that will likely launch next year.
The idea, said Suzanne Lee, chief creative officer at Modern Meadow, is to develop materials on a bespoke basis. The molecular structure of the protein grown in the company’s labs, using yeast fermentation and biofabrication, is identical to an animal protein, but there is a lot of tuneabailty in the technologies, she explained.
Alternatives to animal leather on the market include the so-called vegan leathers, pleathers, or plastics, which for the most part come from the petro-chemical industry. While offering pretty convincing approximations of the real thing, they don’t give a patina and wear well with time. Materials made from agricultural waste, like Piñate, the pineapple textile fiber, offer an alternative to plastics but can be less convincing in aspect and touch.
Modern Meadow, which sees “real leather” as its biggest competitor, is capable of producing biomaterials that resemble tanned hides, but that’s not necessarily the idea. “We’ve made things that look like tanned leather, we’ve made things out of liquids. We’ve created samples where we’ve sprayed leather onto silk, it’s like a mist. The dimensions of what we can do are extremely broad. And because of that, people want to work with us because it allows them to innovate in new ways,” Lee said. “It’s not going to show up in a form that necessarily people have seen before, and that’s the goal.”
Here, the biofabrication pioneer talks to WWD about the new material world.
WWD: What does the future of materials look like from Modern Meadow’s perspective?
Suzanne Lee: Our focus more broadly, if you think about biofabrication, is on materials that can be designed and engineered with nature. There’s an emerging category of materials from companies like Modern Meadow, but also the other material start-ups, where we can start to create materials using the building blocks of nature like protein and collagen…and the fact that we can now grow these materials in a lab, that we can write DNA, [means] we can create those materials with properties that they wouldn’t have in nature. Or we can form them into material sheets, knit structures, weaves, or whatever it may be. All of that starts to give you the things we love about nature’s materials, but in a way that can be really engineered, so they can have performance properties, too.
It’s something that never existed before. We had nature’s materials, like an animal skin, or a plant in a field, traditional agricultural ways of producing a fabric or a leather, or we had a synthetic version of that that came from fossil fuels, so plastics and polymers and so on creating nylon and polyester and all of that. I think that we are moving toward a new category, [one combining] the best of both of those worlds.
WWD: Guillaume de Seynes, managing director of Hermès, at a recent Comité Colbert meeting spoke of leather quality decreasing. Do you agree?
S.L.: Because we’re eating more meat on the planet, farmers are having to intensify cattle farming, and what that means is we’re cramming more animals into less land, so the quality of the hides gets affected. The quality of leather is dependent on things like feedstock, the amount of land that the animal has to live on. So there are more scars, stretch marks, more damage to the animal caused by the way it’s being raised. The higher-quality hides tend to come from European cattle due to the high-welfare standards there, but there simply isn’t enough cattle in Europe to supply all these brands at a high level.
What’s happening is that [tanners] have to do a lot more finishing on the leather to sort of fool [people] into thinking that the hide is of a better quality than it actually is. In the old days, leather didn’t have as much finishing done to it, it was a beautiful material, and today we have to do a lot more chemistry to improve the look and feel of the leather.
WWD: Would you say the luxury leather goods industry is heading for a crisis?
S.L.: I think it’s going to be really interesting. I’m surprised by just how fast the big brands have been making changes, even in the last two years. It’s a combination of customers asking for greater transparency around where and how products are made and what they’re made with, combined with ever-tighter legislation around restricted substances.
Certainly over the last few decades some of those luxury brands will have seen some materials they used to buy completely disappear, just because they’re no longer allowed to use the tanning chemistry to create them.
WWD: When can we expect to see your first lab-grown material come to market, and what will it resemble?
S.L.: Nothing will be launching this year. For the product that we will be launching with a partner, the brief that came to us was that this is for a customer who already uses leather in their product and will certainly continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The brief was this has to be a distinctive material. It’s not there to compete with leather, it’s there to be its own thing.
We’re not going to market by creating one material and making it available to everyone, we’re being much more strategic and focused. We’ve identified key partners in luxury and other fields, and for each one of them we’re developing something different.
That speaks much more to a material platform rather than one material. When we show up with different brands, it’s not going to be the same look and feel and aesthetic. We’re working on products that have different specifications in terms of performance and aesthetics.
Our whole collagen material platform has been branded under the banner Zoa, which is the Greek word for life, and anywhere the materials show up in a commercial context, you’re going to see the Zoa brand on it. We want the consumer to be able to go to their favorite brand or designer store and ask for Zoa by name.
WWD: Can you also grow exotic skins?
S.L.: There are different kinds of proteins that make up skin in different animals, so some of the exotics, like alligator skin, for example, may have a combination of collagen, chitin, the tough materials you get in crab shells, and keratin, which hair is made of. In nature, the reason animals have different patterns and acquire a different look is because of what it has eaten and its environment, its stage of evolution. So, yes, you can grow other types of proteins in a yeast cell like we are doing, but just because you’re growing the protein, that doesn’t mean it will end up looking like the skin as it occurs in nature, you have to design and engineer it to form it in a certain way.