The highly invasive lionfish may be the enemy of many marine wildlife habitats — but it’s also turning out to be a fashionable (and regenerative) godsend of a material.
Though human error led to the species entering waterways decades ago from recreational aquariums, the lionfish’s no known predators and quick spawning advantage made them a nightmare problem stretching from the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico all the way up the East Coast. Today, the average lionfish kills 79 percent of baby native reef fish within five weeks and decimates entire food chains. One Florida-based start-up called Inversa Leathers (founded by a bunch of scuba divers in 2020) is hoping to tackle the problem while providing a premium leather alternative that acts as a replacement for exotics.
“Invasive species don’t just happen by accident. This is a human-caused problem. It’s now time for us to step up to the responsibility,” Deepika Nagarajan, chief marketing officer of Inversa Leathers, told WWD. Off the heels of being named a finalist in the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance competition, the start-up is revealing its first commercial fashion collaboration in partnership with Italian sneaker label P448 that drops June 28. Nagarajan said, “It’s the first big go-to-market that we’ve had but it is just the beginning of a long journey.”
Launching in five colorways, the P448 sneaker comes in red, pink, blue, silver and black and retails for $325. It will be available in a limited run at the Le Bon Marché department store in Paris.
Along with boasting Mark Wahlberg as a strategic investor, P448 counts a number of attention-grabbing global artist collaborations and sustainability callouts with the lionfish as its latest and most out-there play. The label opened its first U.S. retail pop-up location on Fifth Avenue (celebrating graffitied walls, arcade games and a speakeasy in the back) in September 2021. In all, around 1,400 store locations worldwide carry the label with North America being the core market.
Not only a “cool fashion product that is also saving the planet,” in Nagarajan’s words, each sneaker is the equivalent of one lionfish removed and tens of thousands of native reef fish saved.
Hoping to popularize the concept of “invasive leathers” as a replacement for exotics, the premium material also has local enthusiasts (be it fishers or biologists) behind it. The company works with local fishing cooperatives in Quintana Roo, Mexico, by underwriting the fishers’ risk with a 100 percent catch-to-cash guarantee and providing upfront financing for materials. Inversa Leathers produces and tans its hides in the U.S., with tanning done in Cincinnati according to Reach certifications.
Aarav Chavda, cofounder and chief executive officer of Inversa Leathers, said tanning a lionfish hide takes just 200 ml (or less than a cup per hide) compared to common bovine leather. This comes out to 55 square inches on average (best tuned for small accessories), or 600 ml per square foot. Third-party testing and an LCA is also underway to prove the performance attributes.
As for the fishing cooperatives, Chavda said: “These are places where a lot of social enterprises and government funding dollars don’t really exist. They know the lionfish but they can’t get paid for it. They have to get money for it.”
Florida boasts one of the largest artificial reef resiliency programs in the country, and marine biologists like Alex Fogg, a coastal resource manager for Okaloosa County, Florida, see how it all goes down underwater.
Dialing in from a site visit for reef deployment (using concrete and limestone as mock reef structures for marine wildlife), Fogg spoke to the invasiveness of the lionfish. “We realized we’re never going to get rid of lionfish…The more things you can identify to do with lionfish — the more you can do to alleviate it.” It’s in this case, that Fogg says creativity and local solutions help. One collaborative solution is that the region hosts the world’s largest lionfish tournament that saw 11,000 lionfish removed in May.
The opportunities are pretty endless, with lionfish being a healthy and premium fish to consume, leather alternative and jewelry material (contorting fins and spine into jewelry). Fogg said the local market rate for lionfish is about $6.25 per pound compared to about $4 per pound of grouper. He also said, as with many sustainability survey findings, that “People don’t mind paying extra for lionfish, given the story behind it.”
With a round of investment to be announced in the coming days for Inversa Leathers, the only convincing may be to definition-bound vegans.
“The dialogue around it has been pretty enlightening for us,” Nagarajan said. “Recently, we’ve had some LinkedIn commentary around it. People tend to recognize it as ‘protecting the other species,’ and protecting biodiversity. We haven’t had as much difficulty with getting people to understand this as we’ve thought.”