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Lionfish Leather Startup Talks ‘Regenerative’ Benefits

In the quest for alternatives to traditional cow-hide leather, the fashion industry has served up myriad plant-based or animal-free options, with cactus, pineapple leaves and mycelium topping the list. But a new startup bucks the trend by using skins from an invasive species to make watch footwear, straps, and wallets.

Founded in September 2020, Sanibel, Fla.-based Inversa’s mission was two-fold, according to founder and CEO Aarav Chavda: to create a new source for durable and regenerative leather, and to address the adverse ecological impacts of the lionfish, a predator threatening ocean biodiversity.

Chavda, who studied mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University, has spent considerable time exploring non-woven textiles and nanomagnetics. But leather has become a hot topic of conversation in consumer goods industries in recent years, with brands searching for cruelty-free options that rely less on heavy metals, harsh chemicals and polymers to tan and produce.

While Inversa’s first leather product relies on an exotic animal skin, environmental groups and animal rights activists alike have noted the lionfish’s devastating impact on native species from Rhode Island to Brazil, said Deepika Nagarajan, the startup’s head of leather.

After humans introduced the species into Florida’s ecosystem around 1985, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the fish has multiplied at an alarming rate. The commission encourages divers, anglers and commercial harvesters to remove lionfish from the state’s waters.

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Covered in venomous barbs, the lionfish has no natural predators, and its uncontrolled populations threaten to wipe out local species, Nagarajan said. According to World Bank research, the lionfish preys almost indiscriminately on other ocean life, from fish to mollusks and crustaceans. They “can reduce native fish population by an average of 79 percent over a 5-week period,” it noted.

Inversa has teamed with spear-divers tasked with culling the species in order to protect Florida coral reefs, which rely on biodiversity to thrive. The company works with about 100 dive teams made up of two to four divers, Chavda said, and because they are targeting individual fish, there is no risk of bycatching. “This is not a situation where they are accidentally picking up different species,” he added, noting that the approach “leaves the ecosystem the way it should be.” The removal of the lionfish “allows for the rehabilitation of the coral reef systems,” Nagarajan said, “so in that way, it is regenerative.”

Teton Leather Co.'s Lionfish leather wallet.
Teton Leather Co.’s Lionfish leather wallet. Inversa

The fish skins are sent to an Ohio tannery in Cincinnati that specializes in exotic hides, she added. Inversa currently adheres to the E.U.’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) standards for leather goods, which prohibit the use of certain chemicals and heavy metals like mercury, cadmium and lead in the tanning process. Chavda noted that tanning each skin utilizes just 200 milliliters of water, “which is less than [what] you used to wash your hands,” and does not rely on polymer coatings to achieve color or durability.

Relative to bovine hides, the fish skins provide a small canvas with which to work, Chavda said. But small leather goods makers and mainstream fashion brands are showing interest and often surprised by the material’s ability to withstand wear and tear, he added.

According to Nagarajan, the company currently supplies Teton Leather Co., maker of wallets, card holders, knife sheaths and more. “They’re really experienced in working with exotic leathers and it’s been so fascinating to see them take on what we do and collaborate with us,” she said. The Idaho-based leather goods firm is considering making Inversa goods part of its permanent collection.

P448 will partner with Inversa on a footwear capsule collection for Spring 2022.
P448 will partner with Inversa on a footwear capsule collection for Spring 2022. P448 / Inversa

Inversa is working with Italian sneaker brand P448 on a footwear capsule collection set to launch in the spring. According to Nagarajan, the sustainability-focused shoe label, which uses upcycled suede and biomass-based vegan leather, will feature lionfish leather as a lace-up trim.

“It’s incredible what the power of…consumerism could do,” she added, noting that Inversa is working with the industry to “create a demand for these animals that are, unfortunately, destroying the ecosystems that they’ve been introduced to.”

“At the end of the day, we’re trying to spread awareness about this problem, and allow people to get as invested into it as we have become,” she added.