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Former Hermès CEO Lifts Mycelium Leather’s Luxury Status

MycoWorks is ready to propel mycelium leather into the big leagues, and it’s getting a little assist from a luxury veteran.

The California startup, which creates ersatz cowhide from the branching root network that germinates mushrooms, announced Wednesday that former Hermès CEO Patrick Thomas will be joining its board of directors as an independent member.

While his role has yet to be defined, Thomas told Sourcing Journal, he hopes to leverage his experience to help MycoWorks’s Fine Mycelium-made materials such as Reishi gain a bigger foothold in fashion’s most rarified echelons.

Not that Thomas sees plant-based leathers replacing their animal-based counterparts anytime soon.

“It’s a different product,” he said. “A lot of people want this sort of product to protect the environment, to protect the animals, there are many reasons for that. [But] I don’t think it will replace animal leathers. I think it’s going to add to the existing product range.”

MycoWorks already has a powerful backer in Hermès, which applies its own tanning and finishing processes to transform Fine Mycelium into the “hybrid of nature and technology” it calls Sylvania. The luxury maison debuted the material in March, cladding its Victoria bag silhouette with a blend of Sylvania, H Plume canvas and Evercalf calfskin.

Hermès has described Sylvania as a “refined and supple material, with a surprisingly plump and slightly springy hand, fine relief, amber hue and natural patina” that “pairs beautifully” with its existing complement of leathers and textiles.

It’s not the only upmarket plant-based leather making headlines. Gucci recently unveiled Demetra, an in-house leather alternative that consists of viscose and wood pulp from sustainably managed forests and bio-based polyurethane derived from genetically unmodified European wheat and corn. Its parent company, Kering, has thrown its support behind fungal phenom Mylo, as has former sister subsidiary Stella McCartney.

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Reishi, an animal-leather alternative derived from MycoWorks's Fine Mycelium product.
Reishi, an animal-leather alternative derived from MycoWorks’s Fine Mycelium product. Courtesy

Still, it is Reishi and Sylvania’s uncanny ability to mimic bovine leather that attracted Thomas to MycoWorks. While there is no shortage of pretenders, he said, few have achieved the same combination longevity, aesthetics, performance and feel. The last is particularly crucial for the high-end market.

“One feature that is quite important in luxury is the sensuality to the touch,” he said. “This is the first time that a company has been able to develop a product of that quality.”

Compared with creating leather from cattle farming, growing Fine Mycelium requires little water, land or energy. It also absorbs rather than generates carbon emissions, an important consideration in a time of worsening climate change. But MycoWorks’s techniques also distinguish the material from other plant-based leathers.

Unlike many biomaterials, Fine Mycelium doesn’t require the use of petrochemicals during processing or finishing. Instead of compressing the vegetal matter, which usually necessitates some form of binder, MycoWorks engineers the root cells of ganoderma, a wood-decaying fungus, to grow into dense, mat-like interlocking structures. The tray-based cultivation process takes place in its northern California facility, where the finished sheets can be customized for thickness, weight or shape to minimize waste and allow for consistent quality.

Besides being entirely natural, the material is completely biodegradable, according to MycoWorks CEO Matt Scullin. Curtidos Badia, the company’s tannery partner in Spain, employs proprietary tanning and dyeing techniques developed by MycoWorks to imbue Reishi with a black emboss or smooth natural finish that doesn’t impede its ability to break down.

“In traditional leather tanning, the non-biodegradability comes from using chromium to crosslink the collagen and essentially polymerize the collagen in the material,” he said. “Whereas in our material we’re doing an entirely different type of tanning and the biodegradability is maintained.”

MycoWorks is now looking to expand in earnest. It boasts a staff of 120 people, and it recently opened a plant in Emeryville that will serve as its “blueprint for scaling up” in other geographies, Scullin said. The company is in talks with other luxury firms, which it will announce in due course, and it’s planning to introduce mass-market versions of Fine Mycelium and Reishi that will be priced competitively with non-premium bovine leather.

“We’ve very encouraged by the continued consensus that our material is the leader in the field,” he said. “And I think this is because we’ve had this relentless pursuit of quality in our Fine Mycelium technology that is highly differentiated from some of the plant-based leathers that others are using.”