Updated: Dec 8, 2022
Words by Georgia Poole
The fashion industry is the planet's third largest polluter, contributing around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, 1 in 2 people will throw unwanted clothing away, leading to 64% of annually produced garments being put into landfill. Now that I’ve bombarded you with some scary statistics, we are left to ponder, how on earth can we fix this?
As an industry, there are really only two options. One being, a circular economy, where products are made to last and the waste we produce can be reused and repurchased. Secondly, creating products that are not only ethically derived, but can biodegrade, not leaving the planet to drown in a man made mess. Essentially, we either recycle and never make anything new, or, we make ‘new’…but we make ‘new’ better.
With opposition to the profitability of a circular economy, most fashion houses are turning to their production lines and textile innovation to demonstrate ecological value to their customer. Like I said, making ‘new’ better.
Textile innovation first took the spotlight with the vegan movement, as consumers moved away from wanting fur and leather products in an effort to decrease animal harm within the industry. However, these innovations were created on the backbone of polyester and other plastic derived fabrics, removing direct harm from animals, while implementing indirect damage on the entire planet.
In recent years, textile innovation has turned to face alternatives that are truly ‘life’ centred. That is, designing for all life on the planet, rather than the classic human centred design we are constantly told we need.
Tackling this challenge is luxury fashion brand, Stella McCartney. Established in 2001, McCartney launched her label as a reflection of herself. As a vegetarian, she refused to use leather, feather, skin or fur, challenging the Established pillars of luxury at the time. Since then, the brand has lead the charge in textile innovation, establishing itself as a space for science and fashion to collide, all with the planets best interest in mind.
Initially, McCartney’s use of faux leather was controversial. While vegan, it was largely plastic derived, leaving consumers to ponder its true intention, quality, and its potential for green washing. The brand quickly identified this as an issue, beginning a collaboration with Bolt Threads.
Bolt Threads was founded in 2009, believing that “solutions to our most vexing problems can be found in nature,”. This lead them to create world class textile innovations, most notably in collaboration with the Stella McCartney brand. The most recent of these being Mylo. Mylo is a leather look fabric created from mycelium. More commonly understood as fungi, mycelium operates much like the branches and roots of the fruit, which in this case would be a mushroom.
Mylo is made by growing mycelium cells on beds of sawdust and other organic material. They grow to from a 3D network, which looks very similar to a foam mattress. This strange little mushroom mattress is then processed and dyed, ultimately creating Mylo, a vegan, sustainably made leather alternative.
While the concept of mycelium leather has been toyed with in labs for what feels like decades, this is the first time we have seen it in a ready-to-wear setting. Stella McCartney’s most recent release of their Frayme Mylo bag, was the first of its kind. This bag was made entirely from Mylo – the new and exciting mushroom leather – and will be available for purchase as of next month (July, 2022).
While this leather innovation was the first of its kind, Stella McCartney’s other textile innovations have been breaking down barriers since 2017. Microsilk was the first of many collaborations, created in response to a need for vegan friendly silk material, without compromising on luxury and functionality. This project found spider silk fibres to have higher tensile strength, elasticity, durability and softness in comparison to traditional silk worm fibres. By studying and extracting the proteins that determined these extraordinary properties, Bolt Threads was able to replicate and spin these fibres, producing highly functional and luxurious silk within the lab, free of animal harm or involvement.
Stella McCartney utilised this new innovation in collaboration with its sustainable ethos to create their Moma dress. This piece went on display at the New York Museum of Modern Art in October 2017. Stella McCartney have also produced a tennis dress with Adidas comprised of the same material, highlighting its effectiveness as a functional alternative.
It is no surprise that many traditionalists within the fashion industry will stick their noses up to these new alternatives. Claiming they are ‘inauthentic’, ‘cheap’, of ‘dysfunctional’. However, this change is inevitable, should brands wish to survive the onslaught of the conscious consumer. Since 2021, a Vogue Business study found that a staggering 69% of consumers consider the sustainable practice of a brand and their products before buying. As Gen Z’s purchasing power increases, this percentage is expected to rise. So while it may be some time before we see an Hermes Birkin made of mushrooms, it wont be long before customers begin enforcing heightened expectations on the entire industry.
As a brand, Stella McCartney has demonstrated the potential for textile innovation within luxury fashion. Their constant openness to collaboration and scientific contribution is a prime example of what the industry will need to employ moving forward. While true sustainability can only be achieved with a strong positioning of circular economics, creating a better ‘new’ is offering potential for biodegradable garments across industries and price ranges. As a post pandemic world resets its focus back to sustainability and the climate crisis, brands will be forced to continually adapt not only to a new sustainable world, but to a new conscious consumer.
This is just the beginning of a change in the fashion industry. One that is needed, and one that the planet deserves.