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Fashion’s Move Towards Sustainability

As the industry moves away from using real fur and leather, designers are getting creative

Waves went through the fashion world in June when the Yoox Net-a-Porter Group made the announcement that its stable of high-end fashion retail sites (which also include Mr. Porter and The Outnet) would no longer be carrying fur. The announcement was noteworthy because of its impact—the publicly traded company has over 2.9 million customers with net revenues of over $2.2 billion in 2016—but the sentiment is an unsurprising, and increasingly popular, one. What may have been a limiting business move a generation ago is now nearly an industry standard and, as alternative materials are increasingly making animal fabrics nearly irrelevant, there’s little to miss.

A faux-leather bag from Stella McCartney’s Spring 2016 collection
Image credit: Getty Images

Net-a-Porter wasn’t the first one to make the move. Armani declared themselves fur free in 2016 and Tommy Hilfiger dropped it in 2007. Calvin Klein made the announcement way back in 1994. But no one has been more vocal or successful in making the argument for sustainability than Stella McCartney, whose business became the first vegetarian luxury brand when she founded it in 2001. Leathers (in addition to furs, skins and feathers) have always been verboten and until recently the designer has also eschewed any leather substitutes. Recent advancements in the field of alternative materials helped McCartney to create “skin-free skin,” which she unveiled in her Fall 2017 collection. What to any eye would be indistinguishable from leather or suede were actually the brand’s alter suede and alter eco nappa fabrics, which use polyester, polyurethane and vegetable oil coating. (Fur-free fur has been a longtime staple.)

Pineapple fibers drying; Piñatex creator Carmen Hijosa examining fibers
Image Credit: B.Banco

McCartney’s movement is growing. Piñatex, a sustainable textile created from pineapple leaves, was created by Carmen Hijosa, whose startup Ananas Anam has helped turn the fruit’s waste into a fiber that functions as a leather alternative, which brands like Puma and Camper have used for protoypes. “The fiber is sourced from the waste leaves from existing pineapple fruit farming so the raw material does not require additional land, water, fertilizer or pesticide to produce, meaning it has a much lower environmental footprint than leather, as animal agriculture is a resource-heavy industry,” Hijosa explains. “Unlike a lot of leather, particularly low-cost and low-quality leather, which uses heavy metals and toxic chemicals in the process of tanning, Piñatex does not use any harmful chemicals in production.” Designers and start-ups like MycoWorks and the tech firm Grado Zero Espace have also been experimenting with mushroom leathers, textiles made from various elements of fungi, which produce an uncanny approximation of suede.

There’s more on the horizon. Stella McCartney recently teamed with Bolt Threads, a San Francisco biotechnology firm focusing on innovative materials and this fall, the MoMA exhibit Items: Is Fashion Modern? will feature a McCartney dress made from Bolt’s spider silk, a man-made fiber created from a harvested protein. Animal materials, you’re on notice.