Inside the plant-based wardrobe
Simply sign up to the Style myFT Digest -- delivered directly to your inbox.
“It is an amazing experience,” says model and eco-activist Arizona Muse, as she slips on a three-piece suit by Olistic The Label. It has the soft sheen of silk and the durability of cotton, but it’s made from a mix of cupro and Tencel Luxe, a new blend of plant fibre that sits at the vanguard of material innovation right now. It feels like a traditional luxury fabric but is sourced from sustainable, quick-growing softwood forests and turned from pulp into yarn in a closed-loop process (meaning the water and solvents used are continuously recycled within the factory). “I wear this suit twice a week now – to work and out to restaurants – because it feels comfortable and luxurious but also because I feel empowered by the story that what I’m wearing is having a positive impact in the world,” says Muse. “That feeling of empowerment is something we can all get in our garments now.”
As they gear up to meet ambitious environmental targets, luxury brands know that consumers expect the price of luxury to be inclusive of environment and ethics. As Gabriela Hearst says, “My customer knows I have done the homework for them.” And materials – sourcing, supply chain and innovation – is a place to start. Early innovations such as nylon, Lycra and Gore-Tex changed the industry forever. Now that our relationship to petrochemicals has soured, however, a drive for less harmful materials has triggered the industry’s second creative boom, utilising the sort of technology, imagination, fundraising and supply-chain restructuring that could only have been dreamed of a decade ago.
“The past five years have seen real innovation in rethinking future fabrics,” says Positive Luxury co-founder and CEO Diana Verde Nieto. “There are two ways of going about this. The first is sourcing natural materials such as wool, hemp and cotton directly from the land, and the way we farm needs more regenerative methods. But this will take a long time. The second is innovating in the lab, and lab-made fabrics can be made much more sustainably.”
Kering, owner of Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Balenciaga, has a materials innovation lab in Milan; Burberry has hinted at a locker full of inventions in testing; and Stella McCartney’s research and development department is now something of a testbed for stakeholder LVMH. Meanwhile, thousands of startups with answers for everything from microshedding to waterless printing are sparking interest from luxury brands keen to fast-track the process. This exciting push through the industry means nothing is off the table. You’ve heard of pineapple and mushroom leather – but what about apple and cactus? Spider silk and algae, something made from olive stones, marble dust, lobster shells, rose-petal silk, even lotus stems… If there’s a by-product, someone is working with it.
“Sometimes sustainability is this idea you have to make less and have nothing. That’s counterintuitive to who we are as humans, and how fashion works,” says Amanda Parkes, chief innovation officer at Pangaia, which describes itself as a “materials science company” but sells £300 “brewed protein” hoodies and £500 “wildflower down” jackets. “Rather than sustainability, we prefer to talk about ‘rebalancing with nature’. Everything about our material culture can go back into nature. It can be part of a rebalanced system.”
Bottega Veneta biodegradable rubber Puddle ankle boots, £510, selfridges.com
Pangaia wildflower and corn Flwrdwn jacket, £515
London-based designer Bav Tailor relishes her opportunity to work as an incubator for new materials. Ten years ago she discovered fish skin “for incredibly soft sandals”, and is now trialling a marble dust cotton mix and an Elephant Ear plant leather. “Big luxury brands come and see my materials and they are intrigued by what I’m doing,” she says. “In fact, one of them is taking up the Elephant Ear.” She fashioned the material, sustainably cultivated from the Amazon forest, into clutch bags and was impressed enough with the results that she has launched a limited-edition range.
Stella McCartney just released the first of its mycelium bags, 100 of them, which sold out nearly immediately. “As with all material innovations, it takes years to bring something new to market,” says McCartney. “We have been working on this with Bolt Threads since 2017. It took literally thousands of iterations before we got the material to the level of quality, durability and realism we needed, and I could not be prouder.”
“There’s a lot of talk about why everything is taking so long. That’s because of biotech life cycles,” says Parkes, who co-founded an algae biofuels company before joining Pangaia. “It takes seven years to get something off the ground.” So far, Pangaia’s science department has developed an antimicrobial peppermint treatment to keep clothes fresher for longer and a fully biodegradable eucalyptus and seaweed fabric, C-Fiber, as an alternative to cotton. “I’m obsessed with these massive algae and seaweed blooms across the globe,” says Parkes. “Everyone in Tulum is like, ‘Seaweed is ruining the beach!’ and I’m like, ‘My God, it’s a massive raw material resource!”
Kering’s chief sustainability officer, Marie-Claire Daveu, matches Parkes’ enthusiasm for material innovation. She singles out Gucci’s Demetra trainers (Demetra is Gucci’s own house-developed low-carbon leather alternative), Bottega’s biodegradable Puddle boots, and Balenciaga’s AW22 mushroom coat. Daveu is also excited about Kering’s recent investment in VitroLabs, a biotech company developing a lab-grown leather process, growing animal hide from cow cells.
At outdoors company Patagonia, the challenge has been getting away from virgin polyester. The synthetic fibres that keep you warm and dry as you trek up Kilimanjaro are the textile industry’s biggest problem. “We don’t want to be using virgin petroleum-based raw materials – that is a gigantic waste of resources,” says material development lead Pasha Whitmore. The company has been producing pieces with NetPlus, a fabric made from recycled fishing nets. Like the popular Econyl, these materials are not perfect, requiring chemically intensive processing before they can be refashioned. There are also transparency issues in the supply chain: when virgin plastic is cheaper to source than recycled, what you’re buying may not be 100 per cent recycled plastic at all. “Recycling isn’t the silver bullet,” agrees Whitmore. “It’s just one piece of the carbon puzzle.”
The company’s real win, however, comes with its wetsuits, which are made from renewable natural rubber Yulex rather than neoprene, a petrochemical by-product that is entirely unbiodegradable. “The company uses rubber from FSC-certified Hevea trees, and saves up to 80 per cent CO2 per suit,” says Patagonia’s ocean marketing manager, Gabe Davies. Limestone wetsuits are another neoprene alternative but Patagonia rejected these as “they require huge amounts of energy to process. You quarry the stone, ship it to production facilities, then melt it at super-high 1,980°C temperatures,” says Davies.
Man-made cellulosic fabrics (MMCF), including rayon, viscose, lyocell and cupro, have been a petrochemical-free option for some time. They use plant pulp sourced from ancient forests that are replanted with quick-growing tree plantations, or agricultural by-products such as pineapple or coconut. They use less water than cotton and can be responsibly produced in a closed-loop process.
Until now, the quality of these MMCFs has not been deemed luxurious because of the way the fibres have to be shortened. Tencel Luxe, however, is a continuous filament, allowing for fabrics as soft and shiny as silk and as lightweight as organza. Viktor & Rolf has just made a couture collection predominantly using it, and designers from Olistic The Label to Bav Tailor are showcasing its flexibility.
However, the virgin material still needs to be grown from trees, where it takes between two and a half and three tonnes of wood to make one tonne of pulp. The tree plantations are often a monoculture, which does not solve any biodiversity problems, and chemicals and water are still required for processing. New ideas in the mix include a nanocellulose where the raw material is bacteria-grown in a lab, and a technology from Finland’s Spinnova that uses eucalyptus wood as a feedstock, and has received investment from Ecco and Adidas.
Canopy Planet is an NGO that has been on the MMCF trail for a decade. It began by encouraging fashion brands to switch sourcing from ancient and endangered forests to those with FSC-certified wood, but, as founder and executive director Nicole Rycroft says, “What we need now is an accelerant.” Vedra Partners has stepped in as an impact fund to grow next generation solutions, including an MMCF where the raw material is landfill textiles or agricultural residues: “150bn items of clothing are produced every year, with 60 per cent ending up in landfill in the first 12 months,” says Rycroft. “To get from where we are today to these low-carbon, low-footprint, next-gen solutions, there is a price tag: $64bn to replace 50 per cent of wood fibre to low-carbon alternatives.” With Kering and LVMH signed up in support of Canopy Planet’s initiatives, the impact fund is currently focusing on raising capital. “Luxury brands have the ability to show these next-gen solutions can be part of exquisite clothing,” adds Rycroft.
Two new materials that Rycroft thinks could change the shape of the industry are Renewcell, which harnesses “textile-to-textile technology”, and Nanolose, which uses an enzymatic process, turning food waste into cellulose. This may not be as exciting as some of the more exotic fabric innovations sitting in the labs but, as Rycroft points out, “Not all cactus leathers are going to make it successfully to market. We are at a point in time when it has to be about the art of the possible and scaling the technologies that are going to be most successful.”
One of the most preferred routes to sustainability being taken by the big luxury players is sticking with original natural materials but encouraging regenerative agriculture as the source. “The first step is to understand the traceability of your supply chain, then to implement specific sustainable programmes,” says Daveu, citing work with a Mongolian cashmere provider. “We have in their contract criteria for biodiversity, animal welfare and also for the social side. Last year we implemented a specific programme to transform one million hectares to regenerative agriculture.” Many think this should be the priority. “A lot of these ‘innovative’ materials don’t work, and they are giving sustainability a bad name,” says Muse, who founded the regenerative agriculture charity Dirt. Burberry and Mulberry agree – neither feels the alternatives are of high enough quality yet, or they are not at the stage where they are being manufactured commercially. McCartney sees regenerative agriculture as the stop-gap solution until the lab inventions can be scaled up. She points to a regenerative cotton project in Turkey they have been working on for the past three years, which is showing markedly improved carbon content in the soil. The first cotton pieces will go into her collection next year.
However, “the problem with the regenerative agriculture approach is we can’t afford the land,” says Positive Luxury’s Verde Nietos. “With nearly eight billion people on this planet and rising, the land is needed for food production, not making handbags. The luxury industry may be able to parcel parts of this off for themselves but it’s not going to work for the broader industry.”
For a look at the future, the Royal College of Art’s Materials Science Research Centre provides an intriguing glimpse. Many of its graduates go on to provide breakthroughs, recognised by companies such as Burberry, which has helped fund the department. Dr Nadia Danhash of Innovation RCA singles out one company, Amphitex, which is developing a 100 per cent recyclable waterproof breathable textile. “It’s made from one material with no nasty chlorinated compounds, fully recyclable, and we think that’s very exciting,” says Danhash. She also cites an aeronautical engineer who has found a way of enabling textile to change size through a pleating mechanism. “He’s now making kids’ clothing that grows through seven sizes.”
If all this sounds exciting, it’s because it is. Science is where fashion innovation is right now. “All I can say is, ‘Watch this space,’” says McCartney. “We have so much going on behind the scenes with our research and development teams: it’s a hugely exciting moment – not just at Stella McCartney but across the board.” To think we would consider something grown from mycelium fungus worthy of a £2,000 piece of arm candy would have seemed ridiculous a few years ago. “In the future this will be the norm,” she asserts.
“When you think about alligator, and all those rare, exotic leathers, that should not be considered luxury,” says Parkes. “A full spider silk-built protein is so futuristic, so next gen in how it’s created – shouldn’t that be the new luxury?”