Humans have been using leather for millennia. The Romans used it for boat sails and body armor, while the fashionable women of ancient Egypt used leather in their clothing. Today, leather remains an integral ingredient in high fashion, commonly used in handbags, shoes, belts, wallets, and more. With the return of 70s-style fringe and tribal prints, women’s leather totes and belts have been particularly popular on the runway.
Rihanna recently stepped out in a forest green paper leather coat this spring, pulling off a look that would make most mortals seem like they were wearing a big green trash bag. The point is, despite the protestations of groups like PETA and Greenpeace, the leather industry generates more than $53 billion annually, and it isn’t going away any time soon.
Even so, some cutting edge designers are experimenting with alternative ways to manufacture leather from sustainable materials like kombucha tea plants and pineapple leaves.
Young-A Lee, an associate professor at Iowa State University, has found a way to grow a cellulose gel from fermented kombucha tea, sugar, and vinegar. Lee’s primary mission isn’t to save the animals, but rather to design a biodegradable, sustainable leather-like material fashion designers can incorporate into their designs.
“Fashion companies keep producing new materials and clothing, from season to season, year to year, to fulfill consumers’ desire and needs,” Lee said recently. “Think about where these items eventually go. They will take tremendous underground spaces of the Earth like other trash.”
Then there’s Dr. Carmen Hijosa, who has travelled around the world to design Pinatex, a leather-like material made from pineapple fibre leaves. The sustainable new textile recently got its high fashion debut, when designer Mayya Saliba used Pinatex for a collection she debuted at the Mercedes Benz Berlin Fashion Week’s Greenshowroom Salonshow.
Originally developed in the Philippines, the Pinatex website states that they aim to provide “new additional income for farmers while creating a vibrant new industry for pineapple growing countries.”
Technically, Pinatex isn’t genuine leather, but rather a “non-woven natural fibre-based textile.”