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Luxury’s Latest Battleground: Material Science

Armed with extensive patent portfolios, Bolt Threads, Modern Meadow, MycoWorks, Natural Fiber Welding and others are targeting luxury brands with alternative materials.
Bolt Threads' mushroom leather alternative. Courtesy.
Bolt Threads' mushroom leather alternative. Courtesy. (clayton cotterell)

After issuing sustainability commitments and renouncing fur and exotic skins, fashion brands are placing bets on a slew of new materials, ranging from mushroom leather to silk alternatives.

The material science industry is nascent but increasingly well-funded, with companies including MycoWorks, Bolt Threads, Modern Meadow and Natural Fiber Welding armed with a range of trademarks, material patents and manufacturing processes. All are vying to be the industry’s leader of new materials.

Over the past year or so, many have announced new funding rounds and key partnerships, ranging from Lululemon to Hermès. Modern Meadow, a startup known for biofabricated materials, recently raised $130 million in a Series C funding round led by Key Partners Capital; AllBirds invested $2 million in Illinois-based Natural Fiber Welding, which created a plant-based, zero plastic alternative to leather called Mirum, and already counts Ralph Lauren as an investor. Gucci-owner Kering, as well as Adidas, Lululemon and Stella McCartney, have joined Bolt Threads’ Mylo Consortium, a partnership that will develop and produce the company’s leather alternative in exchange for premier access to its materials.

Product announcements have also followed, the most notable being luxury giant Hermès’ partnership with California-based MycoWorks for a mycelium-based leather version of the “Victoria” travel bag.

On the surface, these announcements are exciting and seemingly lucrative, signalling an untapped, more sustainable era of luxury. Testing consumer confidence, however, with the aesthetic appeal, durability and environmental efficacy of products will be key for all companies moving forward, particularly with higher premiums and the promise of lifelong value that luxury brands promise with their products.

Strategic investments, new incentive structures and growing consumer excitement around sustainable materials show that a path to wide-scale adoption may be on its way. Growth, however, hinges on legacy brands’ willingness to take a risk, investing in materials that have not yet been sold in the mass market, moving beyond one-off collaborations or capsule collections to full-scale production runs and long-term partnerships.

They’re more open to thinking about incremental change and how they can shift away from things that are problematic within their supply chain.

“Before they were looking for some holy grail solution,” said Susan Schofer, senior vice president of business development at Modern Meadow, referring to legacy brands exploring bio-based leather alternatives. “Now they’re more open to thinking about incremental change and how they can shift away from things that are problematic within their supply chain.”

What’s at Risk?

A patented process for material alternatives compatible with brands’ supply chains could prove increasingly lucrative as the industry develops — though the patents won’t have real-world value until they prove their worth in the marketplace.

Scale still poses a significant issue: few companies have been able to move partnerships with brands beyond one-off collaborations or capsule collections — and many of those collaborations have yet to be released. Producing large quantities of materials like mycelium and plant-based leather alternatives also requires increased flexibility from brands on both cost and time. That also depends on the promised durability, performance and price of new materials over time. It’s unlikely the transition to new materials will happen in a few seasons or even years.

“Breakthrough technologies take time to scale and often come at a higher cost, especially when building a novel supply chain,” said Jamie Bainbridge, vice president of product development at Bolt Threads. “We are working to increase scale and supply so we can collaborate with additional designers and eventually meet price parity with leather.”

Still, as patent owners, these companies may have the power to dictate their future. While fashion could be the immediate beneficiary of the momentum in this space, material science brands have their sights set beyond it, looking at the market as an entry point into larger consumer products from automotive interiors to home goods.

It’s another matter though to talk about brands about price structure that actually makes them want to change their business in a meaningful way.

That could pose a challenge to luxury houses and retail conglomerates simply looking to acquire a company’s patent portfolio depending on what fits the needs of a brand or stable of brands, said Susan Scafidi, fashion intellectual property expert and director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham. Luxury brands will have to reckon with giving up some control over their supply chain, a process they typically own when it comes to leather goods, acquiring tanneries and other facilities to ensure high-quality materials. Material science companies will have to create cost incentives to encourage brands to adapt to a new supply chain.

“Even if Nike wanted to buy NFW [Natural Fiber Welding], we touch so many industries that are larger than footwear,” said Luke Haverhals, chief executive and founder of the company. “Why would we ever want to pigeonhole ourselves into something like that?”

Still, while many companies are confident in the processes and technology developed, they must find larger-scale solutions and mainstream success to make themselves worth buying in the first place.

“Anybody that wants to come up with a new material these days, it’s not hard to do,” said Haverhals. “It’s another matter though to talk about brands about price structure that actually makes them want to change their business in a meaningful way.”

Mainstream Acceptance

Despite the risks, brands and investors — eager to impress a growing number of environmentally conscious consumers after making concessions on materials like leather, fur and exotic skins — are clearly willing to bet on the space. Even in the top echelons of the industry, brands have shown a willingness not just to work with these fabrics, but to throw their weight behind them.

No amount of magical material is going to fix this most urgent of issues.

The rise in environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) financing may also contribute to the boom, with Chanel, Adidas, H&M and others all issuing hundreds and millions of dollars in debt over the past year to finance environmental initiatives, many of which include investment in alternatives to environmentally taxing materials.

There’s also a clear danger in using sustainability credentials to boost marketing. Making claims around a solution’s efficacy with new marketing terms and patented technology could provide companies another means of greenwashing.

“This emphasis on materials, while by itself is an important area of research, serves as a significant distraction from the heart of the problems in the industry when it comes to the environment: the current emissions at textile mills today,” said Maxine Bédat, director of New Standard Institute, a fashion think tank dedicated to environmental and social issues.

“The main problem is that this is an industry based on a business model of the most rapid forms of planned obsolescence, which is putting us on a crash course with our planet,” she said. “No amount of magical material is going to fix this most urgent of issues.”

Related Articles:

Exclusive: Hermès Bets on Mushroom-Based ‘Leather’

With Lab-Grown Leather, Modern Meadow Is Engineering a Fashion Revolution

Why Big Brands Are Investing in Sustainability Start-Ups

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