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The Innovative Cruelty-Free Materials That Will Replace Leather

06/06/2017 12:30 | Updated 03 July 2017

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"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable, we must alter it every six months", said Oscar Wilde. And change has become synonymous with the fashion industry: nowhere do things change as swiftly as they do in the world of fashion. What's trendy today is old news tomorrow, and if it's not innovative, then fashion doesn't want it.

With that in mind, it is peculiar that we still wear animal skins. Nothing is less innovative, less new or exciting, than the skins of a dead animal. That's why the new generation of up-and-coming designers like Vika Gazinskaya, Felder Felder and Ann-Sofie Back are refusing to use fur and leather in their collections. There is little creativity involved in draping yourself in the skin that once belonged to a living being - the caveman approach to fashion is slowly but surely being phased out in favour of new and cool fabrics that, in a few years' time, may end up taking over our wardrobes.

And we're not just talking synthetic materials, either. In a time when more and more people are concerned with the origins of what they wear, innovation is taking centre stage in the vegan fashion arena - to ensure that the new substitutes for leather are as kind to the planet as they can be, which often means working creatively with natural fibres instead of petroleum-based synthetics. Here are a few up-and-comers that might outshine leather in the years to come.

Cork
This completely natural, easily recycled material might not be your first choice when you think "fashion" - but recently, vegan brands have interpreted cork in entirely new and very visually interesting ways. Examples include Jentil, a French brand that creates men's and women's accessories in a variety of colours; Australian newcomer brand Nina Bernice with an essential range of cork accessories; and Canadian label Rokcork, offering sustainable accessories produced ethically in Portugal.

Mushroom leather
One of the newest innovations in the game is MuSkin, a biodegradable vegan "leather" extracted from mushroom caps. Only chemical-free tanning is used in the production of this material, making it an eco-friendly choice (the tanning process is one of the factors - but not the only factor - that makes animal-derived leather an environmental hazard). MuSkin is produced entirely without the use of toxic substances and is worked to obtain a suede- or leather-like finish.

Kombucha leather
If trendy, healthy and somewhat obscure food ingredients are your thing, you may have heard of kombucha, a fermented tea originally from China that has taken the healthy food scene by storm in the latest few years due to its probiotic and antioxidant content. However, this magical ingredient has another potential use: it can be used to create a leather-like fabric. The cellulose fibres that are a byproduct of the tea can be dried and made into fashion accessories. It is still in the works, and not ready for purchase just yet - but watch this space.

Lab-grown leather
Another one in the works - and this is a truly exciting one. Pioneer company Modern Meadow use cultured animal cells that are then genetically modified to create a durable, resistant and high-quality biomaterial to rival leather. To be clear, this is still an animal-derived product, using cells that come from animals - but substituting leather with its lab-cultivated counterpart would save millions of animals each year from a horrific life and an even worse death. It's debatable whether this material can be considered vegan - but it's significantly more animal-friendly than traditional leather.

Pineapple leather
One of the most talked-about vegan materials of recent time. Pinatex was created by Dr Carmen Hijosa of Ananas Anam. This vegan-friendly material is made from waste pineapple leaf fibres which are a by-product of pineapple harvest - meaning that no extra resources such as land, water, fertilisers or pesticides are used in the production of these fibres. Already on the market and used by brands such as Bourgeois Boheme and Alexandra K, Pinatex is a true game-changer, paving the way for more innovation to come.

Wine leather
Winner of H&M Foundation's Global Change Award of 2017, wine leather is a vegan material made from leftover grape skins, stalks and seeds from the wine industry. This material is produced by Italian company Vegea - not surprising, as Italy is the largest wine producer in the world - and is set to become the next cruelty-free textile. The company and its leader, Rossella Longobardo, noted that each year, 13 million tonnes of waste are generated from the wine industry, so they set out to recycle this waste into an exciting new material that might just save the lives of many animals.

Many of these innovations are still works in progress, and for now, vegans have to make do with polyurethane (the least environmentally damaging alternative to PVC, the other kind of vegan leather) but the future looks promising for those who want to dress with compassion for animals and the planet - and judging from the recent spikes in vegan living, it's more than just a few of us.

Photo by David Zheng

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