Brew Your Own Leather

Amelia Rowland

For some of us, we’re on a constant search for how to make the world a better place - in any small, seemingly insignificant way. For my generation, we grew up watching ‘Captain Planet’, so we just instinctively know how to take care of the environment (we’re also not at all surprised to see that Captain Planet himself, Leonardo Di Caprio is in talks to produce a CP film). We also saw a group of animals that should never have been friends come together in the haunting tale of residential sprawling that is ‘The Animals of Farthing Wood’. 

Something that no cartoon could have predicted was the impact of fashion upon our environment (because those Planeteers never really had to worry about what to wear to work everyday, amiright?). One of the main concerns facing our society is fast fashion and the unsustainable production of materials including leather. Once you fall down the rabbit hole of ethical clothing choices, you may just never want to wear any clothes ever again. 

Kombucha, one of the biggest buzz word foods of 2016 has been suggested as an alternative to leather. It’s an idea that has been circulating amongst designers and eco-friendly fashionistas for nearly a decade, but why isn’t it on our radar? 
The process of making kombucha involves infusing tea with boiling water, adding a ‘starter kombucha’ and then adding a SCOBY (I’m struggling not to just call it a Scooby, because why couldn’t the tea be in a van with all its friends solving mysteries?). The SCOBY, or Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast for short, is the crucial part. Kombucha itself has been around for centuries, originating in China (Manchuria) in 220BC where it became renowned as a detoxifying magic potion (possible dramatic license used). So how does this liquid become a solid piece of clothing that won’t melt on you like you’re the Wicked Witch of the West? As you’ll see in the TED talk below, designer Suzanne Lee shows how to create your own kombucha leather. Note how half way through the “leather” looks more like the monster/alien in Stranger Things…

Kombucha leather has even been readily adopted in academic circles. The Queensland University of Technology, Australia have encouraged students to produce designs with this bio-textile. Their end results show innovation, whilst also looking really convincingly like leather. In this way, they’re cultivating (see what I did there?) a generation that can see bio-textiles as a normal fabric or material to produce clothing, rather than an exception. They’re also reaching out to the community through events to show and describe this unique blend of science and fashion.

For names that you may be more familiar with, fashion designer Stella McCartney has always been vocal about her concerns with using animal leathers in fashion. She takes it the next step forward and also refuses to use harmful PVC based products (used elsewhere as leather substitutes) in her designs. Instead, the Stella McCartney brand use ‘vegetable coatings and materials’ to create looks that are both sustainable and also fashion-forward, lovely pieces. In many ways, it’s starting to seem unreasonable that large fashion brands don’t adopt a similar ethos in their approach to textiles and materials. 

Other companies are just approaching ‘vegan’ clothing as a huge umbrella term - and not just ensuring that their leathers aren’t made from animals. Endorsed by PETA (in a good way, not a ‘throw red paint at them’ kind of way), VauteCouture are considered the world’s first total vegan fashion brand. They pride themselves on eliminating animals from the process in all ways, so that their clothes are made from organic and recycled fibres. Like Stella McCartney, they also don’t see why creating fashionable, and runway ready clothing needs to be sacrificed for having a conscience. So much so that they took their designs to New York Fashion Week and in a way blew a lot of people’s minds.

So we’re now currently at a crossroads where the process of creating sustainable clothing materials on a large scale is more achievable. You can find out more about the future of sustainable clothing in our previous post here.  We’re starting to see designers experimenting with how to combine innovative design and aesthetic principles with bio-textiles. What we want to see is more outfits that look like the winner from the Project Runway Unconventional Materials challenge, and nothing, I repeat NOTHING made of hemp. 
So, for the rest of us with little design talent, tip your hipster bottles of kombucha into your bath, try not to create anything that looks like The Blob and get leathering! Make it work, designers.