The future has arrived: we have mushroom leather hats now. Slowly but surely, leather alternatives made from mycelium—essentially the root structure of a mushroom—instead of animal hides have entered the market. In 2021, MycoWorks partnered with Hermès to make the first object out of the fine mycelium leather alternative, called Reishi, which looks and acts pretty similarly to the real thing. The bag—the French label’s Victoria style—was an attention grabbing prototype that is slated to be released later this year. (A second harbinger came that year, when another biofabrication company called Mylo partnered with Stella McCartney on two ready-to-wear garments made from a similar material). Today, MycoWorks and milliner Nick Fouquet have unveiled a capsule collection of hats: the first commercially available Reishi products.
It’s an optimistic milestone for leather alternatives, and the people who want to shop consciously but don’t want to forgo their favorite boots. Reishi is animal-free, plastic-free, and vegetable tanned (meaning fewer harmful chemicals are used in the finishing process). Mycelium is an infinitely renewable resource, and MycoWorks harnesses the structure in order to grow a durable material in whatever sized container it’s put in. Reishi is grown in San Francisco in rectangular sheets, but you could place the mycelium in a container that is shaped like, say, a leather shoe upper, and eliminate the waste that cutting that shape from a cow hide creates.
MycoWorks was founded in 2013 by artists Philip Ross and Sophia Wang. Ross had used mycelium as a material for his sculptures and furniture since the 1990s. Wang, who was getting a PhD at Berkeley in poetry and starting a dance company, came on board to create a biotech company (quite the pivot).
The proprietary process to make Fine Mycelium was developed with process engineers, biochemists, experts in fermentation and mycology, and material science, but Wang says that they retained the artists’ eye that the company started with. The result is a leather alternative that is on its own biodegradable (although finishings and flourishes that a designer adds may change that), and beautiful. In my personal experience, it looks real. Comparable to high-end PVC leather I’ve seen luxury brands use—but without the plastic.
The eco-minded customers and designers interested in the textile are certainly curious about the carbon footprint of Reishi vs. traditional leather. CEO Matt Scullin says, “While MycoWorks’ materials show a 95% reduction in carbon emissions as compared to the average cowhide, it is important to note that there are other attributes that matter in the conversation: for example, end-of-life and biodegradability and keeping our material plastic-free. In fact, Reishi is the only alternative leather on the market that is both low-carbon and plastic-free. MycoWorks has not only conducted a third-party LCA [life-cycle assessment] validating the amazing sustainability profile of the material, but it is now being peer-reviewed and will be published in the future.”