Amidst the tidal change rippling through the luxury sector—one that involves reduction of carbon footprint, protection of animal rights and dismissal of plastics—only one leather alternative adheres to such standards and still feels premium. That product, Reishi, launches this week. A fungi-based “fine mycelium” grown in labs under proprietary circumstances, Reishi emulates many sensory aspects of genuine leather and eschews the plastic soul of synthetics. Founder Philip Ross, an artist who’s exhibited at MoMA and the Venice Biennale, spent 20 years developing the biomaterial. In the past few months—with the aid of CEO Matt Scullin, a materials scientist—breakthroughs were so substantial that it became time to unveil Reishi.
Scullin recognizes that their company, MycoWorks, sits at the center of three important movements: advanced manufacturing, animal rights and plastic alternatives. If brands commit and customers request, Reishi’s success could impact the substantial waste in the leather industry. First, though, one must assuage fears about quality.
“People, for a long time, have grown something called mushroom leather,” Scullin explains to us. “It’s compressed down into something more like expanded PVC or yoga mat material and it’s very weak. What we do is, while our material is growing, we coerce the mycelium cells into a woven structure. This gives it much more strength and durability. After we harvest, we can then go into tanning.” Between this proprietary growth process and their specific post processing with tannery partners, the resulting hand-feel—whether it’s the creaminess of their golden patina Reishi or the embossed pebbling—meticulously mimics high-quality cowhide leather.
The material value here comes from three different segments of the company itself. “On the front end of our process, we are an advanced agricultural company doing indoor farming,” Scullin says. They grow their mushrooms in two-by-three feet trays—scalable units with their own micro-environments—and produce sheets of fine mycelium. They can even grow custom shapes within specific trays, a factor that will further reduce waste product down the line. New technology, developed by Ross, powers this. “It’s very different from what everyone else is doing,” Scullin says. “We have a lot of patent protection on all of the proprietary processes that we do—and a lot more that we are developing as well. We think we are at the beginning of this.”
For the second segment behind Reishi’s differences, Scullin says, “We are an advanced chemistry company, developing leather-tanning on mycelium.” MycoWorks’ tannery partners—their first being Spanish heritage tannery Curtidos Badia—bring institutional knowledge and carry over the history of leather. Curtidos Badia vegetable-tans Reishi exactly as they would real leather. In order for this to happen, MycoWOrks had to develop their “own chemistries that are adaptable to tannery processes,” Scullin continues. “We took the approach that instead of reinventing everything (a slow process as leather-tanning has taken hundreds of years to develop) we made our processes compatible with tanneries.” No toxic chemicals are used—only natural-dyeing and vegetable-tanning.
Finally, on the back end, Scullin says, “We are a fashion and luxury brand working with others in that market. We’ve spent a lot of time with our tanneries and our partners and we’ve avoided staying in our own bubble in Silicon Valley. We’ve developed Reishi based on feedback we are getting from these brands. In working with them and understanding what they need out of a material, and their applications, we’ve been able to adapt.” Here, Scullin notes that this could be as different as footwear and accessories or outerwear. Each application has very different requirements.
Demand is extraordinary. Right now, consumers are making purchasing decisions that have encouraged brands to reach out to MycoWorks. “Brands are telling us that consumers are speaking to them with their wallets about plastics and animal rights,” Scullin says. “The world wants a natural alternative, but nobody wants to compromise on performance. Reishi performs.” Beyond fashion, requests have come in from the automotive industry and upholsterers. MycoWorks just doesn’t have enough material for markets that large right now.
Beyond the look and feel of Reishi, MycoWorks and partners have been proving its longterm performance capabilities. Animal leather, after all, lasts. “We’ve been doing wear testing,” Scullin says. “Our brand partners have been doing wear testing. And moreover, they’ve been doing lots of fabrication testing. We’ve been doing a lot of accelerated testing, as well.” MycoWorks also had third-party testing conducted and the results are fascinating. For example, Reishi can survive 100,000 bends and thousands of abrasion cycles.
In the coming months, partner brands will be announced. Reishi debuts during fashion week because Scullin and team want to put the material in people’s hands now. “We think it is significant that people can come in and touch it and see it and experience it. We think that a key part of our story is transparency. We want to talk about our partners and how this is made. That’s something that I think is new in this field of alternatives and biomaterials.” Touching Reishi solidifies belief in it—and offers a bit of hope for the future of luxury goods.
Images courtesy of MycoWorks