How next-gen materials can accelerate luxury's green credentials

How next-gen materials can accelerate luxury's green credentials

As environmental awareness grows and packaging regulations become increasingly strict, innovation around sustainable materials is garnering interest like never before. Be they derived from plants, seaweed, mushrooms, waste, or bacteria, sustainable materials are breaking down barriers. In part one of Formes de Luxe's Special Report on Next-Gen Materials, we explore why luxury’s big hitters, including Hermès, Chanel and Vuitton, are among the first to invest in the market. 

According to a recent report published by the US-based think tank Material Innovation Institute (MII)*, companies specialized in next-generation materials classified as sustainable raised $457m in 2022. Considering the urgent climate situation, that is less than to be desired—and less than the $980m raised in 2021. But who would have imagined, just five years ago, that a company like General Motors would take a gamble on mycelium? In an effort to develop automotive interiors as alternatives to animal leather, the company invested $125m in an industrial partnership with MycoWorks, a startup founded by two artists: sculptor Phil Ross and dancer-poetess Sophia Wang.

Hermès x MycoWorks / Coppi Barbieri

The automaker isn’t alone in committing to alternative materials. Cuir du Vaudreuil and Ligne Roset have also signed partnerships with the Californian company. But it was Hermès who paved the way two years ago with the launch of a revisited Victoria bag in Sylvania—a leather alternative made from the same Fine Mycelium developed by Myco-Works that drew the interest of General Motors. An initial capital injection in summer 2022, coupled with a second round of financing amounting to $63m at the end of the year, will enable the startup to establish its first large-scale production site. It aims to produce several million square meters of Fine Mycelium annually to satisfy a growing range of companies and industries.

Pili, Ictyos... next-gen shifts into higher gear

Boundaries are shifting. And yet among the 100 companies specialized in next-gen materials that MII monitors, less than 20% have reached commercial-scale production*. In Europe, they include Ananas Anam (Spain), which produces vegan leather (Piñatex) with fibers sourced from waste produced by pineapple cultivation; PILI Bio (France), which make dyes and pigments from bacteria; Ictyos (France), which manufactures exotic leathers from marine materials; and Polymaris, a Brittany-based company that makes custom biopolymers from cultured marine micro-organisms using a process said to be applicable to industrial-scale demands.

Klarenbeek & Dros / Mycelium chair

These three start-ups have managed to get past the laboratory and/or prototyping phase.  After a rocky start, Natureplast— a forerunner in plant-based and/or biodegradable plastics—has seen its revenue triple in the last few years. Thomas Lefèvre, CEO, nevertheless notes that there are still “many called but few chosen.” He says, “The market is still in its infancy. For example, among the 250 companies that we have worked with on bio-plastic projects, less than 5% reached the industrialization phase. Problems tend to arise at pre-industrialization.” Is the problem inherent to the materials? “No. In 80% of cases, the trials are promising. The price is the problem,” he says. Bioplastics, for example, are on average three to five times more expensive to produce than conventional polymers.

But isn’t that to be expected? Until volumes increase enough to create economies of scale, innovation will come at a cost— one that not all industries can accommodate. Because their markets enable them to absorb these costs, luxury’s major players have been among the first to step up to the plate— plus, in the midst of the ecological transition, it’s smart thinking to secure future supplies of raw material. Some companies, like Chanel, which purchased capital in Finnish materials company Sulapac, are investing, while others are testing the waters. They may have to, given that available material stocks are often limited. But it could also be a choice: capsule collections are a convenient crash-test of sorts that allows brands to evaluate a given material’s potential—especially its aesthetic qualities, so important to luxury—while reducing risks, both financial and in terms of brand image.

Limited editions a key driver for next-gen

Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren, Hugo Boss, Fossil, and Salvatore Ferragamo, as well as Adidas and Nike, not to mention Porsche, Bentley, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz: the list of next-gen materials that have been integrated into limited-edition collections or concept cars is too long to list here. Examples include jackets by Alexander McQueen in Mirum (a plant-based textile made from natural rubber and plant fibers and designed by Natural Fiber Welding/Illinois); bags, jackets, and sneakers in Karl Lagerfeld x Amber Valleta collections made from cactus leather by Desserto (Mexico); artificial spider silk (Microsilk); and mushroom-based leathers (Mylo) by Bolt Threads (California).

Karl Lagerfeld x Amber Valletta / Desserto

Mylo encouraged several luxury heavyhitters to form a consortium: Kering, Adidas, and, last but not least, Stella McCartney, a pioneer in next-gen materials. After launching a bag made of mycelium (the Frayme Mylo shoulder bag produced in a 200-piece series), she followed up with a bodysuit embroidered with Bio-Sequins: made from plant-based cellulose by Radiant Matter, they are certified free of plastics, metals, and synthetic dyes.

Samuel Tomatis, Jérémy Gobé... marrying art & research 

Let’s get back to the start-ups—or rather to the workshops where ideas for materials, and often the materials themselves, are conceived. From Samuel Tomatis (who works with seaweed leathers, plastics, panels, and more) to Lucile Viaud (whose “sea glass” made of abalone shells will soon adorn Cartier boutiques around the world) to Tony Jouanneau (who works with living materials to make non-toxic textile prints and burnouts), 21st century materials engineers are not so much conceiving materials as they are celebrating them.

Atelier Sumbiosis / Tony Jouanneau / Florent Mulot

Artists and designers who are committed to a certain relationship with the world are getting down to business, creating alternatives to the materials our industries are built on—materials that sap resources and the living world. Among them, artist Jérémy Gobé is on a crusade to save coral reefs. His research resulted in two next-gen materials: an ecological concrete made from shellfish debris enhanced with decarbonated cement, and a biopolymer cultivated from marine bacteria. French design curator Hélène Aguilar describes his work: “To my knowledge, no existing material combines these four fundamental principles: the absence of petroleum-based ingredients; complete biodegradability—here and now, not 60% in a hypothetical factory in a hypothetical future; and an intrinsic capacity to enrich the environment it will return to. They are entirely made in France and intended to adapt to local resources around the world.”

Aguilar is the standard-bearer of a design she likes to describe as “in the public public interest.” Every Thursday, on her podcast Où est le beau?, she hosts “those in the fields of design, architecture, and art who are shaping a more responsible world without sacrificing aesthetics.” Her guests have included, among other material agitators, the designer-researcher Antonin Mongin, who weaves fabrics from hair; the industrial designer Samy Rio, who transforms invasive plants (Japanese knotweed) into objects of desire; and the team from Hors-Studio, whose members stretch their creative muscles to create virtuous materials from production waste and scraps.

Atelier Sumbiosis/Tony Jouanneau / Véronique Huyghe

In 2021, Aguilar created the Association Pour un Design Soutenable, which hosts the Frugal fair (a bi-annual, nowaste, no-plastic exhibition-manifesto). The next event, renamed Amour Vivant, will be held in the fall. Larger in scope than its predecessor, it will encompass architecture, but the spirit will remain the same: “The disposable and the unsustainable will become obsolete,” says Aguilar, “in the same way that unsustainable materials will no longer be viable, in every sense of the word. If we hope to make progress, we must do away with greenwashing, whether it is deliberate or stems from misunderstanding the physical reality of materials and processes.”

From this perspective, she says, the subject of binders—petroleum based or not—is at the heart of the problem. And the challenge is to break free of short-term approaches to sustainability. “The goal isn’t to take a step back in order to take a step forward: whether a product can be recycled or not, and whether we can fully enter a circular process, depends on the nature of the binder used.” Will we take the leap? On a large scale? “I believe so—if we give ourselves the means, are curious, and ask the right questions.”

Stay tuned for part two of our Special Report on Next-gen Materials in next month's Materials Matter newsletter. Sign up here.

* 2022 State of The Industry Report : Next-Gen Materials,” Material Innovation Initiative, February 2023
* Brand Engagement with Next-Gen Materials: 2022 Landscape, Material Innovation Initiative, February 2022.

Editor's picks

James Turrell celebrates Eight Decades with Lalique and The Glenturret whisky

James Turrell celebrates Eight Decades with Lalique and The Glenturret whisky

The limited-edition decanter conceived by James Turrell for Lalique-owned whisky brand The Glenturret combines clear, purple and sapphire-blue crystal. Priced at €92,000, it echoes the geometric form and rounded shoulders from Lalique’s...

06/06/2023 | LALIQUE
Lifting the curtain: the appeal of monochrome design

Lifting the curtain: the appeal of monochrome design

Xavier Brisoux's High-Sculpture Knitwear goes on show

Xavier Brisoux's High-Sculpture Knitwear goes on show

Zinc meets faceted glass for Macallan’s 31 and 32-Year-Old whiskies

Zinc meets faceted glass for Macallan’s 31 and 32-Year-Old whiskies

More articles