Designer Stella McCarthy grew up in the 70’s surrounded by the music industry’s upper echelon, but her young life moved to another beat. Born in 1971 to Paul and Linda McCartney, Stella spent many of her early years away from the private jets on an organic farm in Sussex (UK), where the McCartneys immersed themselves in country life: raising farm animals, riding bareback on horses and growing vegetables. Stella’s late mother, the photographer Linda McCartney, was acclaimed for her work as an animal rights activist right up until her death at the age of 56. Speaking to the English newspaper The Guardian in 2009, McCartney acknowledged her parents’ influence on her lifestyle during her formative years: “I was brought up to understand that we are all here on planet Earth together,” she noted. While the world listened to The Beatles tracks permeating their headsets, Stella McCartney was figuring a way to combine her two great passions: fashion and sustainability, all while determined not to be defined by her legendary heritage.
Pursuing her lifelong dream, McCartney established her namesake brand in 2001 based on her fundamental appreciation for the natural world. Growing up as a vegetarian McCartney has never understood the need to incorporate leather into her designs: “I grew up as a vegetarian so I’ve always thought, why would I kill an animal to make a shoe but I wouldn’t kill it to digest it? Morally that is hypocritical” (Dezeen).
The Impact of Leather
McCartney’s motivation to provide consumers with suitable leather alternatives is not unwarranted. Despite being one of the most ancient fabrics used by humans, the planet is struggling to keep up with the demand for virgin leather worldwide. Aside from the obvious reason that the leather industry is inextricably linked to the meat industry, according to The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Materials Sustainability Index “leathers [have] an impact of 159 (compared with 44 for polyester and 98 for cotton), due to its high contribution to global warming and water use and pollution” (Common Objective).
In the 20 years since establishing her fashion house, McCartney has gone from designing Olympic uniforms together with Adidas to collaborating with the organisation Parley to develop sneakers made from ocean plastic, all while at the helm of a cruelty-free, sustainable, vegetarian, internationally acclaimed brand. Pointedly resisting the use of leather, skin, fur or feathers, McCartney and her team have successfully developed leather alternatives that “do not just look good, they are also better to the environment” (Stella McCartney). According to the brand: “Using recycled polyester instead of Brazilian calf leather, for example, creates 24 times less of an environmental impact” (Stella McCartney). Until recently, the brands most noticeable alternative leather was their material Alter-Appa, released in 2013. The breakthrough fabric is crafted from “polyester and polyurethane and has a recycled polyester backing”. To create the same water-resistant effect as with genuine leather, the fabric is coated with a substance “made with over 50% vegetable oil, a renewable, natural resource” (Stella McCartney).
But the best was yet to come. After many years of research and development, Stella McCartney has released Mylo™️: a vegan mushroom leather. This most recent material discovery moves away from the problematic connotations of working with synthetic materials such as polyester and instead presents a lab-grown material, providing a substantial, sustainable alternative to leather. Made possible by the world-class scientists and engineers at Bolt Threads™, Mylo™️ is crafted from “renewable ingredients found in nature today” (Stella McCartney), a substance called mycelium. This is “the vegetative part of a fungus or fungus-like bacterial colony, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae” (Wikipedia). The end product is surreal, a thick black wetsuit-like fabric, similar to leather in its sheen and robust nature. Worn by Paris Jackson for the launch in March 2021, “the bustier top and utilitarian trousers were handcrafted from panels of Mylo™️ laid on recycled nylon scuba at the brand’s atelier in London.” (Mylo™️) Similar to animal leather, Mylo™️ can absorb “any colour, emboss or texture” (Mylo™️).
It isn’t just the McCartney team who are enthused by this underground wonder. Speaking to Vogue in a recent article on the rise of the mushroom, the designer Rahul Mishra celebrates nature’s gift to us: “They’re a masterpiece of engineering all on their own” (Vogue).
What does this groundbreaking discovery mean for the wider fashion industry? Is a further understanding of the power and potential of the natural world, encouraged by leading scientists, backed by leading fashion brands, the answer to the reduction of the production of leather? It’s only a matter of time before more groundbreaking discoveries emerge from the labs, here’s hoping the rest of the fashion industry is ready.
by Eliza Edwards