Mushrooms are the most versatile organism on the planet. And they’re going to end up in your closet.

Petroleum-based synthetic materials such as “vegan leather”—a fancy term for plastic used to make clothing and accessories—are doing just as much harm to the environment as natural fibers are. While the latter require staggering amounts of water, energy, and land to produce, the former come with all of the above as well as the threat of micro-plastic waste. The fashion industry is desperately looking for alternatives, and mushrooms could be it.

High-end mycelium leather is just as sturdy and resistant as the animal variety, but the raw materials needed to create it are much more low-impact to raise and process. Mycelium isn’t the mushroom head or its white stalk but the network of roots that line forest floors and connect fungi to one another.

The “hides” are made of material from the mycelium root system.

The companies at the forefront of the industry are MycoWorks, a San Francisco–based venture that was founded in 2013, and Emeryville, California–based Bolt Threads, which works with similar technology to turn mushroom roots into something resembling hides, known as Mylo. Mycelium is lab-grown in trays in just under two weeks, and as the filaments grow and interweave, they can be fashioned into any shape of a designer’s choice—a sleeve for a jacket, perhaps, or a piece of a boot—without creating wastage.

Lululemon yoga mats and Adidas Stan Smith sneakers made of Mylo are already selling briskly. In 2017, Bolt Threads started working with Stella McCartney to produce a silk dress, of all things, out of mycelium. The London-based fashion brand recently announced the launch of a new mycelium Frayme Mylo bag, which is made by artisans in Italy and comes complete with a chunky aluminum chain. In late 2020, McCartney’s parent company, Kering, announced an investment in Mylo.

The fashion industry is desperately looking for alternatives, and mushrooms could be it.

Meanwhile, MycoWorks has teamed up with Hermès on a reboot of its classic Victoria bag, which will hit stores later this year. While the panel sheets were produced in California, they were tinkered with for three years at Hermès tanneries in France to create a new material the house is calling Sylvania. It’s remarkably leather-like—and equally expensive.

MycoWorks’ newest product, Reishi, a premium, refined leather for fashion and luxury industries, hit the market in July. (There’s even bulletproof mycelium in the works).

In January, MycoWorks secured an additional $125 million in Series C funding from Prime Movers Lab, SK Networks, and Mirabaud Lifestyle Impact & Innovation Fund, among others. While mycelium may be construed as an attempt to assuage corporate and consumer guilt around environmental issues, the fashion houses are finding that it’s resonating with customers.

“I’ve never felt anything like it,” says Gen Z accessories aficionado Christine Li, who purchased Stella McCartney’s Frayme Mylo bag. “I spilled on it, and it didn’t even stain. There isn’t any visible stitching. I love it—and I know my bags.”

Elena Clavarino is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL