John Legend and Natalie Portman want you to try wearing fungus instead of leather

Jonathan Shieber
·4 min read
Photo taken in Thai Mueang, Thailand
Photo taken in Thai Mueang, Thailand

Natalie Portman and John Legend are joining a group of venture capitalists and unnamed fashion brands backing MycoWorks, a company that just raised $45 million to commercialize its technology that makes a fungal-based biomaterial that can replace leather.

The goal is to get consumers to trade in their leather and lizard skin couture for some fungus fashion.

The company said it has inked some deals with big fashion brands as partners as it looks to bring its funky fungus to the masses in shoes, wallets, belts and other goods that traditionally use cowhide or other animal skins.

"We have been working with a few luxury brands and a major footwear manufacturer in very close collaboration," said Matt Scullin, the chief executive officer at MycoWorks .

The unnamed fashion brands have already started producing products for stores in a range of items including shoes, ready to wear apparel and bags, according to Scullin.

MycoWorks likes to differentiate itself from other brands that want to bring a fungus among us or plant new plant-based fabrics in fashion -- companies like Bolt Threads (mushrooms), Ananas Anam (pineapple fibers), and Desserto (cactus leather) -- with its emphasis on the durability of its fabric.

"We’ve had the product tested in a huge range of different applications of various leather-based apparel to upholstery to standard leather goods like handbags and wallets. The key difference between our material and mushroom leather is that the structural components is so high," Scullin said. "We're confident in the material’s ability to perform in a really wide range of applications so there’s a wide range of uses for that."

To that end, MycoWorks is focused on the high-end of the market. "There’s a misconception that brands are willing to sacrifice performance for sustainability and that’s not true," Scullin said. "The real adoption occurs in an industry like this when the performance is there."

Scullin won't say how much the MycoWorks material costs nor would he talk about which specific companies are working with the company's product right now. He did say that the company hopes eventually to be price competitive with not just the traditional leather market, but the plastic market for leather replacements, which is worth $70 billion per-year alone.

With the company's current capacity it can produce tens of thousands of square feet of fungal material per yar, according to Scullin. That means MycoWorks still has a long way to go to catch up to an industry that produces billions of square feet of leather.

The funding for MycoWorks is impressive, but it also has to contend with some competitors that are getting traction of their own in the fashion industry.

In October, Bolt Threads announced the creation of a consortium alongside longtime partners Adidas, Stella McCartney and the fashion house behind brands like Balenciaga to explore mushroom leather-based products.

For MycoWorks investors -- including WTT Investment Ltd. (Taipei, Taiwan), DCVC Bio, Valor Equity Partners, Humboldt Fund, Gruss & Co., Novo Holdings, 8VC, SOSV, AgFunder, Wireframe Ventures and Tony Fadell -- the competition is expected. But they believe that MycoWorks functionality makes it the king (oyster) of the leather substitute world.

"Fine mycelial leather is customizable to client needs," said DCVC Bio investor Kiersten Stead. "[It's] customizable in terms of shape, and application. And prices will vary depending on what the application and the criteria from customers is."

In all, MycoWorks has raised $62 million and the company's new financing announcement coincides with the opening of a new Emeryville, California production plant that takes its capacity up to its current tens-of-thousands of feet of fungal leather replacement capacity.

Behind all of this push to find replacements for animal skins is a growing awareness of the problems associated with traditional methods for manufacturing leather for clothes and shoes. It's a terribly toxic and polluting process, both in the tanning and dyeing and in the waste and landfilling associated with both animal leather and its plastic replacements.

"The process of growing the mycelium is carbon negative. Customers will look at [our product] versus an animal hide and say why wouldn’t I choose [that]," said Sculin. "In addition you have the non-animal aspects and the plastic-free aspects that are driving so many decisions right now… what we really are to our brand partners is an advanced manufacturing company. We are motivated by sustainability. We represent a way for them to change their supply chains."