Leather re-imagined: Your next handbag could be grown in a lab

What is the fashion world without leather? And no one feels this more intrinsically than most Kenyan designers. It has the versatility to create bags, shoes, furniture, jewellery, dresses and so on. If you have an idea, there is possibly a way to work leather into it. It also possesses that durability attribute that enables leather products to remain aesthetically pleasing much longer than other materials.

Modern Meadows has the know-how on designing, growing and binding a protein known as collagen to create leather ‘hide’.

However, since leather is considered as a co-product of the meat industry, it is subject to vacillations in the amount of leather available, the quality grade and because of the demand for it, the prices are sure to increase inconveniently. But what if there was a way of getting high-grade leather without having to kill poor Bessie and all her cow friends? Or have to deal with those inopportune fluctuations?

Modern Meadow CEO founder Andras Forgacs [Image: Business Insider]
Modern Meadow CEO founder Andras Forgacs [Image: Business Insider]

A Brooklyn Biotech start-up, Modern Meadow, has turned to the world of Biodesign for real world solutions. There not talking about creating a more convincing synthetic product, the well-known pleather alternative, but rather made from living cells to replicate fully biological leather. I know, it sounds like a sci-fi movie premise, right?

“[l]eather is essentially entirely made of collagen—organized collagen protein…Our process makes cow collagen, without touching a cow.” ~ Andras Forgacs

But thanks to biofabrication, Modern Meadows has the know-how on designing, growing and binding a protein known as collagen to create leather ‘hide’.  If you’re wondering why collagen in particular, Modern Meadow’s co-founder, Andras Forgacs explains in an interview with xconomy US that, “[l]eather is essentially entirely made of collagen—organized collagen protein…Our process makes cow collagen, without touching a cow.”

Modern Meadow Technology [Image: Modern Meadow]
Modern Meadow Technology [Image: Modern Meadow]

Forgacs further explains that this leather will have a “tuneable feature”. This basically means that it will allow them to customise the leather to be thinner, stronger and even more flexible than traditional leather as we know it. He even promises that it would give the designer the ability to order customized structural and visual assets that they would easily engineer and design.

Modern Meadow Cow Leather Cells [Image: Business Insider]
Modern Meadow Cow Leather Cells [Image: Business Insider]

Then there’s the additional environmental aspects that they believe their collagen productions will bring. For starters, the improved manufacturing process will mean precise shapes and sizes are produced for reliable quality and quantity. By their calculations, that would reduce the waste of leather by up to 80%. The fact that they are pure collagen products, they don’t have to deal with hair and fat, making the tanning process shorter and a more efficient and closed-loop system. That would be less resources such as energy, water, chemicals and land being utilised to create animal-free leather.

Modern Meadow Lab [Image: Business Insider]
Modern Meadow Lab [Image: Business Insider]

This isn’t the first time Forgacs is working with growing cells. In fact, before Modern Meadow, he co-founded a bioprinting company with his father called Organovo. It contributes to the world of medical and pharmaceutical research by concentrates on developing human tissue. So it’s no shocker that they have managed to raise $40 million this year to move their research and development phase into full-scale production. That’s a total of $53.5million funding raised so far. Which means it could be a tangible reality pretty soon. And cows everywhere rejoice.

[Image: Reviewed.com]
[Image: Reviewed.com]

While the company is focused now on creating commercialised leather most like that from a cow, they hope to develop in the future other varieties of leathers such as crocodile. Because, in their own words, “[they] believe in a future where animal products are animal-free”. Oh, and that the global leather industry is estimated to reach close to USD $247 billion by 2019.

[Image: Modern Meadow]
[Image: Modern Meadow]

It promises to be the leather we know and love but with better performance characteristics. There are skeptics on legitimacy of this concept, in particular if the entire process is completely animal and cruelty free. But as we wait to see what the $40million support will produce, and it does succeed and somehow becomes a cost effective alternative for designers, is this something that African designers will be willing to adopt? And what would that mean for leather industries on the continent? Is this something that would pose a threat or a support system? We’re curious to hear your thoughts on the matter. You know the drill, share with us in the comment section [in our brand new website yay!] below.

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