Why lab-grown hides and furs could be the next luxury frontier – Robb Report

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Blame Blade runner. Icelandic fashion designer Ingvar Helgason is an avowed nerd who says he’s seen the sci-fi classic countless times. This occurred to him several years ago when he was approached by fur companies who offered him free hides for design, a typical compromise for low-income fashion types. He refused, in ethical conflict over production methods, but the exchange prompted a question. “In this movie, they grow snakes and owls. How cool would it be to grow fur in the lab? “He remembers:” What if we created materials that we know and love, but doing it in a better way? He put that idea aside while continuing to design, but after shutting down his namesake label, he finally pursued the idea in 2015, creating his Bay Area-based startup. Vitro Laboratories. His mission, as he explains, is simple: “We are changing the source of the leather, not the leather itself.

Ethical and sustainable sourcing is increasingly emphasized in fashion, be it regulate cashmere production or prohibiting the use of certain endangered corals in jewelry. Recently, however, several start-ups have emerged to offer low-impact man-made alternatives to traditional fibers – see Pinãtex, for example, which recycles cut leaves from the pineapple growing industry into a leather substitute. More intriguing, however, are companies like Helgason’s VitroLabs – they don’t aim to move skins but rather reproduce them, without ethical and environmental dilemmas. “For me, and for many others who work in the industry, authenticity is key and I find leather really beautiful and versatile,” he says, “It has been used for thousands of years. How can we get the same materials in a better way? ”

Ingvar Helgason spotted a professor from London who was working on culturing human skin for drug and cosmetic tests, and asked him to extend his expertise to animal skins. They co-founded the company together, creating what they have dubbed “cultured leather”. “We use the methods of regenerative medicine, but of course the inputs are different – we use bovine cells,” he says. It echoes much of the leather currently in use, which is cowhide; However, it is often a by-product of the meat industry, so the quality may vary accordingly. VitroLabs, of course, can ensure consistency. Additionally, although young cows are often the source of the best hides for luxury goods, Europeans don’t eat as much veal as they once did. Annual consumption, according to Helgason, has fallen by around 1%. At the same time, of course, demand for luxury leather goods has soared, creating a supply-demand imbalance that his startup is well positioned to address.

Vitro Labs’ Ingvar Helgason (left) and Furoid’s Maria Zakurnaeva both run start-ups that make luxury, lab-grown materials.

Photos: Adam Dillon / VitroLabs; Igor Vasiladis / Moscow

He also wants to explore the market for exotic products: crocodile, maybe, or ostrich, at least once his scientific team has a better understanding of how to grow non-mammalian cells in the lab. There is also a major attraction to growing, rather than cultivating, crocodiles: the larger crocodiles, essential for oversized bags or coats, are so prone to spittoons that they often bite each other, leaving marks and marks. imperfections that make the skin useless. Laboratory-grown crocodile skin does not risk the same problem.

So far, the company is funded by venture capital, but Helgason says that a large luxury brand will soon be announced as its first brand partner, with the potential to take a financial stake; VitroLabs products should be launched by the end of next year, he promises. The entrepreneur also plans to expand beyond leather other exotic products, including fur. “A lot of brands have stopped working with it, so it’s a declining market, but what if we could present beautiful hides that have the same quality and feel, but made ethically? There could be a resurgence of this. “

He better hurry, though. Maria Zakurnaeva runs towards the same goal. The former Russian-born model runs Furoid with her husband Henri Kunz. Its mission is to replace farmed skins with bio-identical fur produced in the laboratory. “In Russia, our society perceives fur as a status symbol, the ultimate luxury item. I was born in 1989, and in the 1990s and 2000s, when a woman wanted a fur coat, it was the ultimate proof of love, ”she says. Robb Report. It was while traveling the world during her fashion career that Zakurnaeva’s take on skins changed, as she became more aware of the cruelty involved in much of herding. furs. When her entrepreneur husband began researching how to grow human hair, the ultimate treatment for baldness, Zakurnaeva realized that there might be parallel applications for the technology in high-end fashion.

Furoid

Furoid has developed a system for growing hair follicles in a lab, setting the stage for its next lab-grown fur.

Photo: Courtesy of Furoid

Simply put, Furoid has developed a patented, molecularly identical hair follicle that can live in a lab on a scaffold; it is derived from animal cells which are harvested via a biopsy from a living animal. These follicles are fed using a high protein serum currently derived from cow fetuses, although Maria says they are considering different sources for the future. “We have found the magic recipe – this is how to get a hair follicle [in the lab]. This is the main goal if we want a sustainable product and eliminate cruelty to animals, ”she said. However, the R&D process is still in its early stages: the company has a proof of concept by testing this technology with three different visions, but it has only managed to produce a small patch of “skin”. grown in the laboratory and encrusted with their hair follicles, about half. inch or more square, according to Maria. She says it will take between 30 and 40 months to achieve a standard skin size of around 2 square feet. They will also need additional funding—1 million euros (approximately $ 1.16 million) for the first step, which consists of replicating the hair follicles of the mink cells, and between 4 to 7 million euros (4.64 to 8.12 million dollars) for a working prototype. “This product is too sophisticated to be cheap,” she said with a shrug.

But isn’t there a larger ethical question the two startups need to answer? Instead of reproducing unsustainable, sometimes unethical luxury fibers, shouldn’t we be encouraging people to embrace new high-tech, high-touch textiles? “Gore Tex is the hottest thing you can get, and we can all dress in it, but is that really what we want?” Zakurnaeva answers. Faux furs, often made from polyester, will clog landfills for centuries, she continues, while noting that blockchain technology could offer a way to verify that lab-grown furs are ethical, by attaching certification to deliberately integrated DNA markers.

Ingvar Helgason of VitroLabs is more pragmatic, comparing his product to an electric car or an Impossible burger. “It’s much more difficult to get people to change their consumption habits, rather than changing the source of these products – it’s an uphill battle, for sure. So why not give consumers what they are looking for, but in a better way, with a product that looks and performs the same, with all the great features? Technology may seem to tarnish luxury’s reputation for handcrafted precision, but it also opposes it. “If you look at luxury, it was founded on innovation,” he says, citing Louis Vuitton’s redesigned steam trunks with flat tops that allowed them to be stacked or Chanel’s 55 long chain bag that could be worn over the shoulder rather than constantly clutched in your hands. . He hopes that VitroLabs Croc Skin will be added to this list very soon.


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