When I began designing our bags, I was really keen to avoid using leather. An ethical and environmental minefield, it may be a 'natural' material but the modern day leather industry is far from sustainable, as documented by groundbreaking film The True Cost:
“Leather production is increasingly linked to a variety of environmental and human health hazards. The amount of feed, land, water and fossil fuels used to raise livestock for leather production come at a huge cost to the health of our world. In addition to raising the livestock needed, the leather tanning process is among the most toxic in all of the fashion supply chain. Workers are exposed to harmful chemicals on the job, while the waste generated pollutes natural water sources leading to increased disease for surrounding areas. Studies have found that leather tannery workers are at a far greater risk of cancer, by between 20% - 50%.”
Not in my name, thank you.
The search for leather alternatives can be equally tricky, with traditional mock skins being plasticky and toxic to the environment; however a new movement towards truly eco-friendly options is blending science and art to offer some incredible materials. Thin, supple sheets of cork are water resistant, highly sustainable and easily recycled. Or try waxed (organic) cotton. Recycled rubber. Bark cloth. Toughened paper (yes really!). There's even MuSkin, a faux leather made from mushrooms!
But my favourite find of all? Hello, Piñatex!
Piñatex is a brand new non-woven textile developed by Dr Carmen Hijosa, made from pineapple leaf fibres which are a by-product of the fruit crop - no extra land, water, fertilisers or pesticides are needed, and the fabric provides a new additional income for farmers with the potential for huge impact in pineapple-producing countries! These leaves would otherwise be discarded, burned or left to rot once the fruit has been harvested.
As a fabric, Piñatex is strong, light, breathable and durable - totally perfect for bags and shoes. I wanted in on it!
In the summer of 2015 I was able to meet the Piñatex team at the Royal College of Art in London, where I could finally see and touch the 'decorticated' fibres and the finished fabric in person. It was great to get a thorough understanding of how this amazing textile was produced, and where Ananas Anam, the parent company, want to take it in the future in terms of thicknesses and finishes (hint: the sky is the limit!).
After that, we played the start-up waiting game from both sides. Piñatex production would take a little more time. No problem, Gold is a Neutral was still pretty up in the air too. Some time later - hooray! Piñatex orders were ready to be taken! However, the very first production run would only be in the Natural and Charcoal colours, while I had my heart set on the chocolatey brown shade which would sit perfectly alongside the indigo blues making their way into my designs.
While waiting for this third colour to enter production, I ordered a few metres in Charcoal to begin sampling with in India. As I was working with producers who primarily made garments, there was some hesitation over whether their standard sewing machines could handle a textile of this thickness - a production unit that has 200 machines for stitching garments may only have one machine capable of sewing through leather, so it was critical to my product development to see who was happy to work with it. It would be the first time all around!
Sampling in Bangalore: how to best make the bag's wrist strap? // a Piñatex tassel?! // Radha completes the very first full sample using Charcoal Piñatex
Happily, my tailoring team in Bangalore found Piñatex to be considerably softer than leather to stitch through, and gave me the thumbs up from their side. It was so fun to introduce a totally new textile to these artisans who have pretty much seen every fabric under the sun - of course, the first thing everyone does when they hear what it's made from is to sniff it! (There's not a whiff of a tropical tang at all: no juicy fragrant pineapple fruits are harmed in the making of Piñatex!)
My beloved brown Piñatex finally reached Bangalore in the summer of 2016, where the artisan textiles from Kutch and my organic, fair trade cotton supplies were ready and waiting: it turned out to be perfect timing. As production began in earnest it was brilliant to be there and see Radha and Pattern Master Mani cut the pieces while Sumi and Girish assembled the bags with the utmost care.
I am so thrilled to be able to use this amazing textile in my designs: not only is it technologically fascinating, but it upholds the ethical and environmental standards that very few other leather alternatives can claim to reach. I can't wait to develop future collections with Piñatex in mind to complement textile arts from around the world.
And, have you seen? Piñatex now comes in a shiny, fabulous gold finish. GOLD!
It's a match made in tropical, vegetarian, sustainable heaven.
Images of Piñatex fibres being produced in the Philippines © Ananas Anam