Grado Zero Innovation, a start-up based in Montelupo Fiorentino, Tuscany, studies and develops new materials for use in the most disparate industrial sectors. One day it had the “crazy” idea of creating a material that would give the same tactile sensations as a supersoft suede leather, but without costing an animal its life.
How did you get the idea for developing a textile from fungus cuticles?
«The main driver was that we realised demand was growing for eco-sustainable products as alternatives to mass-produced items involving rare animals (such as various reptiles, toads and frogs). Once we had decided on our objective, we conducted a study among small operators who could provide us with an eco-sustainable product that, above all, would not be of animal or fossil origin.»
Which particular fungus proved to be the most suitable?
«We use a giant parasite fungus called Phellinus ellipsoideus (formerly Fomitiporia ellipsoidea), a species in the Hymenochaetaceae family, which grows on the bark of trees, and at first was simply eliminated. Since then, it has become a local resource.»
What applications do you see for MuSkin?
«They’re virtually limitless, it simply depends on the imagination and expertise of the craftsman and producer. So far, it has been used to make handbags, shoes, jewellery, bracelets, furnishings and so on.»
Are any manufacturers interested in your material?
«We have worked, and are currently working with some famous names in footwear and in watches. The agreements are subject to confidentiality clauses so we can’t tell you who they are. But I can say they are very well-known international brands.»
Is the material already available on the market? And if so, what is the sort of marketing message?
«MuSkin has already been available for purchase, in its untreated state, on our online store lifematerials.eu for about a year. The message we want to convey, in addition to the material’s inherent eco-sustainability, is not so much that we see it as a complete and definitive alternative to use of animal skins – it could never fill such a role given that the levels of production are not comparable – but rather that is a provocative sort of idea demonstrating that feasible and valid alternatives to indiscriminate exploitation of the planet’s resources can be found. We’d like this to be a small initial contribution to the creation of a more profoundly human and natural mentality.»
Give us some technical details about the material: how is it produced? Is the process expensive? How much of the raw organic material is needed to make a shoe sole, for example, or a belt?
«The material is produced literally by slicing up the fungus cuticle and then exposing the slices to steam before drying them. It has a high penicillin content, which helps to repel germs and bacteria and assist natural tanning. The rest of the procedure is secret, but I can tell you that no substances other than water are used. Any waste is negligible, a tiny percentage, in the same way as cork. So the process is very sustainable and cost-effective.»