Text: Johanna Schlemmer, Fotos: Peter Wolff, Cora Schmelzer
Mushrooms to eat? With pleasure. But mushrooms on your own skin? For many, a strange, even disgusting idea. Not for Cora Schmelzer. As a budding product designer, she has been looking into the topic of sustainability and aesthetics. During her research, she came across materials made from mushrooms. Is it really possible to make clothing from mushrooms? An interview with Cora Schmelzer about vegan clothing and sustainability in the fashion industry.
Cora, how did you come up with the idea of making clothes from mushrooms?
I came across the topic of mushrooms during my studies and was fascinated by this realm of its own. But it’s relatively little researched for that. Worldwide, one finds mainly research concerning edible mushrooms and medicinal mushrooms. By chance, I came up with the idea of whether one could develop materials from mushrooms precisely in the sense of sustainability. I wanted to combine sustainability and aesthetics so that this value would reach the middle of society. I was totally fascinated and immediately told everyone everything about mushrooms. For example, slime molds can solve algorithms better than we humans can, even though they don’t have a central nervous system. There are fascinating stories about fungi in virtually every field.
Does sustainability play a role in your life in general?
I knew I wanted to do something with sustainability because it’s a central theme of my life. I also try to establish it in my everyday life. As an independent designer and former employee of a start-up, I only accept commissions that revolve around sustainability.
Were you focused on clothing materials from the beginning?
No, at first I focused on furniture. For example, there’s a company called “Ecovative Design” that produces styrofoam-like structures. I then tried that out myself. I developed four materials, or rather I didn’t develop them myself, but someone else had already done the preliminary work and I then tried to reproduce it. I succeeded in doing that in my student room and in the boiler room of my parents.
If I succeeded in this experiment on this simple level, I asked myself whether it could not also work very well in a laboratory. A sponge-like material with the properties of Styrofoam was then the first thing I made.
A sponge-like, styrofoam-like material for a piece of furniture, but I don’t want to wear it on my skin!
No, of course not. That was the beginning, but it didn’t take long before I discovered the topic of “fungi and textiles”. Mushrooms in themselves are not so familiar to us humans and we find them rather, I would like to say, creepy. The willingness to wear something like that on the skin would be the extreme for me. That’s why I wanted to develop something really beautiful out of it. Through my research, I already knew that mushrooms have good material properties. But the clothes I had made so far all looked very dubious.
How do you grow mushrooms that then become clothing?
I worked with four materials. First, with the foam from oyster mushrooms (picture), which you can shape into any form. I used the material for a shoe sole, for example. In a petri dish I grew another mushroom. I just put an original piece of the mushroom in it and then it spread out in a circle. Then I made it bigger and was able to pull off “sheets”. The fabric resembles suede. Next, I harvested “tinder fungus.” For it grows in the shape of a crescent on trees in the forest. From the mushroom you can peel out the middle layer and you have a suede-like fabric again. It’s not as durable as leather, but it goes a long way. Of course, you can divide this layer again horizontally and get more material out of it.
Mushrooms are relatively small – how do you get enough material for textiles?
That is certainly a problem. Although mushrooms can grow up to 60 cm. The last thing I did was to grow kombucha. However, I only grew the mushroom mother, also called “scobi,” in huge tanks. It spreads as far as the surface provides space. This produces a material that resembles a pig’s skin. I then had to dry it. That took the longest time. Here you can see two applications. (Image) Once I lasered a shape into the material. The second I oiled.
How long did it take to make the four materials?
It is always very different. It also depends on how much material you want to produce. Depending on the material, it can vary from five days to several months.
Which clientele would you like to have addressed with your project?
I hadn’t thought that far ahead in the work itself. I first wanted to find out whether the materials were suitable for the future. That was the question I asked in my thesis. My initial question was to what extent these materials could be developed in an aesthetic direction so that people would want to wear them. Then, of course, I designed a kind of collection, but it doesn’t consist of the material, it’s just a visualization. (Image) But you can see well that it already goes in an avant-garde direction.
Do you see a future for the material?
Producing something on an industrial scale is another thing altogether, also in terms of size scaling. This mushroom sponge is relatively easy to produce. With the other textiles, there is still an extremely large amount of development work to be done. However, the fact that I managed to do it under my rather simple conditions is very promising. I know that other companies are researching a leather alternative, for example. There is “MICO Works” in the USA, for example. Or “MOGU” in Italy presented a leather coat made from mushrooms at Fashion Week 2022 in cooperation with Balenciaga. Such companies have certainly been researching this for ten years. Of course, this shows that it’s not that easy to develop vegan materials and process them on a large scale.
And it’s probably not cheap to produce such materials.
I think at the moment it’s still very expensive because of the development work. But since no animal has to die for it, it should be cheaper than leather in the future. I really hope for it and wish for it.
You didn’t pursue the idea after your diploma thesis. Why?
Although my studies were very promising, I didn’t have any start-up experience at the time, and I didn’t have any contacts with biotechnologists, which I would have needed in any case. It was too big for me. I didn’t see myself as an individual capable of building a start-up and developing this idea. I couldn’t estimate how much time and capital it would take. It’s certainly millions of dollars that you need to develop it.
And now you’re working in the food industry.
Yes, I got into the food industry by chance. One of the founders of the start-up “the nu+ company” is one of my best friends and he got me on board right at the beginning when it came to sustainable packaging. Now I’ve dropped out, but I’ve gained a lot of experience. I also had the idea of founding a start-up in the construction industry. This field is also extremely harmful to the environment. But I’ll probably stay in the food industry and open a sustainable restaurant or restaurant chain, as it’s more manageable and less capital intensive. But maybe in the future I’ll work on the mushroom fabric idea again. Who knows (laughs).
Dear Cora, thank you very much for the interview!