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Spring 2022 seems to be the season of the mushroom. Fashion shows in previous years have highlighted the mycelium of the fungi—the underground root-like network from which mushrooms spring up—and the “leather” that can be made from those threads. This season, designers are slapping images of mushrooms themselves on everything from handbags to jumpsuits. You can even buy toadstool-inspired accessories, like a $6,950 green mushroom pendant.
While the fruiting body of the fungus—that’s the above-ground “mushroom” part—is having its moment, we talked to fungal biologist Merlin Sheldrake, author of Entangled Life which was the inspiration behind the 2021 Iris Van Herpen collection. Sheldrake explains why now is the time for mushrooms to shine, and what he would do if he was given the reins of one of these big fashion houses. The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Fungi are being used to produce various different types of material. You can build building blocks and boards out of fungal mycelium [the “roots” that support a network of mushrooms], and you can make textiles out of fungal mycelium— leather-liketextiles. Different companies produce it in different ways. The samples I’ve seen have looked and felt like animal leather. There’s enormous promise in these materials. You can grow fungal leather on agricultural waste, cornstalks or wood chips that will otherwise be discarded. You can grow these materials in a short period of time, a couple of weeks, and you don’t need to kill animals. You don’t need to clear forests for pasture for the animals that you’re going to kill. There’s a whole lot of polluting industrial work that you can bypass, so they show enormous promise.
I saw that you grew oyster mushrooms out of the pages of your book (they kind of looked like brown, cupped bookmarks, about to swallow the book whole). Could you theoretically grow mushrooms or a fungal network on a piece of clothing, so that, say, your jacket has actual mushrooms on it?
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