On Thursday, Pangaia and Natural Fiber Welding launched Air Gilet, a first-of-its-kind, leather-like puffer vest. The style’s interior features Pangaia’s organic cotton fleece as the lining and its FLWRDWN as the filling. Meanwhile, its exterior is made from a newly reformulated and thinner version of Mirum, the plant-based leather alternative previously developed by Natural Fiber Welding.
The $800 vest is the first ready-to-wear item featuring plant-based leather that can be made at scale. Illinois-based material innovation company Natural Fiber Welding, maker of the Mirum material, is opening more factories in the next two years in Southeast Asia. Accelerating the material’s production to millions of square feet per week is the goal.
For Pangaia, which operates as a material innovation company and fashion brand, it was important to put out a ready-to-wear product in alternative leather. “At our core, we mostly make lifestyle products that are more focused on apparel than shoes and bags,” said Dr. Amanda Parkes, chief innovation officer at Pangaia. “Ready-to-wear is one of those areas that has not yet been touched by plant-based leather, because it’s necessary that the material is lightweight and flexible, but also durable enough. And of course, you want to do something that’s plastic-free.”
Pangaia and NFW are both members of the Plastic Free Collective, made up of companies dedicated to finding alternatives to wide-scale plastic use — it was started by NFW this year. Pangaia has focused on material innovations since its 2018 launch, with new advancements typically driving its product collaborations and launches. Pangaia experienced a difficult 2021 as the company moved from profits of $16.6 million in 2020 to a loss of $41.5 million. This was due to its slowing sales and rising investments, according to details released by U.K. business register Companies House in February.
However, the company raised $50 million in financing through a convertible loan note in October. And concessions in major European department stores Selfridges, Galeries Lafayette and La Rinascente helped the consumer-facing side of the business return to profitability in December. Meanwhile, its B2B arm — built on selling its sustainable materials to brands — has remained a small fraction of its business.
“A collection launch like this is what I call the innovation aggregation — and its high initial cost [to us is meant to] be spread out over time, as the product or material scales up,” said Parkes.
Innovation can sometimes be sidelined when markets are in flux, but Pangaia is not betting entirely on the fashion industry. “The area of biotech and impact investing is flourishing,” said Parkes. “Pangaia is split between biotech and fashion and retail, so we don’t have to rely on what is going on in one market. Pangaia functions more like a tech and research company that has a long-term plan versus a fashion brand, which tends to operate in very hectic waves. [Our success is] more about staying consistent [than current sales].”
Leather has typically come with a high margin for brands, and as its environmental impact comes under fire, scaleable plant-based leathers have the potential to catch on. The Air Gilet in Mirum offers large fashion brands typically reliant on traditional leather a proof point of a viable alternative.
NFW will make the millionth pair of Mirum-based shoes this year. It has over 100 brand clients, including footwear and major automotive brands. According to the company, 1,500 brands across the car, furniture and apparel industries have contacted the company about using the material in the last 18 months.
In December, Natural Fiber Welding’s CEO Luke Haverhals and CTO Aaron Amstutz were named Inventors of the Year by the Intellectual Property Owners Education Foundation. Fellow winners included the developers of the mRNA technology used in Covid-19 vaccines. The company’s Mirum differs from other alternative leathers on the market in its scalability; the factories that were built after the company’s $85 million funding round in April are each able to produce many millions of square feet of the material per year. Material innovation company Bolt Threads, which pioneered mushroom leather Mylo, has come out with 5,000 iterations of the material. It’s been used to make accessories by Stella McCartney and Ganni.
“We’ve been making a lot of Mirum for footwear,” said Haverhals. “Footwear designers say they want structure so that the shoe can hold its shape, so then you usually have a little bit thicker material. For Pangaia, we made adjustments to the Mirum to create a very thin version that can [appropriately] drape and flow for a ready-to-wear piece.”
“One of the things we want for all of our products is to combine innovations,” said Parkes. “There are a lot of innovative technologies being used in fashion items out there where the brand uses one new material, but everything in the product stays the same.” Pangaia is mixing two innovations in the new vest — its FLRWDWN and the Mirum. Developed in 2018, FLRWDWN is a down-like filling made of wild flowers, biopolymer and an aerogel.
“We can be synergistically better leaders in our respective fields by working together through collaboration,” said Haverhals. “If you think about ready-to-wear, the difference between what Pangaia’s designers need a material to do versus your favorite large fashion brand is almost nothing.”