Jan 20, 2024
by Karl Smith
The Material Innovation News You Need to Know
by Karl Smith
Jan 20, 2024

Here we are, then: the end of the start of the year. We’re just making our way out of January, and already there’s what feels like months’ worth of news on the materials front – an abundance of updates in fashion, footwear, design and technology that hinge on next-generation innovation.

Of course, it isn’t all wine and roses when it comes to forward-thinking fashion  and 2023 did see significant turmoil in the materials sphere – issues with funding, with uptake, and with image that permeated sustainability on pretty much every level of every area that progress touches. But, as you might have gathered, this is 2024, and it’s time for a fresh start and to lay a positive foundation for the year ahead.

And to that end, we’ve gone ahead and put together a list of all the need-to-know next-gen news so far this year – from bio-based alternatives for animal-derived down to rental programs from big-name retailers, essential new legislation pushing greener ways of working to basketballs made from plant-based leather and a new era for 3d-printed footwear.

Octarine’s Fermented Colors Receive Further Funding 

We’ve reported on pigment before – on the insidious effects of Carbon Black and the progressive materials science companies working on alternatives to this sly, petro-derived coloring.

So, to see an outfit working to innovate the sector – which doesn’t get anything like the attention it should – pulling in the capital it needs to make real, genuine progress, really sets the tone (if you’ll pardon the semi-pun) for the priorities of year ahead.

Or, at least, we hope so.

The EU Is Clamping Down on Fashion’s Wanton Destruction

For some time now, the fashion industry’s penchant for pyromania has been its worst kept secret.

Regularly and rightly called out as one of fashion’s worst practices – which, by the way, really is saying something – the burning of unsold clothes has caused uproar in the way that less spectacular infractions just don’t. It’s not hard to sell people on the evils of this particular process because it’s not hard to picture a big pile of clothes, smouldering with their tags still on.

Which, in turn, brings it to the attention of politicians keen to be seen making progress. All of which leads to new legislation like the incoming EU ban on the burning of unsold apparel – a sweeping new legal directive that also forces more stringent Earth-friendlier regulations across the board.

And if that’s what it takes to force fashion’s hand, well, so be it.

Net-a-Porter Wants to Lend You Clothes

London-based retail operation Net-a-Porter has been trying to sell us clothes since the year 2000. That’s what they’ve been about for almost a quarter of a century now. So, while this isn’t exactly “material innovation” in the strictest sense, it is certainly newsworthy and such a serious change in the business model of one of the world’s best-known e-tailers poses some interesting questions; questions about consumption, image, branding, and how businesses like this are hoping to position themselves in light of shifting public opinion.

Now, obviously Net-a-Porter isn’t cutting ties with retail. But even trialling rental as a part of the operation sends a powerful message about where N-a-P sees the fashion industry winds blowing. Partnering with HURR and By Rotation, two brands that already understand the space, Net-a-Porter is looking to explore new ways generating revenue without generating demand for production. It might sound like a small thing, but – with the fashion rental market set to grow by $3 billion USD by 2026 – it points to something much larger. Something good, even.

Encase Your Phone in Desserto Cactus Leather

It’s always great to see next-generation, plant-based materials being used in ways you wouldn’t expect – in big moves that are bold, challenging and which capture the public imagination. What’s more exciting in some ways, however, is when those materials are used in ways better described as “everyday” – in ways you wouldn’t even notice unless someone pointed them out.

And, of course, that’s what we’re doing here. Desserto – the Mexico-based purveyors of cactus leather – having previously worked with the likes of adidas and H&M, has now turned its prickly hand to something that is not so much humble as it is essential.

Essential in the contemporary sense, anyway: it’s true that phone cases may not be a classic need in the Hunter Gatherer sense, but going about your day without one is like walking on seriously thin ice.

Having the option of a premium version of the protective accessory, sans animal cruelty and without sacrificing quality – which is what Desserto’s new collaboration with Otterbox provides – just brings progressive design that little bit further into the mainstream.

Mogu’s Mycelium Endeavours Bring in €11 Million Euros

If you feel like mushrooms are everywhere right now, it’s safe to say you’re not imagining things. Our top 10 projects of 2023 featured multiple mycelium offerings – including three in the top five, and even one at the very peak of the countdown – and that’s a fairly strong reflection of where things are at more broadly right now.

And, with that in mind, it’s perhaps not too surprising that there’s finance floating around for people who are doing interesting things; outfits like Moguhaving just brought in €11 million EUR in a Series A round to scale its operations – which puts the material’s properties to innovative use as an interior design element.

BioPuff Ruffles Feather With Its Plant-Based Down

For a while now PANGAIA has been leading the push on down alternatives with the materials science brand’s FLWRDWN becoming something of a go-to for the conscious outerwear enjoyer. Now, however, PANGAIA might find itself with a worthy challenger in the form of biomaterials outfit Ponda and its innovative BioPuff.

Made from fibers extracted from wetland plants, BioPuff essentially exists to fill the same hole as FLWRDWN – a cruelty-free insulation that doesn’t lean on synthetic materials, making for an ethically better choice across the board. With the added bonus of actively aiding in the regeneration of marshlands with its work, it seems like Ponda may well be coming for the down crown.

Kvadrat Creates Upholstery from Ocean Waste

Danish textile brand Kvadrat has been pushing its sustainability credentials for a while now. Known for its innovation in terms of craft and process – an ethos that has seen it work with such disparate-seeming names as Raf Simons and Bang & Olufsen – the Copenhagen-based brand now continues to up its game in terms of Earth-friendlier materials.

Winning Best Recycled Material at the Wallpaper* Design Awards 2024, Kvadrat’s latest offering sees it teaming up with designer and architect Patricia Urquiola and the ocean-bound plastic specialists #tide to create a new textile entirely made from recycled waste.

Named “Sport” for its tech-led aesthetic, the textile is crafted from post-consumer plastics all collected from within 10km of Thailand’s coastline and marks a new stage in Kvadrat’s commitment to high-end, Earth-friendlier materials.

Vivobarefoot and Balena Debut Scan-to-Print-to-Soil Shoe

Having revealed its 3D-print-focused BioCir Flex material back in 2023, Milan-based biomaterials outfit Balena has now partnered with the Earth-friendlier athletic footwear operation Vivobarefoot in a new endeavour to further move the needle on sustainability and circularity in the footwear sphere.

According to Vivobarefoot co-founder Asher Clark, “The world doesn’t need new shoes. We need a new system and new materials,” and this latest collaboration is intended to take that concept and run with it. Unveiled at Biofabricate in Paris, the shoe uses Balena’s materials and Vivo’s scanning and printing technology to create a made-to-order piece of footwear that is not only fabricated from bio-based, recyclable, thermoplastic, but which is also fully compostable when it reaches end of life.

The vision, dubbed the VIVOBIOME, is for “Products that truly enable enhanced natural movement and will one day have a net-positive impact on not just human health but our planet too… a digital, sustainable, and personalised approach to footwear that will fit for your feet and the future.”

Kering Joins the Spiber-Verse

Having already looped in brands like Goldwin and PANGAIA, Japanese material innovator Spiber can now count luxury mega-group Kering – parent to BALENCIAGA, Gucci, Bottega and other top-tier fashion names – as a part of its forward-thinking biosphere circulation project.

The announcement, which applies to Kering’s Material Innovation Lab – but also introduces Eileen Fisher, Johnstons of Elgin and DyStar to the program – sees the progress-focused portion of the group join Spiber’s fermentation-based efforts to use bio-based and biodegradable textile and agricultural waste as a base for the creation of new, circular apparel.