Design
May 09, 2024
by Karl Smith
Is The Shroom Bubble About To Burst?
by Karl Smith
May 09, 2024

Mycelium – it’s the next big thing. The future of footwear. The future of fashion. The future of design. Even the future of architecture.

Or that’s how it might seem, anyway. Between its apparent media ubiquity and its presence as a much-hyped part of marquee collaborations from footwear to furniture, this is certainly the narrative being pushed. And it’s being pushed hard.

But how can something expand into the future when it’s already contracting in the present? How can mycelium, a product with the unique distinction of being the only next-gen material innovation to actually recede in popularity among producers in the last year, stake anything like a serious claim on what comes next?

The answer, if we’re being honest, is surely that it can’t. The reality, if we’re being brutal, is that the shroom boom is already heading for bust.

Of course, the drop off is only small and easily traceable: if, as the MII’s latest report suggests, there is one less company producing mycelium as an alternative material, we already know who that company is. BOLT’s decision to scrap Mylo back in 2023 was hardly a secret, after all.

But, while it’s true that one event can’t reasonably be called a trend, it’s also true that there are details of Mylo’s abrupt cancellation which ought to give pause to the mycelium hype machine; details from which we can start to connect some concerning dots.

First, sone brief history: despite being much-touted as the new successor in alternative leather, Mylo – which had been used by Stella McCartney in her Frayme bag, and by adidas and Sean Wotherspoon in their collaborative Gazelle sneaker – was canceled by its manufacturer, the material innovation outfit BOLT (formerly known as Bolt Threads). From the outside, it seemed as though Mylo was selling – both as a concept and as a product.

On the inside, though, it was a different story. On the business end, the BOLT boardroom was eyeing a move to take the company public; a move which, if successful, would see heavily-increased levels of scrutiny on its product offering in terms of cost-effectiveness and efficacy. The speedy withdrawal of Mylo, then, suggests that perhaps the mycelium material couldn’t hold up under the pressure with regard to either.

If Mylo were viable, why would adidas make only 200 pairs of a Gazelle it could more or less guarantee would fly off the shelves? (A question made even more pertinent by the fact that Wotherspoon specifically wanted to work not only with mycelium but specifically with BOLT’s material.)

A quick look at the sneaker – and a glance at its material make-up – provides some answers.

 
First, the upper is not entirely Mylo-based – yes it’s constructed from mycelium, that isn’t a lie, but it’s also made from hemp. One the one hand, this may be an aesthetic choice – there is also a hemp version of the shoe without any mycelium, made in distinctly larger numbers, so the split here it isn’t about giving the super-plant its dues – but, more likely, it’s down to the fact that a sneaker fashioned solely from Mylo simply does not work.

There’s a reason, as we previously reported, that BOLT never deigned to publish the bally flex data for Mylo; why, to drop the industry jargon, it never released key information on how the material actually holds up when it’s put to use. And that reason, is simple: it probably doesn’t hold up at all.

Of course, this is semi-conjecture – we’re using words like “probably,” after all. But that’s only because BOLT has carefully kept that data close to its chest. Other mycelium outfits, however, have not been quite so cagey. When it comes to California-based innovator MycoWorksReishi material, for example, that information is public. And what it says, publicly, in black and white – although, of course, not in these words – is that Reishi does not meet the industry standard for footwear; that, where the usual bally flex low-end for market entry is 100,000 turns on the flexometer, Reishi only manages around 5,000. Just 5% of what’s necessary for your run-of-the-mill leather (or leather alternative) shoe.

It’s possible – though we’ll never know now – that Mylo might have fared a little better. Not because it was a superior product, however, but – transparent at least about the fact of its not being a plastic-free material – precisely because it wasn’t. Which, of course, is another problem that BOLT would have had to address and for which it has now astutely shed responsibility.

How, then, have we got to the point where mycelium appears on the cusp of establishing itself as animal leather’s most-likely usurper if the product isn’t up for the job?

“Single objet d’art and one-of-one bags may be proof of concept, but they prove nothing beyond that – not that the material is functional in an everyday sense and, more to the point, not even that the material has yet been successfully produced at any impactful volume to be sold.”

More importantly, having bluffed their way to this point, what will happen when mycelium innovators are forced to show their cards and found to be holding nothing. Or, if not nothing exactly, still a pretty poor hand.

Where does that leave innovation? Who, exactly, does it serve if the replacement to traditional, animal-derived leathers is given the chance to prove itself and proved to be inadequate? That’s a setback for the business and it’s a setback for progress. But, to extend the analogy, it’s now far too late to fold; there’s no way out but through. So, what happens now?

The most likely scenario is not a pleasant one; not for material innovation as a whole and certainly not for mycelium as a next-generation material. Having been inflated by media hype and given a false sense of stability by limited-run product offerings with the benefit of big-name backing, the mycelium bubble has come to rest on the sharp end of reality and is surely poised to burst.

 

This, of course, is not where anyone wanted to be. It’s not where things had to go, either. There were, at various points, other paths to take. After all, the possibilities for mycelium are impressive – the potential applications genuinely game-changing – but, unfortunately, that’s the thing; they are possibilities and potential which, until realized in tangible science fact, might as well be science fiction.

And fiction may well be the operative word here. Speaking to insiders in the material innovation sector, it’s clear that claims being made my certain operators are less than honest – which, of course, there is a word for.

This isn’t just a question of credibility, though: these dubious claims – claims of high-percentage off-take agreements with luxury brands that do not correspond to what we know to be true of market pricing – have contributed to a steady destabilizing of the sector at large.

In fact, according to various sources, not only are the agreements (which apparently have certain mycelium manufacturers claiming marquee-level deals at well over the market average by more than $10 USD per square foot) almost certainly fictitious but – at this point – so is the material itself. Single objet d’art and one-of-one bags may be proof of concept, but they prove nothing beyond that – not that the material is functional in an everyday sense and, more to the point, not even that the material has yet been successfully produced at any impactful volume to be sold.

And yet, off the back of these claims, certain companies have been able to rally investors to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars; a fact which, through the scrutiny that necessarily comes with capital, puts undue pressure on the next-generation materials sector as a whole. More than this, though – in hoovering up so much of the available investment – these deals leave other innovators, erstwhile peers and colleagues, fighting for scraps to continue work that, in most cases, is already very much in progress.


“The fact is – set against so many vested interests – progress is not, as they say, Too Big To Fail; material innovators who are dragged down by the collapse of the fungi fugazi are not by any means guaranteed to be bailed out.”

There is a domino effect here, too. It isn’t just a case of uneven distribution of capital leading to problems for innovators themselves: lack of funding means a slowdown in production, a slowdown in production means an inability to meet demand and honor client agreements, a failure to deliver means not only uncomfortable questions but also difficult decisions; decisions, on the part of brands, for example, about whether pursuing progressive material choices is actually viable after all.

And, of course, the cruel joke here is that – given the flimsy house of cards upon which all of this so clumsily rests – those mycelium innovators, regardless of their financial backing, are not even capable of stepping in to fill the void. They can make overtures and promises but, as it stands, they absolutely cannot make progressive reassurances on the strength of their own product. There is nothing for them to gain which does not, six months down the line at most, put them in exactly the same position as their fellow innovators.

Essentially, if the rug is pulled out, there is simply no floor underneath it; there is just a gaping, mushroom-shaped hole where it ought to be, and a tumbling free fall with no visible ground in sight.

The fact is – set against so many vested interests – progress is not, as they say, Too Big To Fail; material innovators who are dragged down by the collapse of the fungi fugazi are not by any means guaranteed to be bailed out. Working, in many ways, against the industries they seek to change – from fashion to footwear to automotive and architecture – as well as with them, there is every chance that those markets will see the status quo as preferable to the unknown. At the end of the day, those businesses have margins and bottom lines to secure, shareholders to keep sweet, and “better the devil you know” is often the best way of keeping all that in check.

Change is not a given; we cannot be complacent. Greed and speculation cannot be allowed to erode decades of trust and material progress.

Yes, mycelium may well be the future, but that future is a distant one. Pretending otherwise is not just deception, it’s dangerous. It’s time for everyone to show their cards and think about the greater good, because one thing’s for sure: the house isn’t on the side of anyone looking to make change.