Sep 08, 2023
by Karl Smith
A New Documentary Shows the Magic of Mycelium and the Function of Fungi
by Karl Smith
Sep 08, 2023

Mycelium is enjoying its moment in the limelight right now. Ironic, to a degree, as bright light isn’t the natural home of fungi. Still, here it is – front and center – making its way not only into vitamin supplements and the like, but also into fashion, art, footwear, and even into architecture.

Perhaps, though, “moment” isn’t the right word – research and development into the potential of mycelium has been going on for some time now and what we’re seeing is the result of years, decades perhaps, of hard work behind the scenes come to fruition.

In might seem that mycelium appeared from nowhere with a view to solving some of our most pressing issues, but that just isn’t the case. Mycelium’s star still has much further to rise.

In terms of leading that charge, few have given us quite so much – at least in terms of tangible, physical results – than MycoWorks and its co-founder, Phil Ross.

So much so, in fact, that we come back on he again to the limelight, with Ross and MycoWorks now finding themselves the focus of a new documentary by Copenhagen-based ReD Associates, a consultancy and studio “using the arts and social sciences to try and help companies better understand human behaviour.”

Keen not to be limited to a single industry, MycoWorks may ostensibly be a biotechnology and materials firm, but has – through the unique nature of its work, its cultural philosophy, and the success of its star product, Reishi – found itself used for everything from furniture to High-Fashion jackets.

The material is durable and flexible – functional on a broad spectrum. But, in possessing those qualities, it’s also a creative dream – a material that is natural, distinct, malleable and immutable – each Reishi-based product essentially being one of a kind.

All of which makes Ross something of an ideal subject: not just a man of many talents, but also of many facets – the wearer of multiple fine mycelium-crafted hats.

And, in keeping with that theme, the short documentary – “A Second Skin” – covers a whole lot of ground: a film, in effect, about a bridging of worlds – the convergence of our inherent (yet too-often-ignores) symbiosis with nature and the equally innate human desire to create.

Watch the film below, and – below that – read our conversation with Sandra Cariglio from ReD, covering everything from Phil Ross’ personal allure as documentary subject to mycelium’s place in the future of the fashion industry (and beyond).

MycoWorks is hard to pin down. It’s a brand, a design house, a materials research company. Is that part of what caught your attention?

Sandra Cariglio: What’s interesting about Mycoworks is that it comes from the intersection of many different worlds. This interdisciplinary thinking is what makes the company ahead of the cultural zeitgeist.

Beyond being in the biotechnology and materials space – and increasingly a brand in the worlds of luxury, automotive, and beyond – it’s also an idea and a mission that can be applied in ways that go beyond the current scope.

Thinking on the same lines, what makes Phil Ross specifically such an interesting subject?

Sandra Cariglio: His ability to jump between referential words – form visual art, design, Greek mythology, philosophy, bio-technology – and to make the bridge between a macro vision and the specificities of the materials he helps us discover.

Part of what makes him a great subject is also that he’s very charismatic, cares deeply about this mission, and is willing to take risks in his storytelling.

Working with mycellium often seems to bring out more creative, more artistic results than other materials – perhaps because it’s organic – is that something you’ve noticed?

Sandra Cariglio: Part of what seems to fascinate designers about materials like mycelium is the sense that there are many technical and visual possibilities that are only uncovered in the design process.

Creating new products through mycelium feels less mechanical and more like a negotiation and co-creation with nature. This kind of limitation drives creativity and is exciting from a problem solving perspective. It is very clear in the aesthetics of the material itself – it doesn’t look industrial or standardized or neutral, but has a dimension of ‘sentience’.

This is also what drives desire from a consumer perspective – materials and processes that feel ‘alive’ are more scarce in the landscape of highly commodified goods. This process is also being continually evolved and developed.

With all of that in mind, what would you say, is mycellium’s place in the next era of fashion?

Sandra Cariglio: Mycelium is an example of how new kinds of materials (including algae, bacteria, spider web based fabrics) can drive not only an environmental agenda but also consumer desire for a new kind of aesthetic and mental model around sustainable products. They may also be weak signals that point to a new paradigm around manufacturing and our relationship to nature more broadly.

It’s interesting from a business perspective also because it has the potential to reconcile what were historical tradeoffs between ‘what is good for the world’ and ‘what sells’. It holds the promise of a convergence between what is natural and what is beautiful, high quality, high performance and/or technically superior.