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LVMH, Fendi open the door to sustainable, plastic-free lab-grown fur

The conglomerate is one of the last luxury companies to stick with real fur. A new partnership will see it developing an alternative using keratin.

Photo: Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

Fashion is trending away from fur and even major alternatives are made from plastic, which is neither luxe or good for the environment. Now, LVMH, one of the remaining luxury groups still using fur, is attempting to create a new, sustainable option using keratin, the main protein in hair, as the starting point.

In a partnership shared exclusively with Vogue Business, the world’s largest luxury group is working with Imperial College London and Central Saint Martins University of the Arts to develop lab-grown fur fibres for luxury fashion. Fendi, the Italian brand most known for its use of fur among the LVMH brands, is leading the charge. The goal, says group environment development deputy director Alexandre Capelli, is to develop a fur alternative that is animal-free and matches the quality of natural fur without environmental tradeoffs.

“The ultimate goal at LVMH is to have these alternative innovative materials but not using plastics,” Capelli says. “Even if the quality of fake fur has improved in the last year, it’s still not at the level of natural fur. We think that with this innovation, we should be able to achieve this level of quality — very close to natural fur.”

LVMH is one of few luxury fashion companies to show no sign of moving away from fur, even as rivals including Gucci-owner Kering make public announcements banning it. LVMH’s interest in a keratin-based alternative could replace the plastic-based faux fur materials it currently uses, but isn’t intended to replace fur all together, says Capelli. Still, the group and its partners see untapped potential in the use of biotechnology to make animal-free fur, with an optimistic outlook about the quality and range of applications it could eventually be used in.

The successful development of a low-impact bio-based alternative to animal fur could be a game-changer for LVMH, and for the entire fashion industry, if it’s used appropriately. As with all innovation for sustainability — whether it’s next-gen materials or new business models, such as resale — it can only improve a brand’s footprint if it replaces whatever the original problem was.

Tom Ellis Lab's illustration of scanned fur under a microscope. Photo: Tom Ellis Lab, courtesy of LVMH

The collaboration is the latest project to use biotechnology to create realistic, plant-based versions of animal products, an area of innovation that’s exploded across industries including fashion and food. Hermès has partnered with Mycoworks, a creator of mycelium-based leather, while Stella McCartney has designed garments with Bolt Threads’ leather alternative Mylo. Tommy Hilfiger parent company PVH and Danish retailer Bestseller formed a fashion cooperative with mycelium technology firm Ecovative. At the same time, the number of fashion brands and retailers that have phased out fur or committed to doing so has climbed quickly, with recent commitments from Mytheresa, Oscar de la Renta, Burberry, Neiman Marcus, Coach, Miu Miu and Canada Goose, among others. Luxury group Kering pledged last year to eliminate fur across all brands.

The journey ahead is a long one, with proof of concept expected in two years. However, the partners are confident given the growing hunger for sustainable and ethical materials; the advancements in bioengineering generally; and the expertise they have on board, including Tom Ellis, a synthetic biologist who leads a research team at Imperial, and who works with a range of industries from pharma to biotech.

“We're not interested in the hype of a new fibre for the sake of a new fibre. We're interested in new, radical, sustainable fibre,” says Carole Collet, design professor at Central Saint Martins and director of Maison/0, the creative platform for “regenerative luxury” established jointly by the university and LVMH in 2017. “We’re far from being sustainable in the way nature is. The more we look at how nature works, the better.”

Sustainability potential

Currently, LVMH has no plans to stop using animal fur, although Capelli recognises that consumer demand for animal-free alternatives is growing. Stella McCartney, acquired by LVMH in 2019, has experimented with a partially bio-based faux fur, but it’s also made with plastic. The ability of the new, keratin-based material to reduce LVMH’s impacts will depend in part on whether the group uses it instead of natural fur or the existing plastic-based alternatives — or whether it rolls out new product lines to feature the new material.

The impacts of the material itself also remain to be seen. The project is so new, there is no process to speak of yet; what’s clear is that keratin will be grown in a lab, using yeast to help it grow — and feeding the yeast will be one area to evaluate for impact, says Capelli. “They need sugar. We could imagine that we will feed the yeast with some waste from our wine and spirit industry for instance. That would be amazing because we will have a circular loop,” he says — for now, “it’s a dream”.

The process of transforming the keratin into the fur fibre is what the researchers are now setting out to develop. The team will use DNA sequences to instruct cells to produce keratin proteins, and will add the sequences into yeast cells, says LVMH: “The yeast can then make the keratin proteins in a process similar to brewing and the proteins themselves can then be spun into fibres suitable for textiles.” Collet wouldn’t share additional details, citing the need to protect their IP. That leaves a lot of uncertainty around its environmental qualifications, but she says that since sustainability is the whole point of the project, she’s confident the researchers will deliver.

The ability to scale is where the biggest question marks lie, she says. “To produce a proof of concept prototype fibre is one thing. But, as soon as you start upscaling quantities, that’s where the challenges are,” she adds, because it’s an entirely different type of manufacturing than how conventional fibres are made. “We’re talking about biomanufacturing. We know very well how to do traditional techniques, but when it comes to reinventing what we do, that’s what is challenging.”

Capelli says LVMH is involved in the project at the group level, and Fendi is leading because they are the main fur brand within the group. Eventually, he says other brands would likely use the material as well. The initial focus will be on mink, with the hope that it can ultimately stand in for any type of fur or even wool.

It’s rare for a major fashion company to announce this kind of project at such an early stage, with no examples to show for it, but Capelli recognises the industry landscape and consumer mindsets are changing quickly. “I think it’s important to showcase and to say that we are committed to exploring these alternative materials. And I think it’s interesting, for all our customers in the young generation, to know that LVMH is committed to exploring these new lab-grown technologies.”


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