Innovation is as crucial to the leather industry as it is to any other. Science, inspiration and hard work deliver techniques, processes and, in some cases, materials that shape the future of the market, and this is the case with a new process for creating a leather-like material that may even eventually exceed the possibilities of the traditional material. Zoa from Modern Meadow has similar properties to leather, though it is made from collagen – the protein found in animal skin – and is designed, grown and assembled in a laboratory.

This biofabrication process requires no animal hides whatsoever, and, with a little careful manipulation of DNA sequences, can be customised structurally and aesthetically.

This may sound like the stuff of science fiction but it is very real. After five years of research and development, Zoa was launched as part of the ‘Items: Is Fashion Modern?’ exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In October, the company also held a pop-up exhibit in SoHo to demonstrate a broader range of material prototypes, revealing to the public not just a prototype product, but also the brand that will take its technology to market.

“The purpose of the event was to show Zoa in such a way as to challenge the perceptions of what it might be,” says Dave Williamson, chief technology officer at Modern Meadow.

“The ‘Is Fashion Modern?’ show was the right place to ask people how it would go if they were to rethink what they know about leather. It was extremely successful.

“Modern Meadow created a collagen nanofibre for a T-shirt, and unveiled how we will talk about our material. We thought carefully about what to call it because it references leather, but is not leather. We want to give people a way to think about the material, so are not saying leather, we are saying Zoa.”

We are doing things that you cannot do with leather or other existing sheet materials. We can create extremely thin layers and apply them in a new way to create new structures.

Perceptions and misconceptions

The company pioneers biologically advanced materials and its intention is to bring new life to the material world through the work of its experts in molecular biology, material science, engineering and design. In its first public outing, Zoa was used to reinterpret the printed T-shirt. The biofabricated material was used in ways not possible with traditional leather, including the creation of a stitchless seam with liquid leather. It provoked some brand new thinking about the design potential offered by novel manufacturing techniques.

“We are doing things that you cannot do with leather or other existing sheet materials,” continues Williamson. “We can create extremely thin layers and apply them in a new way to create new structures. It is not a laminate and it is not a thin layer gelled down. It is a nanofibre that can be used to create very detailed patterns.

“You can spray Zoa onto a silk fabric, for example, and you will have a beautiful texture – the feel of silk, but with the qualities of Zoa in intricate patterns – or you can create lace-like material with it. That is very hard to replicate with leather.”

The qualities of Zoa on show at MoMA are only part of the story. The material can be tailored to specific uses, which opens up many opportunities in industries – such as automotive and luxury goods that have always been major markets for traditional leather.

It is, therefore, understandable that some see Zoa as a direct challenge to leather, but Modern Meadow does not share this view. It sees its material very clearly as a complement to traditional leather and wants to work closely with the industry and its supply chain to examine the many possibilities that its manufacturing process opens up.

“We are making a different space in the market for Zoa and that is important for our brand and for the partners with which we are working,” says Williamson. “It would be very limiting if we tried just to mimic leather, which is an amazing material.

“The arrangement of the fibres and the structures in kangaroo leather, for example, are truly remarkable.

“Zoa is something different and it has caught people’s imagination. It has been well received by people from many different industries – automotive, luxury goods and sport – and people in the leather industry are excited, too, which is very important.”

The stance of the company has sometimes been misunderstood. It is not criticising the practices of the leather industry or trying to oust leather from its key markets. It is not on a vegan crusade, it is not condemning the environmental impact that some leather producers are seen to have on the environment – although the biofabrication process does have a smaller demand on resources compared with the raising of animals and the treatment of hides to make leather – and it is not predicting the end of traditional leather as a material. In fact, it recognises that the majority of leather producers have high standards and that leather itself is a versatile and valuable material. Modern Meadow is simply providing an alternative.

“Our case is sometimes misrepresented in the press,” says Williamson, “but we just continue to convey our own philosophy, technology and respect for the leather industry. Some people are covering our material in terms environmental awareness and we are just being frank about that side of the business.

“We must work with the leather industry, not against it. In fact, Leather Naturally has made the point that there is no need to elevate one technology and denigrate another. All technology has its place in the world.

“It is not Modern Meadow’s intention to make leather obsolete. If you look at the enormous size of the leather industry, which is worth more than $100 billion annually, and which has a huge infrastructure, then you cannot think that an organisation like this, which employs 70 people, can seriously affect that. That would be beyond our wildest dreams. We are not competing with the leather industry, we want to expand it. We want to put another material in the hands of tanners.”

Things to come

The first application of Zoa has sparked the imagination of many people – industrial users as well as consumers – but it is just the first step on a long road of innovation and expansion. Modern Meadow recently moved from its site in Brooklyn, New York, where its small team developed the technology and produced the first material prototypes.

Now, it has a new laboratory in Nutley, New Jersey, and it will use the $50 million in capital it has raised from investors to refine its technology, recruit more specialist staff and find new applications for Zoa.

The company has been expanding its workforce with experts in biology, tanning, dying, leather chemistry and materials science. It is also starting to collaborate with partners in the clothing, shoe, furniture and automotive industries, with which it will explore new possibilities for Zoa.

“We are continuing to develop our products and to build our network of channel partners,” says Williamson.

“We will continue to build out our capital resources, manufacturing processes and distribution network over the next few years. We will develop the base technology on which our material is built, which we see as a tree with many branches. We need to further study how the material behaves in order to develop tailored products for different market segments. A long-term plan is in place, but we also have to be nimble.”

There is little doubt that the versatility Zoa has been shown to have will inspire the team at Modern Meadow – and its key partners – to find new applications.

The genie is now very much out of the bottle, and it is sure to have an impact on the leather industry, so it is up to producers of traditional leather to get on board and be part of the process of innovation.