Animal skins have been used for clothing and accessories since prehistoric times, and to increase their longevity humans turned them into leather through the process of tanning. This method has been used by Icelanders, who were after extracting and using every part of an animal, for what is now a millennium.
According to Sigríður Sigurðardóttir, a historian at the Northwestern Skagafjörður Heritage Museum, tanning was a main tradition in the Icelandic culture, and, although fish skin is perceived as an emerging phenomenon in the clothing industry, it has actually been majorly applied in textiles for 10 centuries, regardless of the difficulties in breeding, supply, and production process it is to go through to become a desirable piece of luxury.
In the process of tanning fish skin, the main component is, obviously, the tanning acid, which mainly comes from the bark of oaks and chestnut trees. First of all, the inside of the skin must be scraped clean with a knife until it feels smooth, the outside is too cleaned to remove all the scales. This is followed by soaking the clean skin in a mixture of emulsified oils (such as brains, egg yolks or vegetable oil), which makes it softer and more resilient. After this, the skin is hung to dry and stretched in all directions to make it longer and wider. It is then smoked to enhance the waterproof qualities and prevent the growth of mold and bacteria.
To oppose the misconceptions, fish leather is actually agile, strong and water-resistant, rather than thin and brittle, what most people would think of it. These qualities make it a perfect choice for footwear and apparel.
Looking back to the roots of fish derma, we find Atlantic Leather, a company based in the Northeast of Iceland and currently the largest supplier of fish skin to the fashion industry, providing for giants like Nike, John Galliano, Prada, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, as well as local designers like Boas Kristjánsson and his high-end collection of fish leather shirts, Karbon. ‘It has kept the Icelandic tradition of shoemaking from catfish’, says Elisa Palomino, senior lecturer in BA Fashion Print, CSM, London, ‘processing fish leather since 1994’.
This drastic demand for fish leather stems from a few various factors, one of them being the correspondingly increasing demand for leather goods altogether (especially in China). According to Jharonne Martis, director of consumer research at Thomas Reuters, there has been a 25 percent increase in LVMH leather goods sales in the past three months and more than likely this is due to influencers and social media.
Another aspect of fish leather demand escalation is the shortage in mammal leather and fur supply, and a third – the increased consideration of sustainability even among the high-end purchasers.
As a result of brands increasingly showing interest in alternative leather products, Atlantic Leather detects a rise in sales of 20 percent this past year alone.
According to Luca Solca, luxury analyst at Exane BNP Paribas, the critical supply of cow leather, combined with the environmental efforts of high-end giants, inevitably results in an attempt to supply fashion leather from elsewhere. This would be either grown in a lab, produced from pineapple waste, 3D-printed, or recycling the by-product of the fishing industry. In numbers, one tonne of fish creates about 40 kilograms of fish skin that would otherwise go to waste.
Case in point, Atlantic leather uses fish by-product as its sole raw material. The company supplies from an Icelandic fishery, which goes a step further using geothermal renewable energy to produce the monumental amount of 3,000 recycled skins a week, and more than 150,000 a year. Furthermore, the company has set the goal to make use of 100% of each fish Icelanders catch (Salmon, Perch, Cod and Wolffish), following their ancestor’s example of reusing what other thought of as residue.
Having said all that, what are the oddities of working with an extravagant material, such as fish skin, and what brings the value in such a sought-after fabric?
‘Rose & Willard’ ethical label founder, Heidy Rehman, argues that there are practical benefits to working with fish skin. Born and bred in water, fish acquire skin that reacts well to it, and is accordingly water-repellent and hand-washable, as opposed to cowhide, which has to be dry-cleaned.
When asked about the distinct fish smell, Rehman confirms there is a certain scent at first, which is not particularly fishy, but more ‘earthy and rustic’, although it ‘brings the memory of the sea’.
A further peculiarity about working with this material appears to be its size. In its widest points, salmon skin is 10-14 cm and normally reaches 65 cm in length. This makes it suitable for trims, wallets, and other small accessories, as well as irregular patches. Rose & Willard, for instance, use the material mainly in sweeping lines as flattering decoration on female garments.
Nike and other brands, however, take a different approach, combining fish with regular leather, or, alternatively, several fish skins to create a larger piece.
Advantageous in this scenario appears to be the fact that fish skin costs approximately the same as regular leather, whereby buying the small fish skin is less expensive and wasteful than purchasing a whole calf.
A further reason for this fabric’s rising popularity is the relatively straightforward process of leather exportation. Since fish skin is not supplied from endangered animal species, one does not require CITES, a leather shipment permit, shares Victoria Foods CEO, James Ambani.
With this sector’s expansion, the company, working with the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization as part of its Blue Initiative, has increased employment in the fishing industry and so added not only environmental but also social value to this fragment of the sector. A representation of these changes is the 300 fishermen Victorian Foods is working with to develop the Nile perch delicacy waste into raw material for the Kenyan apparel commerce.
Representing 80% of Africa’s filleting industry, fish skin is increasingly offered as a low price natural leather alternative, instead of contributing to landfill with 120,000 metric tons yearly.
As a result, in recent years, Kenyan and Icelandic schools of fish leather products have been thriving, putting their mark on high-end fashion management and following the lead of their ancestors to apply fish waste to an emerging range of products.
The question remaining is whether this current will continue to encourage sustainability, or will the extortionate demand on fish skin tempt businesses to overexploit the ocean’s resources?
The first step towards answering this question would be to establish what exactly makes fish leather sustainable in the first place.
Most importantly, the increased availability of fish leather could impact the reduction of the demand on snake, alligator and other endangered species’ skin.
Additionally, this still-developing industry is supporting the local fishing communities, providing job openings in Kenya, Brazil, Iceland, and other countries with predominantly developed fishing-dependent industries, an alternative for locals employed in sectors such as logging and cattle ranching.
“We think fish leather is a way to improve people’s livelihoods in fishing communities without compromising their food security,” says Jackie Alder, who is a senior fisheries industry officer at the FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Department.
Real True and Osklen Metsavaht, Brazilian luxury fashion brands, find their values in environmental, but also social impact, supplying exclusively from local sustainably-managed fisheries with regulations on the amount of fish taken from each lake, as well as its size.
“We believe the world can’t handle any more waste. Moreover, there’s no sense in creating products made from virgin materials,” says Osklen, “We are exploiting the planet’s resources to its very limits when we can find and repurpose materials and by-products that already exist, instead of throwing them away.”
Atlantic Leather, on the other hand, uses fish from nearby fisheries in Iceland, Norway, and the Faroe Islands, as well as other Nordic governmentally regulated sustainable farms. This local sourcing process shortens the transportation routes and consequentially lowers the carbon footprint, increasing the supply chain transparency simultaneously.
Furthermore, the fishing industry is not related to the amounts of resources or carbon footprint of raising cattle, or the slaughtering of animals and endangering biodiversity, common across the exotic leather industry.
Geothermal energy from Icelandic volcanoes is additionally used to power the production process and the result is a material with similar thickness to cow leather and strength surpassing nine times the one of cattle hide due to its criss-cross arrangement of fibers, all that with no further stress on the ecosystem.
Elisa Palomino, leader of EU funded project ‘FishSkin; Developing Fish Skin as a Sustainable Raw Material for the Fashion Industry’ at the UAL and part of the Horizon 2020 RISE (Research Innovation Staff Exchange) funding call, shares more about their fish skin educational program with academic partners Shenkar University in Israel, Iceland University of Arts, Kyoto Seika University in Japan:
‘We aim to integrate the marine culture and fashion industries by emphasizing circular economy principles combined with state-of-the-art technology and changing consumer tastes and to challenge existing fashion assumptions for market take-up of fish leather on an industrial scale. Through network training events we will generate knowledge across the disciplines of fashion design, material science, and marine biology.’
Fish waste has so far been integrated into a range of industries, including pharmaceuticals, dietary supplements, cosmetics, and a fresh dermal tissue has been recently discovered. Plans are also being made for creating a Bio intelligent material, using the healing properties of collagen and keratin protein making up human skin, infused with omega-3-fatty acids from discarded fish skins.
As seen, there are a variety of possibilities for sustainable usage of fish skin waste, applicable not only in apparel but in a number of other industries.
Along with the sustainable benefits of a material with such a lucrative appeal to entrepreneurs, there is the real concern of putting pressure on overfished waters and a danger of a scenario where a lack of environmental and social regulations could lead to decline of marine life and transform fishery into a non-renewable tool for satisfaction of human materialism.
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