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Sustainable textile innovations: handbags made of apples

By Simone Preuss


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In view of dwindling resources, especially through resource-intensive natural fibres like cotton and the environmental impact of petroleum-based fibres like acrylic, polyester, nylon and spandex, it is about time for the textile and apparel industry to look for sustainable alternatives. In this new series, FashionUnited finds sometimes surprising alternatives from all over the world. This article looks at luxury handbags by Swiss label happy genie that are made from apple waste.

Is it possible to make a material out of apples that does not only look surprisingly a lot like leather but also feels like it? “Yes, it is“, confirms Tanja Schenker, founder of the sustainable and vegan handbag label happy genie, when talking to FashionUnited. She adds though that the road from idea to finished material was not an easy one. “I was looking for a suitable material for almost a year,“ remembers the resourceful entrepreneur. “In the beginning at fairs but then I got disappointed that nothing was offered there yet.“

Until a designer friend mentioned a TV documentary about the inventor of a new sustainable material made of apples who lived in Bolzano, South Tyrol, Italy. This sounded good to Ms. Schenker's ears and she spent a week on the phone before she tracked down the inventor's mobile number. When it turned out that he happened to be in Zurich where happy genie is based, things finally seemed to fall into place and both met up the very next day.

A material in between leather and faux leather

The rest was not history but merely the starting point for the real work: “I needed to do a lot of persuading to convince our Italian manufacturers that the effort was worth it,“ says Schenker. Even though they liked the idea of a sustainable material in general, the raw material was very different from what they were used to - leather and faux leather. “Much work went into it and the beginning was quite a bumpy road. The first prototypes did not look very appealing,“ she remembers, laughing.

But because Schenker was such a driving force and had a strong vision of what the finished product should look like based on the material she had seen in Bolzano, soon the not so appealing prototypes became beautiful luxury handbags whose material amazed even experts as it seems to be somewhere between leather and faux leather.

“Most leather manufacturer know how to work with faux leather,“ explains Schenker. “However, faux leather melts and leather can be painted on - neither of which was possible with the new material.“ This was a big challenge for the production facilites that Schenker knew through working with her first handbag label “Genie in a Bag“. “But now, everyone is really proud of the happy genie bags."

“The great things is that there are so many apples in Bolzano; which means, there will always be enough of the raw material,“ adds Schenker. Also important were the short distances between each manufacturing step, placing happy genie's entire value chain in Italy: The apples are grown and juiced in Bolzano, the leftover fibre then dried and ground to a powder. A factory close to Florence mixes it with colour and a binding agent before it gets applied on a canvas to produce an innovative material, which gets its leather look through embossing. A family business in Varese, five kilometres away from the Swiss border, then makes each bag by hand. Even the metal components, which are completely nickel free and palladium plated, are made in Italy.

Happy genie supports a vegan lifestyle

About her motivation to found a new brand with happy genie and to launch a sustainable, innovative material, Schenker says: "I wanted a clear cut because I had become vegan and wanted to distance myself from leather. I wanted to start afresh because the vegan lifestyle had changed me profoundly, which is something I wanted to express through a product. Also, apples were my dog happy's favourites. Unfortunately, he died in April but I wanted him to live on through happy genie.“

Those interested in the handbags can order them through the label's Kickstarter campaign (happy-genie.com), which wants to reward early adopters with discounts and plans to build a fan community. The first finished bags will be delivered in March 2018. In the future, there will be more pattern and print options, collaborations with artists and the brand's own online shop.

Photos: courtesy of happy genie

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