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Is fish skin the new frontier for eco-friendly fashion?

By Jackie Mallon


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After 25 years working with luxury names like Moschino, Christian Dior, and Diane von Furstenberg, Elisa Palomino believes that a vital step in sustainability involves targeting seafood waste for the development of fashionable leather articles. She has just completed a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship in the US, is currently a senior lecturer in the BA Fashion Print program at London's Central Saint Martins, and delivers presentations around the world to inspire and educate designers, creators, and consumers on why the future of fashion lies in fish.

How did you get interested in fishskin as a material for the fashion industry?

The research project emerged as a result of my design practice creating fish leather garments and accessories at John Galliano and Christian Dior in 2002. We used fish leather from the Icelandic tannery Atlantic Leather incorporating it into the context of the luxury Industry.

What is the history of fish skin products?

Fish leather draws on indigenous heritage and traditions shared by Arctic societies along rivers and coasts for the construction of garments and accessories, specifically the Inuit, Yup’ik and Athabascan of Alaska and Canada; Siberian peoples, such as the Nivkh and Nanai; the Ainu from the Hokkaido island in Japan and Sakhalin Island, Russia; the Hezhe from northeast China, and Icelanders. The Atlantic Leather tannery has processed fish leather since 1994 based on the Icelandic tradition of making shoes from the skins of catfish, growing this Nordic tradition.

What are fish skin's properties and why is it a more eco-friendly alternative to leather?

Fish leather is a by-product of the seafood industry and recycling the waste minimizes landfill and keeps resources in use for longer. Atlantic Leather uses fish from Nordic governmentally regulated sustainable farms, skins are sourced locally from nearby fisheries. Sourcing and processing happens close to home which shortens transport routes, lowers carbon footprint and increases transparency across the supply chain. Fish leather does not require the resources or leave the carbon footprint associated with raising cattle, and does not use endangered species that could threaten biodiversity. Geothermal energy from Icelandic volcanoes is used to power the production processes and production has provided new job opportunities for coastal dwelling communities. Plus, as a material it possesses strength nine times that of regular cow leather of similar thickness owing to its criss-cross arrangement of fibers.

Discuss the experience of the Fulbright Fellowship and particular highlights.

I received a Fulbright UK US scholarship to develop an educational research project from June through August this year entitled “Indigenous Arctic fish skin clothing: Cultural and ecological impacts on Fashion Higher Education.” I was lucky to work with William Fitzhugh, director of the Arctic Studies Center at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and his team to understand fish skin's cultural, environmental, social, spiritual and technological significance traced back to the Arctic indigenous peoples. I carried out extensive fieldwork beyond DC, traveling among Alaskan state museums where I was immersed for three months in unparalleled circumpolar collections, studying the origins and traditions of Arctic raw materials for fashion, and local subsistence by-product materials such fishskin, gutskin, birdskin, grasses, wood and birch bark.

As well as gaining insight you were able to pass on some of what you learnt?

During my tenure in the US I created and taught two workshops. The first was a four-day workshop at Parsons for students and faculty along with Alaskan Keniatze craftsperson, Joel Isaak, on the production of fish skin artifacts using traditional skills of the Athabascan peoples. The focus was on examining the design practice within contexts of social innovation for sustainability, tanning processes, and sewing techniques with an objective to preserve local traditions in the development of boots, bags and protective coats with unique cultural characteristics. And to offer Parsons students a wider perspective as they discover their individual approach to more sustainable practices.

The second was a Fashion Sketchbook workshop at the Arctic Studies Center, Anchorage Museum, where seven Alaskan artists took part in a two-day process of collecting personal research from diverse sources, documenting it through drawing, photography and collage in order to create a unique sketchbook to help them on their personal creative practice. The workshop took place within the Arctic Studies Center exhibit:”Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska.”

How has your passion for fish skin craft grown as a result

Finding ways to give back to the Arctic communities to which fish skin knowledge belongs is of high importance to me. The workshops have been envisioned as the beginning of a continuing and expanding discourse on the future of fish skin craft. Collaboration with indigenous partners has enriched my understanding and the experiences gained continue to guide and inform the methods and attitudes I use to work with native communities. Most of the workshoppers use fish skin already but were glad to learn new tanning, dying and printing techniques to incorporate into their own practice.

When both luxury and fast fashion are turning their backs on everything from mohair to cashmere, animal fur and skins, how do you respond to those who question fish skin as a viable material option?

Aquaculture or fish farming has steadily increased over the last decade due to the world’s shift to a healthier diet replacing meat with fish. However, more than 50% of the fish caught for human consumption is discarded resulting in almost 32 million tonnes of waste. A substantial amount of this is the skin, but improved usage of fish by-products could help meet increasing demand for seafood without further stress to the ecosystem. Fish skin requires less energy and resources to cultivate than conventional materials, so developing processes to transform post-consumer and industrial waste into new materials takes the pressure off cotton and polyester production and minimizes landfill.

The Icelandic fish leather model has proved reliable and sustainable for over 20 years and it can be duplicated around the world to encourage a resurgence in artisanal craft in coastal areas which rely on fish for their diet. Indigenous fishing communities which used to subsist and dress themselves with fish skin leather could reach agreements with nearby fishing plants, and resume their ancient crafts, supplying, tanning and developing production that will positively implement their economy.

Is the luxury industry taking notice of fish skin?

Yes. With brands like Chanel and Prada banning the use of exotic skins in their collections and PETA battling against the use of reptile skins in LVMH brands, Rick Owens and Courrèges for their S/S 20 collection swapped exotic skins for the skin of the pirarucu fish, a staple of the Amazonian diet whose skin would be otherwise discarded. It could become an alternative to endangered species such as crocodile and python.

Do you see fish skin's adoption in students' or emerging designers' work?

These workshops have offered techniques, methods and knowledge bases which can contribute to sustainability education in fashion courses in HE Institutions. Consequently, students will then inspire the fashion houses they go on to work in to consider the humble fish skin as an alternative sustainable material. Some students, such as Foning Bao who incorporated it within knitwear, are reshaping our general thinking about its possibilities, transforming it into unique fashion items linked to both aboriginal people and place, often in unforeseen ways.

What happens next in the field of fishskin?

I am currently the University of the Arts London leader of an EU funded project, “FishSkin; Developing Fish Skin as a Sustainable Raw Material for the Fashion Industry,” part of the Horizon 2020 RISE (Research Innovation Staff Exchange) funding call. Academic partners include Shenkar University in Israel, Iceland University of Arts, Kyoto Seika University in Japan among others. We aim to integrate the mariculture 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 a 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.

But the possibilities are endless. Iceland, pioneering in the fishing industry, has been developing a wide range of other uses for fish waste: enzymes, pharmaceuticals, dietary supplements, cosmetics. A fresh dermal tissue has been created; FDA-approved bandages which reduce inflammation and speed up healing for chronic wounds through its omega-3 fatty acids and collagen. Textiles infused with vitamins and healing powers from discarded fish skins which contain the type of collagen and keratin protein that makes up human skin. These cosmetic and healing properties could be processed back into the skins to create a new Bio intelligent material.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photos: Header image Nathalie Malric; student fashion from Foning Bao (CSM) and Soēlveig Anna (Polimoda) provided by Elisa Palomino

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