MALAI – Coconut leather

VEGAN LEATHER

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A very small step helps us to walk on the right path. We all know where and what we do is wrong the efforts are only to make it right. We all love that leather feel, the luxury feeling which is attached with leather, the richness but for that feel comes a heavy heavy price is to kill innocent decent animals for nothing but a feel?!

People have become aware of it and people have started moving away, After faux leather, the other big thing is vegan leather! so As production explodes, so does the need for sustainable alternatives. Embracing this new wave of slow fashion is ‘Malai’ – a Kerala-based initiative that’s producing vegan alternatives to leather.

Across the country, the leather industry is known to be one of the leading agents of industrial pollution. Malai is countering this by developing biocomposite substitutes to leather using sustainable bacterial cellulose, grown using agricultural waste sourced from the coconut industry in Southern India.

Malai is the brainchild of Zuzana Gombosova and Susmith Suseelan. Gombsova moved from Slovakia to Mumbai for work where she met Suseelan.  Moreover, she was particularly interested in growing and producing bacterial cellulose using coconut water. Suseelan, mechanical engineer and product designer from Kottyam in Kerala, was very intrigued by Gombosova’s research interests and immediately decided to get on board. “Susmith’s inclination stemmed from the fact that the raw material used was basically a waste product. There are multiple oil mills and coconut processing units in Kerala that could contribute to an benefit from this process. That is when we decided to begin experimenting with growing bacteria on coconut water and eventually with the material that was grown,” says Gombsova while shedding light on the chain of events that led to the inception of Malai.

Both Zuzana and Susmith did not start with the aim of discovering a sustainable alternative for leather. “We were primarily interested in the sustainable properties of cellulose in general. That was our starting point. We wanted to work with it and develop it to make it suitable for commercial use. We didn’t know what the exact outcome would be. Our initial idea was to do something with packaging material, fashion, and many other different directions.” However, as they progressed with their experimentation they realized that the material had a visual likeness to leather. They decided to further explore this property of the material and subsequently work on other complementary properties such as strength, flexibility, techniques for processing, and usability of the material, that would make it as close to leather as possible.

But what is it that goes into creating this sustainable substitute for leather? “Water from brown coconuts is sterilized and prepared as a nutrient that bacteria can feed on. After the bacterial culture is added to the sample, we wait for 14 days in order to let the cellulose grow. The cellulose eventually forms a jelly-like layer on the surface, which is bacterial cellulose,” explains Gombsova. The cellulose is then processed in different ways to create different kinds of material. “We either continue working with the bacterial cellulose, which is transparent and very flexible, as it is or we have another process where we been cellulose with other natural fibers from the banana plant, hemp another such plants. This is then rolled out into sheets, dyed, softened, made water-resistant,” she adds.

Another thing that sets Malai apart from other such labels is that they prioritize environmentally-friendly practices over design. “We focus on material design as opposed to product design,” says Gombsova. Their distinctive color palette is reflective of this approach. The range of colors Malai offers is a result of using only natural dyes and not picked with the design aesthetic in mind. “We try to work an collaborate with people who value the sustainability attribute as much as we do. The brand aesthetic is that you can instantly recognize the material as being organic and natural,” she explains.

They were present and introduced in India on 2020 Lakme Fashion Week, where they won the GEN NEXT, an upcycling competition which obviously did help them with the kind of marketing and awareness their brand needs.