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In 2006, Sophia Wang and Philip Ross were using mushroom roots for an art series. Their innate interests in the material—now known as mycelium—and their desire to explore its use in other mediums led to unique possibilities within the fashion world. Seven years later, the duo co-founded MycoWorks—an innovative biomaterials company brand that produces the leading sustainable alternative to leather. Made from mushroom roots, ReishiTM is now seen in an array of fashion and footwear products, with more groundbreaking garments on the way.
Whitewall spoke with Wang to hear more about MycoWorks, and how her background in poetry, dance, and art led to collaboration, biotechnology, and ultimately, sustainable fashion.
WHITEWALL: Take us back to 2006 when you and Ross were using mycelium for an art series. How did that idea evolve into founding MycoWorks?
SOPHIA WANG: My educational background is in art, writing, and literature, and I approached my doctoral program in English as an opportunity to advance both my academic and creative practices. While pursuing a PhD in experimental American poetry, I trained in dance, started a dance company, and began professionalizing as an artist through a 2007 collaboration with the Bay Area artist Philip Ross. Our work together focused on a multimedia exhibit and series of public programs at the intersection of art, biotechnology, and education.
Working with Phil was my introduction to the world of art made with living materials and focused on the design and dynamics of living systems. Phil’s mycelium-based artworks demonstrated a new natural resource and range of aesthetic expressions I’d never seen before, and the world took note as well. Phil began fielding inquiries from global brands who were interested in this material technology, so in 2013, we founded MycoWorks to bring mycelium materials to the world.
From the start, I’ve approached my work with Phil and this technology with an understanding of the key role I play in storytelling and translating the impact of our work across different disciplines of knowledge and cultural spaces. It’s one thing to see something new in the world, and it’s another to help others see it as well.
WW: Tell us a bit about the company’s dedication to responsible manufacturing—like ReishiTM and using technology like Fine Mycelium™ as an option for leather.
SW: The natural resource we use to create Reishi™ is mycelium, one of the earth’s most powerful agents of environmental regeneration and carbon sequestration. As mycelium grows, it transforms plant matter into its own biomass, thereby serving as a carbon sink for the lifetime of any product made with Reishi. Our Fine Mycelium™ process amplifies and directs mycelium’s natural capacity to bind to itself and other materials, creating a strong interwoven sheet that can be fabricated and finished like traditional leather, without compromising performance or aesthetic expression.
Being plant biomass-based, Reishi is neither animal nor plastic, and offers the additional advantage of minimal waste, as it’s grown in sheets that can be fine-tuned to meet our brand partners’ design specifications. With Reishi, we hope to show the world that new production and material paradigms are possible, based on natural materials and processes that are resilient and beneficial to the environment.
WW: The material also had a presence this year at New York Fashion Week. Can you tell us a bit about that pop-up concept?
SW: I was very proud to debut Reishi during NYFW this past year. Our Nolita a pop-up gave fashion, art, design, and media insiders their first hands-on experience with Fine Mycelium, and the response was outstanding. The most powerful way to communicate what we’ve achieved with Reishi is through the senses: experiencing the weight and drape of our material, sensing the way it warms and responds to touch, and fully taking in the surface features and finishes we’ve developed in partnership with heritage tannery partners and master artisans.
I loved the look of amazement and understanding that would pass over people’s faces as they handled a sheet of Reishi for the first time: brand directors, fashion designers, sustainability experts, and journalists who immediately recognized the tremendous impact this is going to have on fashion supply chains and the design landscape.
Since we founded the company, the most rewarding thing for me is telling someone we’re creating an option for leather made with mycelium, and seeing how much this inspires people—they tell me this is something truly new in the world. Sharing Reishi at NYFW validated the impact we’ve already made on the people and brands that will be our partners in changing the world with Reishi.
WW: What is the mission of MycoWorks today? How are you expanding upon that given today’s current cultural climate?
SW: Our mission from the start has been to create a biomaterials technology that benefits the world, without compromising on quality and aesthetic expression. We’ve begun by offering the fashion industry new design and performance possibilities with an option for fine leather derived from a regenerative natural resource.
As a company, our commitment to quality and to supporting environmental thriving and resiliency includes a comprehensive approach to responsibility. This means meeting the highest standards set by our brand partners, striving for best practices in our use of natural resources, but also supporting the people and relationships that are the engine for our mission. This includes our ongoing partnerships with brands and tannery partners and the creative people on their teams, our commitments to our company stakeholders, and the empowering culture of work we are building in our company.
This year, the world is reckoning with challenges brought on by the forces of nature and, acutely here in the U.S., we are reckoning with structural racism and inequality from local levels, all the way up to our highest levels of national governance. Today’s cultural climate demands that any significant endeavor consider the full impact of its power and resources, whether in social, economic, or environmental realms. My prerogative as a founder at MycoWorks is to ensure that we are building a culture, an organization, and a technology that brings thriving and benefit to the world in the broadest sense possible.
WW: Soon, the company is announcing its first products in the fashion and footwear spaces. What can we expect to see?
SW: I can tell you that I’m very proud of the caliber of fashion and footwear brands we’ve partnered with, and of the collaboration, these partnerships have enabled between our partners’ in-house artisan designers, master leather craftspeople, and our own Fine Mycelium experts. These creative partnerships have enabled us to achieve a product that meets the highest standards in the leather and fashion industry, because we work directly with the artisans who are setting and raising those standards through the evolution of their craft. I’m excited for when we can finally share what we’ve been working on!
WW: What do you think the future of fashion looks like?
SW: Across the industry, I hope that every new process, material, or technology any of us develops has long-term environmental resiliency as its starting paradigm. This is the only way we’ll align everyone—makers and consumers—with the goal of environmental sustainability, and the only way we’ll make any headway against the current state of things.
I’m also encouraged by the fashion industry’s growing awareness that we must eradicate unethical labor practices and that environmental sustainability and social justice are inextricably linked. Creating beautiful, resilient products of quality and value depends not just on ethically managed resources and manufacturing practices; it begins with empowering the people whose ideas, labor, and cultures make any of this possible.
WW: What’s next?
SW: We are focused on upcoming product launches with our brand partners, and we’re scaling our production in order to supply Reishi to an even broader range of brands and designers. To support the tremendous expansion and visibility ahead of us, I’m focused on making sure our team has the support we need for this next phase of growth.
Across both internal and external channels, I’m continuing to amplify the vision and values that drive our work. We began as artists discovering mycelium’s unique potential as an art and design material, and we’ve now built a company that is meeting the highest standards in fashion with Fine Mycelium products. From the start, we’ve been focused on the goal of enriching and benefiting the world with a new, natural material whose potential we’ve only begun to tap. This is an incredibly exciting story to tell and a remarkable technology to manifest. I’m working on rallying the people, networks, and collaborations that will make our vision a reality.