Carmen Hijosa wanted to find a sustainable alternative to leather. Her endeavour to elevate the humble fibres found in pineapple leaves has culminated in Pinatex, a fabric that’s gained traction among fashion’s big names. Early this year, it featured in a collection of vegan sneakers by Hugo Boss.
Hijosa became inspired to work on Pinatex in 1993 when she first visited the Philippines. She and her then-husband owned a successful leather manufacturing company in Ireland and she had been invited as a consultant for Design Center of the Philippines in Manila, to help upgrade design and manufacturing of leather products for export.
“I consulted for the World Bank and went to countries like Bolivia and Thailand. Back then, sustainability wasn’t really a word but I was working with very poor communities, which made me very aware of my social impact,” she says.
“The Philippines was as close as I’d ever been to the source. In Europe, we went to the tanners and their showrooms but never saw the wet stage — it was done somewhere else — so I didn’t get the whole picture. What I saw in the tanneries in the Philippines was truly awful. The kind of toxicity shocked me; I decided I couldn’t work with leather anymore.”
The Philippines also has a long tradition of weaving pina fibre. Considered an inexpensive alternative to imported silk, this stiff yet lightweight hand-loomed fabric made from pineapple plants was prized for its naturally glossy, ivory white appearance. It is often used to make the traditional barong tagalog, a formal hand-embroidered shirt.
But the laborious process of weaving these hair-like fibres made it hard to scale up production. After much research, Hijosa unveiled an innovative solution in 2014 as part of her PhD exhibition at the Royal College of Art in the UK — her technique involved bonding the fibres together in a mesh instead of weaving them.
She shares: “I respect traditional craft and it’s fine to still have that, but I was looking for something with a bigger impact, something we could upscale and, at the time, it was really about being an alternative to leather.”
A linear metre (1m by 1.55m) of Pinatex requires 480 pineapple leaves to produce. With this in mind, Hijosa reckons the fibres extracted from the leaves of the 10 top producer countries might replace over 50 per cent of global leather output.
Even in the face of initial scepticism, she soldiered on. Hijosa’s big break came when a large textile company in Manila chose to work with her, despite the small quantity of Pinatex she was manufacturing.
“It’s important to find someone who shares your vision of ‘let’s try something new’,” Hijosa adds.
In 2015, she introduced Pinatex to the market through her company Ananas Anam, where she continues to refine the fabric and its process. For starters, she is working with Stahl, a Dutch leather and textile coating company, to develop bio-based resins that will make the fabric more eco-friendly. Currently, the fabric is not fully biodegradable given that it uses petroleum-based resin.
Hijosa is also working on converting the remaining biomass of the leaves and turning it into fertiliser: “There is only 3 to 4 percent of (usable) fibre in a leaf, so there is still a huge amount of waste.
From producing about 300 linear metres in its first year, the company now makes “in the thousands every month”. To keep manufacturing operations closer to the US market, Hijosa plans to set up a plant in Costa Rica.
She is also in talks with “very big players in the car industry” to convince them to adopt her product. “A lot of industries are looking at sustainable alternatives to leather,” she says, “so the potential is huge.”
At the moment, Ananas Anam’s biggest clients come from the fashion industry.
“Hugo Boss has renewed orders for their shoes, doubling that of its first,” she lets on.
She is comfortable with this organic growth as Ananas Anam cannot yet meet requests for large volumes. “The bottleneck happens at fibre procurement because nobody has done it before. It’s still not efficient enough; we need to find better ways of extracting fibre but that takes time.”
Pinatex also features in the jewellery of UK designer Marlin Birna, which uses fish leather made from Atlantic salmon; as well as those of Matcha Paris. The latter’s designer Anne-Sophie Peyre started using Pinatex last year in the hope of using the vegetal leather to diversify her cork leather pieces.
“I wanted to show that cruelty-free and eco-friendly alternatives to cow leather exist,” she says, noting that the fabric’s golden hue makes it a great option for jewellers.
Pet accessories brands such as Sebastian Says (Australia) and Noggins & Binkles (UK), as well as furniture makers John Jenkins (UK) and Drew Veloric (US) have rolled out products made with Pinatex.
Hijosa herself is also planning a line of accessories. “I have lots of ideas that I want to develop; there are so many ways we can apply Pinatex, even to surgical gowns and dental floss!”
This story first appeared in the August issue of A.