Fiber Watch: A Different Kettle of Fish…Leather?

salmon skin leather

As a by-product of the food industry, fish skin leather provides a more environmental alternative to bovine leather.

The idea of fish skin leather may seem a bit funky, but the material is in fact a fantastic choice for creating apparel and accessories that mimic the reptile skin look. The production of fish skin leather is based on taking waste from the food industry industry and turning it into a useful and desirable material for the fashion and textile industries.  Similar in strength to tough cowhide, fish skin leather can be used for anything from handbags, belts, clothing, small accessories and shoes, to furniture and interior decoration. How strange but fascinating it is to think that the fish on your dinner plate may also have given its life to become your new shoes, handbag or iPad case?

Several different companies produce and distribute fish skin leather, although some are particularly focused on sustainable manufacturing. Creel, Atlantic and Sea Leather Wear are among these eco-minded manufacturers, and make sure to use only skins from fish that have been farmed or caught for food. These producers also make sure to avoid rare or endangered species of fish, focusing on cod, salmon, carp, sturgeon, catfish, wolf fish and perch. When not used for leather production, canneries and other fish meat processing facilities will dump fish skins back into the oceans, heavily polluting them.

salmon skin leather

Although not entirely natural, the process of preparing fish skin leather is far less chemically intensive than traditional leather tanning processes. Instead of removing hair, the scales are removed, which is often a mechanical process instead of a chemical one that pollutes the environment with toxic, fibrous debris. Tanning fish skin involves a patented process that removes the oils but prevents the skin from drying out and becoming stiff. The end result is an entirely odorless leather that is supple and strong.

Fish skin leather is often mistaken for its more exotic counterparts of alligator, snake or lizard skins. The leather can be dyed into nearly any color, and is available in suede, silky and glazed finishes, the latter a water-repellent, scratch and stain resistant material. The variety in finishes makes this leather suitable for nearly any application that bovine leather is used for, although its texture and appearance give it a unique look. Contrary to common assumption, fish leather is actually the second strongest leather known to man, and is ideal for furniture, bags and belts.

isaac mizrahi

Several top fashion brands have incorporated fish skin leather into their collections. Among top names are Nike, Salvatore Ferragamo and even Manolo Blahnik, who offered up tilapia skin sandals and heels in spring 2011. Possibly one of the most interesting uses of the material was employed by Isaac Mizrahi in his work with the Nature Conservancy’s Design for A Living World Project. Mizrahi crafted a short dress and mermaid trail jacket ensemble made out of salmon leather paillettes. The process of creating the paillettes involved shaving down the leather and die-cutting it into small disks that were perforated for sewing.

lindsay long

Other designers with sustainable values have committed to the use of fish skin leathers as more than a fleeting trend. LA-based Lindsay Long has been using salmon skin as a staple in her collections, incorporating it into garments, and is now offering a selection of sleek and stylish accessories featuring the distinctive material. Loffler Randall, SKINI London and Gwendolyn Carrie use fish skin leather in bags, bikinis and shoes respectively, showcasing the versatility of the unique material. Eel skin leather, also a by-product of the food industry, has popped up in the collections of accessory designer Heidi Mottram, offering another valuable alternative to exotic luxury leathers.

Images: ES Salmon Leather, Mackenzie Stroh, Lindsay Long