Leather out of grapes? Say what!? 🍇

Leather out of grapes? Say what!? 🍇

Time to wine down with an interview with Samantha Mureau from Planet of the Grapes .

Planet of the Grapes is a company founded by Samantha Mureau where she is making Grapeskin Leather from local, organic, vineyard waste in Aix-en-Provence, France. Grape leather is a plant leather made from all the materials remaining after the harvest that cannot be used. In viticulture this is what is called grape marc: the skin of the grapes, the seeds, the branches or even the stems. The color of the grape leather that Sam makes comes from the grapes themselves and different grapes varieties provide different colours. Amazing!

Sam is a fellow cohort member from the Small but Perfect Circular Fashion accelerator and we have connected both online and in person during the program. As we learnt more about her project we thought it would be cool to share some insights from the work she is doing and to find out more about her and her project. And to be honest, we couldn’t let someone who works with wine and fashion slip by.

So grab your glasses 🍷 and check out what we learnt about this amazing material and the awesome woman behind it.

Yanna: Thanks for chatting with me, I have a lot of questions so let's jump in. I know in the accelerator you are working with Under Her Eyes Ltd to make a handbag from the grape leather - such a cool idea. Now we not only drink and eat grapes, but wear them too. Where did you get the idea?

Sam: I used to be a buyer and trend forecaster in the fashion industry, and then over the years I became disillusioned with it so I left the industry behind. It wasn’t until the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh crashed and killed over 1023 people that I thought that the fashion industry had hit rock bottom. I joined up with Fashion Revolution, and that’s when my journey into sustainability commenced, back in 2013.

There wasn’t a lot of information on sustainability back then or many courses back but whatever there was, I did it! Then I thought, 'what am I going to do with this information because I find it so fascinating and more people should know about it?' I wrote and proposed my Socially Responsible and Sustainable Fashion Program to the American University here, in Aix-en-Provence. I got a few students signing up but enough to open the program and today I am teaching it to the 3 Universities here in Aix and on-line to American students too.

I really enjoyed teaching but over time I realised I didn't want to just be a teacher telling the students to do the opposite of what we did in what has now become the fast fashion industry. I wanted to do something physical as well. I saw at the trade show Future Fabrics in London in 2020 a quote from Ellen MacArthur stating that “up to 95% of the environmental impact of a product comes from the materials” and that really registered with me. I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to be another designer to help change the fashion industry. I'm not a designer, I'm a buyer.’ It didn't feel right in terms of sustainability and the idea of producing more products.

This idea really held because, even if you design as a sustainable designer with the best of intentions, if you haven't got the right material to start off with, then the product is never going to be sustainable to its maximum potential.

I started looking at materials and I could see there were some new ones coming through. Stella McCartney was the first Designer to be working in this arena with her mushroom leather in collaboration with Bolt Threads back in 2017. Over the years I started to see these amazing leathers and new materials being presented. There was Orange Fibre spinning a new lustrous silk alternative, Pinatex with their innovative pineapple leather, Banatex with their woven material and these new plant alternatives were starting to emerge.

I started thinking about what is around me, close to my home. I'm on the beautiful wine route in Aix-en-Provence, we've got vineyards all around us and the Provencal wine is a huge thing from here. That's when I started looking at the grape, what can I do with the grape waste, started experimenting, and really looked into it, especially throughout COVID and it just went forward from there. I've really got into it and then pushed it because I could just see that there is a new interest in it as well.

I've got great vineyards and farmers that are really happy to help and give their waste to me. I think the grape leather is amazing and I think what's really important is the provenance of it as well. So that's where I am today.

Yanna: I have heard the Provence Region is just beautiful, and from what I understand it is all organic materials that you are working with?

Sam: Yes, I definitely wanted it to be organic. We’ve seen so many horror stories within the fashion industry now, especially with regards to the overuse of toxic chemicals that I wanted to head in the opposite direction. This way I can be transparent, I can say “this is the vineyard where your raw materials have come from, this is the farmer who's been tendering to the vines upon which the grapes have grown, who's looked after it for decades, it's organic and it is part of the beautiful biodiversity that’s around us”.

Yanna: I have heard some back and forth about what leather is and isn't. From what I understand this is a type of Agro-leather - also called wine leather or grape leather - is that correct?

Sam: I've called it wine leather, I've called it grape leather. The word “leather”, I think, is a really hard terminology to use because of the whole conflict with it not being a “leather” from an animal. It can also be classified under “New Generation Materials” since we do have more and more new alternatives to animal leathers coming through right now. It’s quite a tricky subject but it will sort itself out as the category grows and can establish its own name.

Yanna: New Generation Materials, I love that! We are also working with some innovative textiles that are falling into more alternative categories. My next question is, what would you maybe say are some of the main advantages to a fruit leather over another vegan or an animal leather?

Sam: Animal leather is an extremely contentious subject right now. I think that a really good quality animal leather, if it is handled in a respectful way and with consideration to the animal’s welfare, a noble material can be made. I have a leather handbag that my Grandmother passed on down to me, which is incredible. My bag is now nearly 70 years old and I still love it. It is all of the faster fashion cheaper leathers where I draw the line at for so many reasons but essentially because of the horrific conditions that the animals are kept in, the deforestation cause for extra land for the animals and their food to be grown on, the toxic chemical usage in the tanneries and the deplorable working conditions.

Yet, when we come to the vegan leathers, it’s really controversial as well, because some of them are so full of petroleum based plastic. That's not good for the planet either. It really depends on where you're going to hang your hat. That's why what we’re developing contains neither of those elements, it is animal free and petroleum plastic free. We need good quality, respectful materials in the fashion industry today.

Yanna: I agree with that, the focus needs to shift back to higher quality fashion that has more value. I think the new heart of fashion should really be on materials and quality so I’m definitely with you on this one. Where would you like to see grape leather being used in the fashion sphere?

Sam: Accessories, for sure. Then I'd love to do lifestyle as well, go into interiors, so not necessarily another pair of trainers. I think my ultimate one would be the most gorgeous pair of light heels, an item that gives you a buzz and a huge feel good factor when you use or wear it. It'd be amazing. Some really beautiful feminine pieces, I think that'd be fab.

Yanna: My understanding is that the grapes, after being processed for the juice, the skins seeds etc essentially become waste, and that's where you come in and work your magic into transforming it into the leather. Is there any part of the process that surprised you when you started working with the grape skins? With the collection of the materials or people's responses?

Sam: Yes, the responses. That's a really nice one. I do love the reactions from the vineyards that I work with, they are SO lovely. After the wine harvest that we do together and once the grapes have been pressed for their wine, everyone there is so hands on and they help me fill up my bags with their pressed grape waste, just laughing their heads off at what I’m actually doing but they’re so supportive too. I've gone back for two or three harvests now and they're believing it - they really want it to work as well, which is very nice, as do a number of vineyards now. I was talking to an association recently of vines and vineyards and their mentality is that if we can turn that waste into something that's valorizing it then that's great.

Yanna: So before you came along to take the marc, did they not have any use for it?

Sam: Well often it gets taken off the land and it gets pressed into a stronger alcohol. I think some people are starting to work it into a bio-gas but of course converting it into a compost would be a great way to reutilise the waste but it is actually an expensive process.

Yanna: We are learning a lot about compost at the moment and it is definitely a complicated process.

Sam: It's a lot harder than we think. I thought putting it back on the soil to nurture it and the vines as part of the natural circular cycle would be a natural process, but it's actually a big process to go through and a lot of people don't have the machinery or space that is needed to do the composting.

Yanna: As we spoke about previously, you're not only working on the grape leather, but you're also lecturing in a socially responsible and sustainable fashion program. What is your focus with the program?

Sam: The focus is about how to be circular, how to design out waste, how to be transparent about it as it is not easy and we’re not going to find an answer overnight. Also being curious and delving deep into the opaque industry is essential. I emphasize the realism of what the fashion industry is today. It's not as glamorous as many think and the students have got to go into the fashion industry armed and ready to help make the change that is needed. It’s crucial that designers and those in the industry at all levels talk about being sustainable and action it. It is not about just chasing profit but considering People and the Planet as well and in equal measures. This is really difficult right now as the industry is stuck in a capitalistic rut but the new generation going in there will change that! It is already starting in a meaningful way and that is really exciting.There are some real visionaries and pioneers in this space leading the path.

Yanna: It is very exciting indeed and definitely not always glamorous. We are enjoying our own journey in the sustainable fashion space. So Sam, you are originally from the UK and used to be a fashion buyer and trend forecaster for high street fashion. Sounds like a very different lifestyle that you have now in the south of France. What changed? 

Sam: To be honest, I got to that phase where everything was looking alike, on the high street. It was about 2008 and at the point where someone would say, “I love your dress!” and you would think - brilliant it cost me three quid. I felt we just totally forgot about the whole design and the fun and the creativity of fashion and it became all based on price.
I think this sustainable arena, without the greenwashing bit, is super exciting. It brings on change, so we can love things again, for what they're supposed to be there for, like in your case, it's fun and fruity undies!

Yanna: Well, that brings me then to my next question, how has your personal fashion journey has changed? How have your buying habits changed?

Sam: The lifestyle change was quite something. I've moved to the sticks in Provence and I'm not interested in trends at all anymore. Now I've kind of got to that stage where I am wearing the same things and maxing them out for as long as possible (including my Topshop clothes from about 20 years ago). I've always loved hunting for vintage clothes, especially in Portobello back in the day and I still really enjoy finding a unique piece that I actually fall in love with. Slower fashion is the way forward.

Yanna: Slower more thoughtful fashion is where I am at too. I have one more grape question since I think your project is very cool! What is your favourite grape to work with? Better question: what is your favourite wine and does it reflect in your materials in any way?

Sam: Maybe it does, because I'm seasonal with what I like. I do like a good red in the winter, because I think it's nice and warm in front of the fire. And then a lovely crisp, chilled wine definitely in spring, as soon as the sun comes out I switch. That's probably my biggest wardrobe change actually, my wine.

There we have it!
An introduction to Samantha Mureau, Planet of the Grapes and a new leather that will be making a big impact in the circular fashion ecosystem.

Want to follow her adventure?
Check out the Planet of the Grapes Instagram here @planet.of.the.grapes

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