Circular fashion Fashion

How Malai Biomaterials developed alternative leather from coconut water

Zuzana Gombosova and C S Susmith

Zuzana Gombosova and C S Susmith   | Photo Credit: By arrangement

The coconut water repertoire

Coconut water is among the best thirst quenchers in the sweltering months. But there’s more. Did you know that coconut water can be the base material to develop alternative leather?

A little known Kerala-based start-up ‘Malai Biomaterials Design’ courted spotlight a few days ago when it won the second edition of Circular Design Challenge (CDC) at Lakme Fashion Week (LFW), Mumbai. The CDC was instituted a year ago to recognise those who employ innovative methods to recycle discarded materials to create new products.

Malai Biomaterials manufactures a water resistant bio-composite material that looks like leather, using raw materials such as coconut water and banana fibre.

Founded by Zuzana Gombosova, a material researcher from Slovakia, and C S Susmith, a product designer from Kerala, the start-up now supplies its vegan leather called ‘Malai’ (named after the coconut flesh) to a few international labels.

The CDC had more than 400 registrations from 40 cities in India, and five entrepreneurs were shortlisted. Zuzana and Susmith admit that they were pleasantly surprised to find themselves among the final nominees. In an email interview, they tell us that their surprise also stemmed from learning about the work of the other nominees in sustainable fashion. “To initiate and run such a project, you need determination and patience. I think our project was distinctive in a way that it went further with finding a solution to waste generation. We try to prevent waste generation by providing a material that doesn’t turn into waste. Malai is a circular material by default. It emerges from agricultural waste and ends its life becoming a nutrient for soil,” says Zuzana.

  • Circular Design Challenge at LFW is in collaboration with Reliance Industries’ R | Elan and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in India.
  • The other finalists for the CDC apart from Malai Biomaterials were: Samaritan that uses industrial plastic and textile scrap to make furniture and accessories using charpoy and macramé weaving techniques; Hyderabad-based firm Cancelled Plans that uses industrial waste to create clothing and accessories; Chambray & Co that upcycles waste into a funky line of clothing; and Off-Grain that upcycles textile waste.

What goes into Malai? “Bacterial cellulose (that’s developed from coconut water), fibre from banana stem, sisal fibre and hemp fibre,” state Susmith and Zuzana. They also use natural dyes, natural gums and starches.

The firm liaises with coconut farmers and processing units, collects and re-purposes coconut water to feed the bacteria’s cellulose production. A small coconut-processing unit can collect around 4000 litres of water per day, which can be used to make 320 square metres of Malai.

Both Zuzana and Susmith were working in Mumbai when they first met. “She told me about the possibility of growing bacterial cellulose on water from mature coconuts and I found that interesting because nobody makes this kind of product in Kerala or India,” recalls Susmith.

A sheet of Malai

A sheet of Malai   | Photo Credit: By arrangement

They began experimenting in their kitchen and then moved to the vicinity of a coconut processing unit where they developed the material further. “Malai emerged as an attempt to create material based on bacterial cellulose that’s ecologically friendly and usable for commercial products. Our criteria was to keep it as sustainable as possible, both environmentally and socially,” he adds.

Their mainstay is the material, Malai, which is now supplied to brands such as UK-based Ethical Living, Czech Republic firm Playbag and Riti in India, among others.

Vegan leather pouches with Malai

Vegan leather pouches with Malai   | Photo Credit: By arrangement

In 2018, Malai expanded its portfolio by designing product prototypes. A crowd-funding campaign was mooted and 10 products — bags and accessories included — are now in production. “We will be stocking some of these products at a few retailers in India and abroad soon. But our main focus is on material development,” they state.

They hope that the win at LFW will bring them more visibility in the fashion and lifestyle sector and help them reach a wider audience. They will be showcasing their new collection at LFW Winter/Festive 2020 and at Neonyt Berlin 2020, the international fair for sustainable fashion.

Vegan leather bag with Malai

Vegan leather bag with Malai   | Photo Credit: By arrangement

The fashion spotlight aside, Zuzana and Susmith intend to begin a new phase of research and development, and test the first batch of Malai products with their users.

Sustainability remains at the core of their ideology. As Susmith puts it, “We have to constantly remind ourselves that we are borrowing from nature and we are bound to return it back to nature in a form that nature can use.” He describes the work at Malai Biomaterials (made-from-malai.com) as a mix of art, craft, design, science and engineering.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 7:02:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fashion/how-zuzana-gombosova-and-c-s-susmiths-start-up-malai-biomaterials-developed-alternative-leather-from-coconut-water-and-won-the-circular-design-challenge-at-lakme-fashion-week/article30903157.ece

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