When you see a mushroom, the underground fibers responsible for its growth are unlikely to be the first thing that comes to mind. Mycelium, fungi’s fibrous “roots,” remain largely unnoticed unless their “fruit” emerges as a mushroom. However, networks of mycelium exist beneath the ground. They range in scale from the microscopic to an area of 9 square kilometers, just over 5.5 miles, which is the current size of a 2000-year-old mycelium network growing in the state of Oregon. And many mycelium networks do not generate mushrooms, leaving us with even fewer clues to their ubiquity beneath our feet.
Mycelium has caught the attention of researchers for a range of sometimes surprising reasons. British biologist Merlin Sheldrake, for example, recently authored the best-selling by Jessica Hemmings ©2022 Surface Design Association, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited. SPRING 2022 / 25 fashion. Mycelium’s speed of growth and relative ease of cultivation are often cited as positive environmental benefits of its production. Launched in 2015, Mycotech Lab, or MYCL, is an Indonesian bio-based material startup. Their location in an archipelago of 17,000 islands situated on the equator provides a hot and humid tropical climate, though temperatures are tempered a little by altitude in the city of Bandung in West Java, where the company is based. In short, it is a climate where things grow—and grow rapidly.
Five co-founders, Adi Reza, Ronaldiaz Hartantyo, Annisa Wibi, Robbi Zidna Ilman and Arekha Bentang have joined other visionaries around the world in a commitment to exploring the potential of mycelium as a sustainable alternative material. They currently produce BIOBO, boards for use in interiors and Mylea™ which has similar properties to leather for use in fashion and footwear. In November 2019 the company was awarded B Corp Certification, making them one of only three businesses in Indonesia to carry the accreditation Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures (2020), and is part of the Dutch nonprofit initiative with the eye-catching moniker Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN).American Paul Stamets has spent decades advocating for the diverse potential of fungi, including its nutritional value, as well as its contribution to mycorestoration, which considers the ability of mycelia to filter pathogens and decompose toxic waste. Elsewhere researchers have begun to explore mycelium’s conductive properties and anticipate a future where “wearables made of or incorporating fabric colonized by fungi might act as a large distributed sensorial network.” Among these diverse research interests are a number of startups exploring mycelium applications in packaging, interiors and that recognizes, among other credentials, a company ethos based on a balance of profit and purpose. MYCL began producing gourmet mushrooms in 2012. Noticing that the bags used to grow the mushrooms stiffened with use, the company’s focus shifted to mycology (the study of fungi) and with the support of laboratories in Indonesia, Switzerland, and Singapore, their current focus was born. Since 2015, MYCL has worked with communities of mushroom farmers in West Java, generating income through the harvest of materials previously considered waste.
Mycelium-based materials are often celebrated as an alternative to leather, but the company is keen not to exclude knowledge from the tanning industry.
Ronaldiaz Hartantyo, MYCL’s Chief Innovation Officer, explains that their aspirations are not about producing an “artisanal material.”6 Instead, standardization is the primary goal—and challenge. Local farmers harvest mycelium and, after mixing with agricultural waste such as plant clippings, the fungi is grown in laboratories. Thickness and shape are controlled with molds and can result in material thick enough to replace leather used in shoes, or flexible enough for jackets, as well as boards for interiors.
“It is simple to grow 2 meters by 2 meters in a lab as one sheet,” Hartantyo explains. “The challenge is how to make 10,000 of those sheets standard.” The larger the surface area, the longer the incubation time, which MYCL has learned results in larger molds having a higher contamination rate. Contamination can range from other materials potentially drawn from an unhygienic lab space, but also other unintended bacterial or fungal growth. As mycelium is easy to grow in the humid tropical climate of Indonesia, Hartantyo warns it is equally “easy to grow contamination too.”
MYCL also experiments with post-treatment processes, taking on what may seem to some like unusual collaborators. Mycelium-based materials are often celebrated as an alternative to leather, but the company is keen not to exclude knowledge from the tanning industry. While there are fundamental differences between the cellulose-base of mycelium and the protein-base of leather, Hartantyo explains, “We try to collaborate with many stakeholders, even conventional tanners who want to work with novel materials— we don’t try to exclude them. Their experience is very helpful and then we do not reinvent the wheel.”
In 2021 MYCL worked with the Japanese fashion label Doublet, providing material for several motorcycle jackets, shoes, and a humorously phallic mushroom-like purse which appeared on the catwalk. “Let’s make bad-behaviour clothes in a good, responsible way,” said Masayuki Ino, the designer behind Doublet.7 The gender-neutral brand’s recent fall-winter 2022/23 collection This is Me continued the materials collaboration with MYCL. This year has also seen the release of a collection of jewelry with the company Apakabar. Restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have been particularly hard on MYCL, whose market is predominantly outside of Indonesia. But closer to home there have also been some small gains. “Covid-19 has taught us it is important that our production is multiple, small scale, modular and decentralized.” And while the local farmers were initially skeptical at the move from cultivating mushrooms to focusing.
“Mushrooms have negative associations with diseases,” he explains, before clarifying, “but it is a myth that mycelium are mushrooms.”
on mycelium, part of the training they received included greater attention to hygiene, to reduce potential contamination in the labs. Unintentionally, this has meant the local farmers have become role models for the community, as the hygiene training has now proven useful during the pandemic.Hartantyo acknowledges that mycelium also faces other challenges, particularly with clients closer to home.
“Mushrooms have negative associations with diseases,” he explains, before clarifying, “but it is a myth that mycelium are mushrooms.” Those with vivid imaginations may wonder if their shoes or garments may sprout future surprises. Hartantyo clarifies that the mycelium they work with do not reproduce by spores and perform very well in allergy tests. Production processes typically involve heat treatment, to end any further prodigious fungal growth.
Considering its life lived underground, mycelium is having something of a moment in the spotlight. The January 2022 issue of British Vogue heralds the shift of several high-end fashion brands toward greater awareness of the impact of material choices in their recent collections. Vogue credits Stella McCartney’s spring/summer 2022 show held in Paris last year as “the first mycelium to be presented on the runway.”8 I’m not so sure. The example is indeed high-profile, but MYCL and Doublet surely deserve some credit too.
*The article quoted above has been translated & language-adjusted so that the information written is in accordance with MYCL's branding guidelines.