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You have heard of calfskin and crocodile leather. But did you know about fish leather? Closely resembling the texture of snakeskin leather, fish leather uses fish scales—a common by-product of the fishing industry—to create sleek, textured leather. In 2015, Mumbai-based Mayura Davda-Shah discovered this unique leather on a trip to Europe. “I fell in love with the concept," she says. “I was keen on doing something for the planet while also delivering products that generate economic value. I saw that as an opportunity."

Mayura Davda-Shah
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Mayura Davda-Shah

Earlier this year, she founded Mayu, a sustainable luxury brand that uses salmon and wolffish leather to create bags and accessories. The striking designs and sleek silhouettes may be the first thing to catch your eye, but it’s the raw material that sets the brand apart.

Leather is an enduring fashion trend—a leather handbag never really drops off the wardrobe must-haves ranking. A report released by Grand View Research, Inc. in February states that the global leather goods market is expected to reach $629.65 billion (around 44.5 trillion) by 2025, expanding at a CAGR of 5.4%. There are, however, deterrents to its growth as new-age consumers question the ethics of sourcing leather. This segment of consumers is instead looking to sustainable alternatives and biomaterials.

Fish leather offers a new take: animal-derived but sustainably sourced and upcycled. Icelanders, who historically wore footwear crafted from wolffish skin, are fish leather pioneers. Atlantic Leather is a leading name, with its tannery based in Sauðárkróki. The company started the development process for fish leather in 1994, developing a wholly satisfactory product only in 2000. Now the brand has a shade card that goes from staple black and tan to vivid yellow and hot pink. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has highlighted the fish leather developed in Kenya from the waste skin of the indigenous Nile perch. According to a post on FAO’s official blog, the advantage of using this leather is the unique natural pattern of each piece, its ability to absorb colours and its light and durable texture.

“The look and the feel—the aesthetics—were the first thing that drew my attention to the material," says Davda-Shah who sources her fish leather from organic farms in Ireland. “As I did my research, (I found that) the strength and durability make it a material at par or even better than some of the conventional materials." Based on a slow-fashion philosophy, the brand makes designs limited to 25-200 pieces, selling mainly on their online store. “One of the challenges is that people don’t know about fish leather. And even if they know about it, what restricts them is the size of the leather. It makes sense for us, because we keep our batches small." The manufacturing is done in India.

Fish leather is, however, a long way away from going mainstream—the unconventional material has only just begun emerging in public consciousness. There are also other limitations. Vegan consumers are unlikely to use any products made from animal derivatives and a number of consumers eschew leather altogether.

Mayu’s new collection, La Movida, includes vegan materials like Piñatex (made from upcycled pineapple leaves) but fish leather will remain one of the foundational pillars for the brand.

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