No animals were harmed in the making of this leather. Kerala’s coconuts are being used to make a textured, water-resistant pleather, used in bags, pouches, wallets and shoes.
Behind the innovative material is a company called Malai — Hindi for Cream, and also a term used for the soft milky flesh of a fresh coconut. Malai was launched in 2018 by Zuzana Gombosova, a material researcher and fashion designer from Slovakia, and CS Susmith, a product designer from Kerala. Susmith has since moved on and Gombosova heads the company with a new business partner from Kerala named Aqeel Sait.
“I liked my job as a designer before Malai, but I was also fully aware of how much we fill our world with goods in the name of design,” Gombosova says. “I wanted to create and develop methods and materials that didn’t have such a negative impact on our environment. The idea with Malai is to create a vegan alternative to leather that is eco-friendly to make and dispose of.”
The pleather is biodegradable and compostable. Its primary raw material is a kind of bacterial cellulose called Nata de Coco or coconut gel in the Philippines, where it is used widely in the food industry. Malai has tied up with farmers and processing units in Kerala to use the coconut water they have no use for.
This water from mature coconuts is fermented to create the cellulose. The cellulose is then enriched with fibres from hemp, sisal and banana stems and refined into sheets of grey material. The sheets are treated and, in some cases, dyed.
“I believe that in order to live sustainably one needs to do far more than just shop sustainably,” says Gombosova, who has moved to Kochi to nurture the project. “But we do live in a very complex world where most of us cannot fully detach from the consumer world.”
A healthy alternative, she believes, is slow living, and so Gombosova began research into sustainable, plant-based materials as part of her MA studies in the field of biomaterials. She drew inspiration from south Asia and the brand was born.
Malai now uses its material to make bags and shoes available on its website at prices ranging from Rs 1,800 to Rs 9,500. It also supplies the material to brands such as Riti in India, the UK-based Ethical Living and Lucky Nelly in Germany. And it’s being pitched by the company for potential uses in furnishing and interior surfaces too.
“Malai looks and feels as good as leather but it doesn’t have the cruelty that leather has,” says Arati Krishna, founder of Riti. “We have made a host of accessories from it, including wallets and bags. And it makes me happy that it is made in India.”
The Malai team is currently just 10 people, including labour, sales staff, interns and external consultants, but their work is being noticed already. In February, the brand won the Circular Design sustainability in fashion challenge during Lakme Fashion Week.
“The world has not got very far with R&D on biodegradable materials for, say, airplanes,” Gombosova says, “but we can certainly use eco-friendly materials in the fashion, furniture and footwear industries.”