London-based Gen Phoenix wants to revolutionize the leather industry. The 15-year-old firm, which reengineers leather production scraps into new materials, has been moving beyond its roots in the mass transportation sector to take on the world of fashion.
Elyse Winer, who served as a partner at investment firm Material Impact, was brought on to serve as the company’s chief marketing officer (CMO) in March following the announcement of an $18 million funding round aimed at expanding the innovation’s applications across the world of consumer products, including a collaboration with Coach. In an expanded role as general manager of consumer announced this month, Winer aims to deepen Gen Phoenix’s ties to the fashion sector and help the firm create new channels for advancing circularity.
Winer told Sourcing Journal that the material innovation group’s heritage, which includes developing reengineered leather for use on seats in planes, trains, cars and other mass transit, has allowed it to develop an invaluable expertise in performance materials. “Gen Phoenix learned how to take leather waste streams, break down those materials, and build them back up into a highly functional material” that met the transportation industry’s “strenuous, rigorous” requirements. Over more than a decade, the firm was able to perfect a product that stands up to wear and tear, with greater longevity than traditional leather.
The reengineering process begins with leather cast-offs collected from European tanneries—small scraps of hide shaved off during the production process that would otherwise be destined for landfills. The company’s proprietary technology breaks those pieces down to the fiber level, and then uses a water-powered process called hydroentanglement to physically bond the fibers back together.
The result is “a super durable recycled leather material that can then be coated to create the aesthetics and the performance properties—the same haptic touch and feel—as traditional leather,” Winer said. Since sustainability has become a greater priority for global brands, purveyors of new coating systems and technologies have cropped up in recent seasons, with the goal of replacing traditional polymer-based solutions. “There are a lot more options as it relates to bio-based coatings on the market today,” and Gen Phoenix works with brands on an individual basis to select coatings that fit their aesthetic and performance requirements.
The firm brought its first fashion products to market this spring through Coach’s “Coachtopia” line—an in-house incubator for the leather and lifestyle brand’s eco-friendly launches. Launched in April, handbags in the line were made with upcycled leather sourced from Coach’s own production waste as well as recycled leather developed by Gen Phoenix from tannery scraps. Footwear label Dr. Martens and InMotion Ventures, the investment arm of luxury automotive brand Jaguar Land Rover, both invested in the firm’s growth this spring, and are looking to incorporate reengineered leather into their own future products.
Winer said that these recent developments have sparked interest across the fashion and luxury markets. “We have a full waiting room of brands across a lot of different categories that were really excited about what we did with Coachtopia,” she added.
In addition to forging new partnerships with brands, Gen Phoenix aims to develop new business models to help them advance their circularity goals. Winer said the platform has the capacity to recycle post-consumer waste, including its own reengineered leather products, into new materials. The company has also seen brands interested in using their own leather waste streams, like scraps from their factories or unsold products, as feedstocks for reengineered leather.
“Brands are really looking to do something with their excess inventory at the end of the season, or take back product from consumers,” she said. “I think the idea of making it ‘turnkey’ and easy for customers to give back their products at the end of their use right is really exciting, and I see us being a part of that evolving ecosystem.” The infrastructure for those take-back programs will take time and resources to develop, but Winer said promoting full circularity is a key objective for Gen Phoenix. “That is something that this technology platform can enable in a really meaningful way, and that’s what’s on the roadmap for the future of the company.”
As the alt-leather arena expands, with bio-based materials made from cactus, pineapple and mycelium making waves, Winer said she is eager to see how these materials advance. “The challenge with a lot of the vegan, plant-based alternatives that we see on the market today is not being able to withstand daily use and the requirements that brands have from a performance and longevity perspective,” she said. With many of these innovations still in their infancy, price and scalability remain a challenge to widespread adoption.
Today, Gen Phoenix is able to produce up to 6 million square meters of materials each year at its factory outside of London. “That’s how you get to meaningful volume for a brand partner like Dr. Martens or Coach, and that’s how you get to the price and the performance requirements that these brands are asking for,” she added.
Pilot runs and capsule collections are a meaningful step forward for an industry that has been married to conventional materials for centuries. “But if we’re going to make a dent on decarbonization, we really need to think beyond limited lines of product, with price, performance and planet considerations all on an even playing field.”