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Isaac Mizrahi's Sustainable Salmon Leather Dress

One view of Isaac Mizrahi’s sustainable salmon leather dress. Photo from Nature Conservancy

A Saturday afternoon trip to Chicago’s Field Museum was rife with knowledge. Not only did I get to experience the new Whales: Giants of the Deep exhibition, but I was also able to walk through the Nature Conservancy’s traveling exhibit, Design for a Living World.

“Sustainable design” is very much on the minds of every industry, not only because it’s “in” right now, but because it is in everyone’s best interest to curb consumption, conserve materials and support communities. Design for a Living World explores sustainable design through the work of ten designers, who use sustainable materials from around the world in their work. There are stories behind each material, from how they are sourced to the communities who subsist on economizing them.

The featured materials include chicle latex (from Central America), hardwood and jipipapa (a fiber derived from palm leaves) and bamboo. A favorite of the collection, though, and truly deserving of being called “worldly style” was Isaac Mizrahi’s use of salmon leather. Yes, that Isaac Mizrahi and yes, salmon leather.

According to the Nature Conservancy, the food industry—particularly within fish processing—discard large amounts of potentially useful material as byproducts from canneries and smoking plants. Salmon leather, which is derived from descaling salmon skin, doesn’t require the same chemicals used in traditional tanning—acid and lime, both of which are toxic yet disposed of in environments. In an effort to restore fish habitats in places like Alaska, where salmon is a central factor in the economy, the Conservancy hopes to create a renewable resource in the manufacturing of salmon leather.

Mizrahi’s salmon leather dress features the material in sequin-like discs called paillettes sewn onto chiffon. Mizrahi left the leather undyed, showing off its natural ivory hue and scaly texture. He then used more discarded salmon leather for a matching pair of open-back heels. The outfit is an elegant use of sustainable materials, though it doesn’t seem to be available to consumers as of yet. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine (dated April 2009), the designer says the availability of fish leather on the mass market is “within the realm of possibility”.

If any designer can make salmon leather look half as good as Mizrahi, then we’re all in for a treat.

Design for a Living World runs through November 13 at Chicago’s Field Museum.

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