Leather made from salmon could be the next big thing in the world of luxury design. Salmon leather has a lot going for it. It’s as strong as cow leather and as exotic as snake skin. It’s light and tear-resistant. And salmon leather makes use of a part the fish that’s generally discarded. This former waste product is now being turned into shoes, clothes, furniture, and even wallpaper. Susan Stone reports that salmon leather made in Germany is making a splash. Download MP3 (Photos: Susan Stone)
Stone: In a Berlin studio, A two-woman design team known as Mongrels in Common are rushing to get their latest looks ready for the runway. A soft grey dress with short puffed sleeves is displayed on a mannequin. The dress is made up of rectangular panels with a subtle but familiar pattern. And while this material is easy to sew, structure is key, says Christine Plüss.
Plüss: “You’re a bit more limited space-wise because a salmon is as big as a salmon can get really, so you have to think about where you place seams and how you are going to cut it because a cow is much bigger!”
Stone: The designers are using salmon leather for dresses, shorts, and handbags. It appeals to them aesthetically and ecologically, says Livia Ximénez-Carrillo. And to their clients as well – with a little explanation.
Ximénez-Carrillo: “Yeah yeah – the first thing they say is, “Does it smell like fish?” But it cannot. It’s leather. It cannot smell like fish, just like leather.”
Hain: “Normally I don’t like to use this word garbage. But of course, in the industry it’s garbage. But that’s our advantage. That’s our raw material.”
Stone: Holger Hain is the man behind the fish. That is, he’s the managing director of Nanai, the firm that produces chrome-free vegetable-tanned salmon skins in the small Bavarian town of Bischofsmais. Back in 2004, Hain was an investor in Laschinger, a fish processing company.
Hain: “We were the biggest producer of smoked salmon all over the world. And at this time built our second factory. “
Stone: One day, while visiting the company founder, Hain noticed an attractive folder on the desk that looked like snakeskin. The founder told him it was actually made from their salmon — he’d been experimenting with the tanning process since the 1980s. Hain was taken with the idea, and started doing research and testing.
Hain: I googled on the internet fish skin, fish leather and something else. And always was coming this name Nanai, Nanai, Nanai.
Stone: Nanai is a region in Eastern Siberia. The indigenous people there have long tanned fish skins for clothing, boats and tents. Hain contacted some Nanai craftsmen, and worked to integrate their traditional techniques with custom-built machinery.
Stone: Now they no longer package salmon in this small Bavarian factory. Instead employees concentrate on make salmon leather from the constant flow of raw material. The salmon is farmed in organic aquaculture in Ireland, then sent to Poland for curing and packaging. The remainder of the fish is frozen, and then trucked here — 100,000 a day — more than 80,000 tons a year.
And at this point in the process, it definitely smells like fish.
Stone: Machines strip the remaining flesh from the skins, which are then washed and salted. Workers rinse the skins, dye them, and use pressurized air to strip off the shiny scales, which go flying through the air like sequins off a party dress. Then the fish skins are dried, ironed, and softened. At the end of this time-intensive process, what’s left is light and flexible and less than 1 millimeter in thickness. It takes 25 skins and two weeks to make one square meter of Nanai leather. This former leftover is now a luxury product.
Hain: “280 Euro we are starting, up to 380 euro. Depends on the colors. Glossy non-glossy, bleached or non-bleached, natural or vegetable. So that’s the range of the prices in square meters.”Stone: Nanai salmon leather sells for nearly five times the price of high-quality calf’s leather and is even more expensive than ostrich. But that’s not the end of the story for Holger Hain.
Hain: “Now I can say we are using 100% of the salmon. 100%.”
Stone: He’s now shipping the salmon heads to Japan, selling the fishbones to the supplement industry, and making the waste from the leather processing into pet food. His latest experiment is with a new recipe — turning salmon skin scraps into savory snack chips.
For The World, I’m Susan Stone in Berlin.