Fashion Surf and Turf: Why Fish Skins Are a Better Clothing Choice Than Leather

Nothing lasts forever. Even if you eke the lifespan out of your clothes and accessories for as long as you can, there will always be the dearly departed pieces that leave a gap in your wardrobe. So it was, last year, that after many years of good service, my beautifully muted yet iridescent silvery fish-skin shoes shuffled off their mortal coil.

In effect, they were just summer slip-on pumps, but boy, did they have a scaly side. Their provenance was highly sustainable too: a byproduct of the salmon farming industry in the Faroe Islands.

The islands below Greenland represent the best in tidal, sustainably managed fish farming, and an enterprising local designer had developed the shoes. I enjoyed them, but now they are gone. And I couldn’t even recycle them as, strangely enough, there is no designated bin for fish-skin products (perhaps I should’ve composted?).

But my main beef is that I’m unlikely to replace them. Not because they weren’t great—they were!—but because there remains a scarcity of fish-skin products in fashion.

Fish leather remains on the sidelines, alongside other innovative but weird fibers such as spider silk and Pinetex (pineapple leather). This is surely not the right place for a ubiquitous byproduct (I read that one in three salmon globally is now farmed, so there are a lot of wasted skins).

Angler Stops Catching Fish and Starts Recycling Them as Clothes

It’s true that there are challenges with fish skin. A salmon skin is relatively small and narrow (3–5 inches at its widest), so you need rather a lot to make a tote bag. Far easier (and probably cheaper) would be to revert to cow leather as usual.

Creating fish leather is not especially glamorous either. It takes buckets of water to stop the fish from decomposing (so maybe this wouldn’t work in California), the fat must be removed with spoons, and then they have to be tumble-dried into submission. In any case, I’d rather scrub fish skins than be responsible for skinning a python, where the animal is pumped full of water until the skin explodes off.

On the plus side, fish skins take dyes particularly well, and even prosaic non-endangered species (that’s important) such as carp and salmon grown for the table have beautiful skins that catch and play with light. Besides, as anybody who has seen the conventional leather industry up close will testify, it is gory and can be incredibly polluting, and we should be looking for alternatives to cheap cow leather.

So, Why Should You Care? In 2009, the seminal Greenpeace report Slaughtering the Amazon found that the leather industry was driving deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Using leather for clothing also takes a lot of water and a lot of chemicals to tan it for the perfect bag/pair of shoes. Breaking the stranglehold of traditional leather will not be easy: The global industry is worth nearly $50 billion, according to the International Council of Tanners. But so too is the cost of producing regular leather.

Aside from cost and practicality, just as we need to develop new clothing fibers because we can’t wear polyester and cotton blends (which now comprise 70 percent of the average wardrobe) forever without scrutinizing their impact, we cannot necessarily produce increasing global piles of accessories from mass-produced cow leather. It would make sense to have some other options.

So hats off to the designers who are taking fish skin seriously as a viable, attractive, and sustainable material. They include Rose & Willard from the U.K., luxury accessories brand Heidi and Adele, and the darlings of São Paulo fashion week, Brazilian brand TNG. The latter is particularly interesting because recent collections incorporate pieces from the skins of Amazonian river fish; their size overcomes the issue of patchworking small skins together.

Meanwhile, the Danish Fashion Institute has added fish skin to its library, and the Higg Index, which forms a centerpiece for the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, is working on a rating for different fish skins. Given the huge brands that form the SAC ,this could mean fish leather is about to become huge. The trick will be keeping the supply chain sustainable. Whichever way it goes, I maintain that I was an early adopter.

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