Putting coconut waste to good use, a Cherthala-based couple creates a new vegan ‘leather’ for fashion and furnishings

Mushroom caps, pineapple, seaweed — vegan alternatives to leather are coming from the unlikeliest of sources. So what if we told you that coconut water is the latest to join the list? Zuzana Gombosova from Slovakia and her Malayali partner, Susmith Suseelan, have been working on the liquid from mature coconuts to create a sustainable material, christened Malai (after the tender flesh of the coconut). Flexible, durable, biodegradable and water resistant, it has naturally sparked interest at design festivals across the world, and 2019 will see unusual collaborations in our country.

In good company

Gombosova, a material researcher and designer who graduated from Central Saint Martin’s College of Arts and Design, went to Instanbul after London, then relocated to Mumbai. This is where she met Suseelan, a product designer. Setting up their manufacturing studio in Cherthala, the Kerala town known for its coir villages, they worked on bacterial cellulose using coconut water. Inspiration came from Nata De Coco, a jelly-like substance used in the food industry in the Philippines.

Coconut water in your shoe

Seemingly a cross between leather and handmade paper, Malai can be cut, glued, stitched and embossed, and has since been used to create footwear, upholstery and small leather accessories. It is not as supple as leather “nor do we want to imitate animal skin” says Gombosova, 30, who hails from a winemaking family back in Slovakia. “We did not begin by thinking of an alternative to leather,” she confesses, adding that her thesis on bacterial cellulose in 2013 saw her initially working with different media, from teas to juices. Then came the water from brown coconuts, a waste product in the desiccated coconut industry, sourced from oil mills and, recently, a few South Indian restaurants. Over 4,000 litres of coconut water goes to create 25 kilos of cellulose. The sheets, about 120×80 cm in dimension (€36), are naturally beige and later dyed madder, indigo and other earthy colours. Sometimes moulded in 3D shapes to eliminate seams, they are finding takers in Europe.

Being Malai

“Coconut water acidifies the soil,” says Gombosova, admitting that their sustainable efforts will need to be patented soon. There are no commercially available products under their brand at the moment, but this year, they began liaising with independent Czech designers to create small leather accessories like belts and book marks, as well as shoes, using Malai. There has been a collaboration with Kazeto, traditionally known for paperboard products, especially suitcases. A biodegradable shoe, using Malai and bioplastics, was designed by Berlin-based footwear designer Sophia Guggenberger. It was presented at Designblok Prague (a design show in the Czech Republic).

Coconut water in your shoe

And Ton, a bent furniture brand, added Malai to a bar stool to create a striking seating option. “Two companies are currently testing Malai to create vegan watchstraps,” says Gombosova, who participated at London Design Festival in September. Yoga bags and mats are next, given Malai’s chemical-free nature. Associations with Indian designers are also on the cards. “Many independent designers have shown interest, which is why we are organising a presentation later this month,” says Tinky Mathew of Pepper House, one of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale’s popular venues. Gombosova’s frank observation is that people here prefer materials that are cheaper, even if it means “they will stay in the landfill for a long, long time”. She has a word of advice. “Malai has a nutty smell and a leather grain but it is stiffer than leather.” That could explain why it is often kneaded by hand to achieve drape and softness, a process fittingly termed “the massage”.

The presentation is scheduled for December 27 at Pepper House. 04842217555

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