Lionfish Leather makes its first foray into fashion with tennis label P448 – World Water Day

The highly invasive lionfish may be the enemy of many marine wildlife habitats, but it’s also becoming a fashionable (and regenerative) godsend of a material.

Although human error led the species to enter waterways decades ago from recreational aquariums, the lionfish’s unknown predators and rapid spawning advantage made it a nightmarish problem stretching from the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico to the east coast. Today, the average lionfish kills 79 percent of baby native reef fish in five weeks and decimates entire food chains. A Florida-based startup called Inversa Leathers (founded by a group of divers in 2020) hopes to address the problem while offering a premium leather alternative that acts as a replacement for exotics.

“Invasive species do not appear by accident. This is a man-made problem. Now is the time to take responsibility,” Deepika Nagarajan, director of marketing for Inversa Leathers, told WWD. Hot on the heels of being named a finalist in the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance competition, the startup is revealing its first fashion commercial collaboration in partnership with Italian sneaker brand P448 set to launch on June 28. Nagarajan said: “It’s the first big step-to-market we’ve had, but it’s just the beginning of a long journey.”

Released in five colorways, the P448 sneaker comes in red, pink, blue, silver, and black. It will be available in a limited edition at the Le Bon Marché department store in Paris.

In addition to having Mark Wahlberg as a strategic investor, P448 boasts a number of attention-grabbing global artist collaborations and calls for sustainability with the lionfish as its latest and most outrageous work. The label opened its first pop-up U.S. retail location on Fifth Avenue (celebrating painted walls, arcade games, and a speakeasy in the back) in September 2021. In total, around 1,400 retail locations stores around the world carry the label, with North America being the primary market. .

Not only is it a “cool fashion product that’s also saving the planet,” in Nagarajan’s words, each shoe is the equivalent of removing a lionfish and saving tens of thousands of native reef fish.

Hoping to popularize the concept of “invasive hides” as a replacement for exotics, the premium stuff also has local enthusiasts (whether fishermen or biologists) behind it. The company works with local fishing cooperatives in Quintana Roo, Mexico, underwriting fishermen’s risk with a 100% catch-to-cash guarantee and providing start-up financing for materials. Inversa Leathers produces and tans its hides in the USA, tanning in Cincinnati in accordance with Reach certifications.

Aarav Chavda, co-founder and CEO of Inversa Leathers, said that tanning a lionfish skin requires only 200ml (or less than a cup per skin) compared to regular bovine leather. This works out to 55 square inches on average (best adjusted for small fixtures), or 600 ml per square foot. Third party testing and an LCA are also underway to test performance attributes.

As for the fishing cooperatives, Chavda said: “These are places where there really aren’t many social enterprises or government funds. They know the lionfish but they don’t get paid for it. They have to get money for it.”

Florida has one of the largest artificial reef resiliency programs in the country, and marine biologists like Alex Fogg, coastal resource manager for Okaloosa County, Florida, watch it all happen underwater.

Calling from a site visit for the reef deployment (using concrete and limestone as simulated reef structures for marine wildlife), Fogg spoke about the invasiveness of the lionfish. “We realized that we will never get rid of lionfish… The more things you can identify to do with lionfish, the more you can do to relieve them.” It is in this case that Fogg says that creativity and local solutions help. One collaborative solution is for the region to host the world’s largest lionfish tournament, in which 11,000 lionfish were removed in May.

The opportunities are pretty endless, as lionfish are a healthy, premium fish to consume, an alternative to leather, and a jewelry material (contort fins and spine into jewelry). Fogg said the local market rate for lionfish is about $6.25 a pound compared to about $4 a pound for grouper. He also said, as with many sustainability survey findings, that “people don’t mind paying more for lionfish, given the story behind it.”

With an investment round to be announced in the coming days for Inversa Leathers, the only compelling thing may be for definition-bound vegans.

“The dialogue around this has been quite enlightening for us,” Nagarajan said. “Recently, we’ve had some LinkedIn feedback about it. People tend to recognize it as ‘protecting other species’ and protecting biodiversity. We haven’t had as much difficulty getting people to understand this as we thought.”

The latest P448 sneaker made with Inversa Leathers.
Courtesy of Inversa Leathers

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