The environmental impact of the fashion industry is exactly what drove Dr Carmen Hijosa to explore the non-PVC alternatives. Having experimented with abaca (banana fibre), buntal (straw from talipot palm leaves) and raffia, she landed on pineapple leaves to build her eco-friendly empire. “If you think about leather, it keeps its original fibrous structure intact,” says Dr Hijosa.“That was what brought me particularly to pineapple leaves. They’re very fine and strong, but they’re pliable. They were ideal for what I had in my mind: mesh-like fibres, entangled together.”
There were two key moments for Dr Hijosa that jolted her into action during her former career as a leather goods consultant and designer. In the 1990s, she visited the Altiplano in Bolivia to work with the indigenous communities there. “They are really so poor,” says Dr Hijosa. “They were trying to develop their ceramics and textiles, and I realised I needed to nd a way to help these people, because they don’t have the same knowledge, the privilege or the possibilities that I do.”
Then, while consulting on the export of leather in the Philippines, she was dealt another wake-up call. “I had worked in different countries, starting to understand the position of a luxury item versus the 28 people that make it and where it comes from,” explains Dr Hijosa. “I got to the Philippines, went to tanneries and I realised, no, I don’t want to use leather anymore.”
Dr Hijosa has dedicated the past decade to developing Piñatex, a new, sustainable material that can be used as an alternative to leather. Made from the by-product of the pineapple industry, the leaves are decorticated (where the outer layers are removed) and then turned into a robust, non-woven mesh, on site in the Philippines. Even though the company only launched three years ago, Piñatex has been snatched up by the likes of Hugo Boss for a recent limited-edition collection of BOSS Menswear sneakers, Altiir for a range of ballsy biker jackets and Lancel for a minimalistic tote, among many others. “It’s wonderful. A new product is a risk for any company, and the bigger the company the more risk there is,” she says. “Every product still has the Piñatex aesthetic. To touch, it’s not like leather, but a little bit waxy and papery, because it is cellulose. This material comes from nature, so the fibres are uneven.”
Pictured above: Piñatex leather jacket collection from Altiir.
A key source of inspiration for Dr Hijosa was the Cradle to Cradle products initiative. Eight years ago, when she was in her mid-fifties, she embarked on her PhD in Textiles at the Royal College of Art and her project was assessed by Cradle to Cradle co-founder Dr Michael Braungart. “The social and sustainable angle of my vision came to be inspired by Cradle to Cradle,” explains Dr Hijosa. “It’s the philosophy that there is no waste. Everything that we think is waste can be used for something else. It means we can recycle everything, as long as we design it in a way to be reused.” The intention is that products should be developed with economics, ecology and ethics in mind, and that the supply chain should benefit everyone in it.
It all plays into her dream of creating a circular economy; by using a by-product, Piñatex does not require additional land, water or fertiliser use, and does not pollute. This was key for Dr Hijosa. “I had to look at what I had ‘lying around’ – this is my philosophy,” she says. “You go to a place and you discover what is there that you can use for your product. I have not discovered this – these bres have been traditionally used in the Philippines, though not as a non-woven mesh.” Once the product is made, the focus is on using as few components as possible, making it easier to disassemble for recycling, composting or reassembly.
Pictured above: Boss Limited edition 100% vegan trainers in Piñatex®.
Dr Hijosa herself is an epicentre of energy; she makes seemingly fantastical ideals seem possible. She was a nalist of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards in 2015, was included in a Getty Images Gallery exhibition about women in innovation in 2017 and has spoken at events around the world, including the Miami Fashion Week Summit, TEDx Talks and the Costa Rica Omina Fashion Summit. Her enthusiasm for the Piñatex project, a branch of her ethical entrepreneurship company Ananas Anam, is palpable and infectious.
This is just the beginning for Dr Hijosa. Her plans for the future of the brand are expansive, hoping to stretch beyond small-scale collections. While an in-house, self-designed range is on the cards, she wants to focus on the production side of her business, starting with improving the working conditions for her team out in the Philippines by developing an automatic decorticating machine and looking into building a fibre plant. “It is such hard work, whether it’s in the hot season or the rainy season,” she explains. “The plant will ensure that people will still be employed but that they won’t have to be working in the heat of the day. Then we can do more, we can really cater to more clients, and everybody will benefit from that.”
She will soon also be expanding the fibre source, reaching out to Costa Rica, which is known for its country-wide sustainability ethics and its pineapple exports. She is even hoping to create a biogas from the decorticating process, which in turn could fuel the production process.
The introduction of Piñatex into the fashion industry has got people talking – even West End costume designers have described it as ‘magic’. Dr Hijosa’s endeavours may be capacious, imaginative and far-reaching, but the eco-friendly vein of the company will always remain at the forefront. It’s all about the nature embedded in the final piece and the ways in which it can help those who make it.