The highly invasive lionfish may be the enemy of many marine wildlife habitats — but it’s also becoming a fashionable (and regenerative) godsend.
While human error led the species to enter waterways decades ago from recreational aquariums, the lionfish’s unknown predators and fast-spawning advantage have made them a nightmare problem stretching all the way to the Caribbean. Gulf of Mexico to the East Coast. Today, the average lionfish kills 79% of the young of native reef fish in five weeks and decimates entire food chains. A Florida start-up called Inversa Leathers (founded by a group of divers in 2020) hopes to solve the problem while providing a premium leather alternative that replaces exotics.
“Invasive species do not happen by chance. This is a man-made problem. Now it’s time for us to take responsibility,” Deepika Nagarajan, marketing director at Inversa Leathers, told WWD. On the heels of being named a finalist in the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance competition, the start-up is unveiling its first commercial fashion collaboration in partnership with Italian sneaker brand P448, which launches on June 28. -to-market we’ve had, but it’s just the beginning of a long journey.”
Launched in five colors, the P448 sneaker comes in red, pink, blue, silver and black. It will be available in a limited run at the Le Bon Marché department store in Paris.
In addition to boasting Mark Wahlberg as a strategic investor, P448 features a series of attention-grabbing global artist collaborations and sustainability phrases with the lionfish as its latest and most innovative piece. The brand opened its first US retail pop-up store on Fifth Avenue (celebrating graffiti walls, arcade games and a speakeasy in the back) in September 2021. In all, around 1,400 stores worldwide carry the brand. brand, with North America being the main market.
Not just a “cool fashion product that is also saving the planet”, in Nagarajan’s words, each shoe is the equivalent of a lionfish removed and tens of thousands of native reef fish saved.
Hoping to popularize the concept of “invasive leathers” as a replacement for exotic ones, the premium material 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 guarantee and providing upfront financing for materials. Inversa Leathers produces and tans its hides in the US, with tannery done in Cincinnati according to Reach certifications.
Aarav Chavda, co-founder and CEO of Inversa Leathers, said that tanning a lionfish hide only takes 200 ml (or less than a cup per hide) compared to regular cowhide. That comes to 55 square inches on average (best fit for small accessories), or 600ml per square foot. Third-party testing and an LCA are also underway to prove performance attributes.
As for fishing cooperatives, Chavda said: “These are places where there aren’t many social enterprises and government funding. They know the lionfish, but they can’t get paid for it. They have to get money for it.”
Florida has one of the largest artificial reef resilience programs in the country, and marine biologists like Alex Fogg, manager of coastal resources for Okaloosa County, Florida, see how it all plays out underwater.
Dialing in from a site visit for reef deployment (using concrete and limestone as simulated reef structures for marine wildlife), Fogg spoke about the lionfish encroachment. “We realize that we are never going to get rid of the lionfish… The more things you can identify to do with the lionfish – the more you can do to alleviate it.” This is where Fogg says creativity and local solutions help. One collaborative solution is that the region hosts the largest lionfish tournament in the world, which saw 11,000 lionfish removed in May.
The opportunities are endless, with lionfish being a healthy, premium fish to consume, leather alternative and jewelry material (twisting 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 findings from sustainability research, 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 convincing may be for vegans with a defined definition.
“The dialogue around this was very enlightening for us,” said Nagarajan. “We recently had some comments on LinkedIn about this. People tend to recognize it as ‘protecting other species’ and protecting biodiversity. We didn’t have as much trouble getting people to understand this as we thought.”