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A fishy affair

Accessories label Mayu uses fish leather to design bags in an operation that involves sourcing the material from tanneries in Iceland

Material designers around the world have explored both plant and animal-based substances to create the perfect commodity that passes the test of veganism and is cruelty-free. It is indeed the time of responsible consumerism. There are innovations like coconut leather from India or pineapple leather from Europe but the mention of fish leather creates a different kind of inquisitiveness. A rather natural way to procure fish, considering the amount people eat around the world.

While Chinese are the biggest consumers of fish, it was the Icelandic people who some 5,000 years ago decided to put their fish waste into use. Being ranked second highest in fish consumption per capita, it is not as surprising to see that coming from the Nordic country.

While fish consumption tops that of other animals around the world and eco-friendliness is a popular conversation for any society, India as well is not far behind when it comes to opting for alternate materials for high fashion. Mayura Davda Shah, a mechanical engineer behind the accessories label Mayu explores the idea in India.

“Machine design, i.e. the design of systems is my formative education and is very close to what I do now”, tells Shah who affirms that many people find it unusual that she ended up founding a luxury brand after studying and working as an engineer for a while. She in fact also went to a B-school before she decided to make bags and wallets out of fish leather.

Creator: Mayura Davda Shah, founder and designer of the label Mayu Photos: Mayu

“It was a trip to Iceland that got me intrigued about fish leather and that’s where it started”, tells Shah who is no stranger to fashion and design, given her inclination towards creative arts since childhood. The beauty of salmon skin and its texture created enough interest for her to think of coming up with her own label.

This was not going to be her first at doing something close to fashion. “I have been designing jewellery for friends and family since I was 13 years old. I still do it”, adds Shah.

Using fish leather was a no-brainer for Shah. “Fashion is the second most polluting industry. If I was going to do anything, it was bound to be sustainable.” She wanted to create something that was for both the people and the planet. Accessories have a certain ‘shelf-life’ in our wardrobes. Often a piece of heirloom motivated her to work with bag designs. She creates her own sketches.

The product that retails at various places in India and abroad, uses a rather multi-continental development process. While the leather is sourced from Europe, the design takes place in the US and finally, the manufacturing happens in India.

“Teams are working on it across countries that help us ensure the quality that it has,” tells Shah who tried to figure out resources in India to develop her own leather locally but the current system is highly toxic and unethical for any sustainable production to take place.

Handcrafted: Making of Mayu’s fish leather bags in a production facility

The fish skin that is used by Mayu is a natural byproduct that is repurposed into leather by tanneries in Iceland that utilise renewable hydro and geothermal energy coupled with vegetable dyes for the tanning process. The tanneries are planned close to the water body, resulting in minimal carbon emissions. The distinctive scale pattern of fish like salmon and wolfish, highlighted with metallic finish, give it the strength and finish required to create all kinds of products, including footwear. All these factors make fish leather a great alternative to all other kinds of animal leather.

While the idea of sustainability has received a lot of popularity on the Internet, it is rather a small lot that actually lives a lifestyle in harmony with ecology. Shah herself tries to make choices that will not have adverse effects on the environment. “There is still so much for me to learn”, adds Shah.

In terms of business, Mayu’s products that include unisex wallets, phone cases, purses and shoulder bags get a good response from the European markets. However, India is still new to the concept and is learning. “The market is emerging and there is interest from metro cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Pune, perhaps because we are based in Solhapur which is close to the city. Kolkata, as they love their fish and to see its waste become a part of their bag is exciting for them.”

Mayu recently collaborated with Pinatex, a leather made out of pineapple leaves. Shah’s experiences and interests from both her professional and personal life have found expression in her labour of love that is Mayu.  “I think there is a lot of interesting work happening in India. Young designers are looking back at our roots and coming up with products that are relevant for the future,” concludes Shah.