Can a Tropical Leaf Forge the Future of Sustainable Accessories Design?

The road to more sustainable materials has been long, challenging and riddled with mixed messages. But now Brazilian firm Nova Kaeru has stepped into the ring with a leather alternative made from an organically processed tropical leaf. The material, called Beleaf, appears to be one of the most promising developments in sustainable materials to-date — and has already landed on the desks of accessories designers at Prada, Hermès, Nike, Gucci, New Balance and others, according to company.

But first, it will appear in collections by indie labels with smaller production runs and a close line of communication to their customers. French designer Amélie Pichard launched a handbag from Beleaf last month and soon Mari Giudicelli will use it in shoes.

Where Beleaf differs from previous sustainable materials is that it does not aspire to look exactly like leather. Nova Kaeru’s director, Paulo Amaury, said, “We tried to make this look as close as possible to the actual leaf in nature. We wanted the veins of the leaf to show up.”

Beleaf, which hails from elephant ear plant, will be sold per leaf, rather than in rolls of yardage. It is a typical garden variety plant in tropical environments, seen in parts of Asia and even Miami. But in Brazil, the plant’s leaves grow to massive sizes. Amaury said the average leaf they sell varies between three and five square feet. It is a designer’s task to then retrofit the leaf how they best see fit — a larger leaf could be enough material for one small handbag, if well planned.

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Pichard, who has been searching for organic materials for her accessories brand, said discovering Beleaf for her brand was a breakthrough. In November, the designer launched a line of handbags made from different sustainable materials, but noted “It’s ideal to say vegetable material is ecological but they are still experimental and, to be very honest, vegan and vegetable leathers are not 100 percent made of vegetables — they are always mixed with petrol or plastic, so it’s not totally clean.”

Pineapple plant leaf material Piñatex, for example, is made from 90 percent biodegradable material and 10 percent plastic material, while faux cactus leather is comprised of 50 percent natural material, with the remaining contents not outlined by manufacturers.

Beleaf, by contrast, is just made of leaf — and is organically treated with a process that took nearly five years of development and is still being fine-tuned for resistance. Amaury said he is finally confident that the material can be used for shoes, which requires sturdier material than handbags.

Currently, the leaf needs to be affixed to either organic cotton or a recycled PET material during production, but Nova Kaeru is working on changing this. Beleaf is offered in both “leather” and “suede” finishes in a variety of colors spanning natural green to bright blue. The company is preparing for increased production of Beleaf, and this year discovered methods to harvest the elephant ear leaf during Brazil’s wet season, since the plant tends to grow on riverbanks.

“You cut off the bigger leaves and the plant continues to produce more leaves,” Amaury said of the circular nature of the elephant ear plant. “Our production of the leaf, it isn’t exactly correct to say we are tanning the leaf but we could use that as a parallel to the leather process. It’s about turning the leaf into something resistant with an organic process. The water we use, the solid waste all goes back to nature, for irrigation and the solid as fertilizer,” he added of the production process.

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