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The Gap Year Blog

Fish... leather? Turning the tide on the fashion industry

3 Oct 2018 12:00 PM

Photo credit: Flickr | Thomas Bjorkan

Edited with permission by Frontier

When you hear the word leather, you may think of the slaughter of cows and the stigma of buying into it; “It’s okay, it’s only faux,” you might say. Now there’s a solution to that leather longing, and manufacturers have found a way of creating natural leather without killing those cows. Hot trend: fish leather.

Similar to snake skin prints, fish are now a sustainable material in fashion products. You read that right: a sustainable animal skin. Using fish for material is not as bad as it sounds because manufacturers are obtaining their products from waste and upcycling it instead of killing the fish for material. From all the way in Kenya selling fish shoes as low as £12, to expensive European designers using it for eco-friendly fashion; fish leather is sending waves into the fashion industry. 


In the east of Africa, Newton Owino was a fish out of water when he started a fish tanning business running on 12 workers in Kisumu, Kenya. The fish tanning takes place where everything is hand-manufactured as the skins are de-scaled, dried in the sun, soaked and stretched out to be used by leather tailors. 

Filleting industries in Africa produce a mass amount of excess, as much as 150,000 metric tons of waste; 80% of which is fish skin. In the place where grilled Tilapia and Nile perch are a delicacy, the manufacturing of these products offers an alternative destination for the waste that is often sent straight to landfill, allowing Owino to produce low price natural leather. 

Although there are other leather tanneries around the town, none of them offer fish leather. The fish waste is transported and produced by sacks from local fishermen, restaurants and factories brought fresh every day, so the materials created are distinct to the region near Lake Victoria. 

Owina promises that his materials are chemical-free, meaning that the leather created is sustainable through low transport and no hazardous chemicals released into the atmosphere. 

Photo credit: Tony Karumba


In the small town of Reykjavik, an art and design store is infamous for its scaly creations that hang in its windows. Known for its colourful bags and accessories, the shop is ran by a local designer Arndis Johanndottir who came across the method 35 years ago when a local woman came in her store with samples of the fish skin. 

Using only four different types of fish – wolfish, salon, perch and cod – Johanndottir’s bags are innovative due to their dyed skin making them colourful and eccentric. Even better, your these accessories will last a lifetime as the cross fibres of fish skin making a sturdier material than normal cow leather which has fibres in only one direction.  

Although fish leather is a modern storm, using fish skin in Iceland isn’t such a new concept. Icelanders have been known to use tanning since the 12th century; the main method of extracting all matter from the animal skin through a chemical process. According to Sigríður Sigurðardóttir, who is a historian at the Northwestern Skagafjörður Heritage Museum, tanning was significantly major in the culture of Iceland and even predicted how well young girls marriages would go based on the quality of their first pair of leather shoes.

Tanning didn’t last long in the industry, though, being an extensive process which includes breeding animals, hunting, slaughtering and changing them into clothing; it wasn’t an efficient method in a consumerist society.  Now, the process is back with a bite in Iceland. Leader Atlantic Leather (or Sjávarleður) is based in a small town in Northeast Iceland and hooked the industry when it started supplying its goods to many high-end fashion designers in the European industry. 



A post shared by Atlantic Leather (@atlanticleather) on




Being the only company in Europe that supplies fish leather, many fashion leaders are diving deep to get their hands on a deal with Atlantic Leather; from John Galliano to Prada and Christian Dior. If you type fish leather into google, the Icelandic manufacturers are the first click that comes up. 

The industry is swimming towards these alternatives because of the ethical stigma surrounding animal products; at London Fashion Week at the start of September, using fur was banned from the event. As well as this, there has been a major shortage in cow leather which has lead to designers turning their heads to more sustainable products.

Enter: fish leather.  Atlantic Leather’s fish skin doesn’t kill any fish for the product; just like in the Kenyan industry, fish waste is used. The company buys from a processing plant in Iceland that goes one step further and uses geothermal energy, a renewable source creating a recycled product and has sold around 150,000 skins this year. Now that’s a different kettle of fish.  

Although Atlantic Leather has caught the fashion industry for a price, fish leather is commonly sold expensive in nature. Bavarian shoe shop Schuh Koppitz in the capital of Munich only produces 45 pairs of fish leather shoes a year. But the family business isn’t running dry, because a pair of these shoes will cost you a deep €1000 out of pocket. The shoes take from three days to a week, and are all custom-made for those who want the exclusive footwear. 

Photo Credit: Atlantic Leather

So, the schools of fish leather products have been coming out of the shadows of Kenya and Iceland and have put their mark on high-end fashion by using fishy food waste for new products. But, will this trend encourage sustainability, or will the rising demand just force businesses to be more concerned about consumption and exploit ocean farming? 

There is a danger with using marine life for human materialism, where large fishing corporations has created a decline of marine life. Once the non-renewable fish waste for this leather has run out, will we be pointing straight to the ocean to fund the skinning of fish? This new trend is a small fish in a big pond. 

By Caitlin Casey - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservation, community, teaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!