L.A. designer wants to shake up the leather seat business

Vicki von Holzhausen has been making a name for herself marketing a vegan leather substitute for women’s handbags, shoes and furniture.

Now, she’s taking her material to the auto business.

Late last year, von Holzhausen, the name of her Los Angeles material lab and design house, produced vegan seat covers for a specially created version of the Tesla Model S Plaid on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum.

The designer makes clear — she is not a supplier to Tesla. But the project served as notice to automakers and to Tier 1 interior suppliers that von Holzhausen is in the house.

“There’s definitely a desire from customers for this,” she told Automotive News.

“We’re a material innovation company,” von Holzhausen said, offering her elevator explanation of the business she began to assemble in 2015. “We produce next-generation materials that replace both leather and plastic. We create things out of our materials in order to help people understand how to replace these incumbent materials.”

Why would automakers be interested in replacing these materials?

Von Holzhausen, whose career took her through design roles at Audi, Mercedes-Benz and General Motors, said a shift has begun in global automotive materials. And it just so happens that this shift aligns with her own worldview.

“This has been a lifelong thing for me, because I’ve been a vegetarian since 19, and I’ve been vegan all through the process of starting and building this business,” von Holzhausen said. “I’ve always been very concerned about sustainability and the ethical treatment of animals. So creating new materials that really go beyond that has been a personal journey.”

The growth of vegetarian diets among consumers has fueled the shift, while automakers are issuing new marching orders to their supply chains to embrace parts and materials that are environmentally benign, sustainable and recyclable.

“The industry wants to move away from petroleum plastics,” said von Holzhausen. “You cannot put untreated leather in a car interior. It has no functionality. So you’re really talking about leather layered with petroleum plastics.”

Von Holzhausen’s innovation can be summed up in one word — bamboo, the woody, fast-growing plant strong enough to serve as building material and, in some Asian cities, as multistory scaffolding for work on skyscrapers.

Through the miracles of chemistry and material engineering, the von Holzhausen team converts “banbu,” as they call it, into supple applications that are as soft as lambskin.

Bamboo leather is not 100 percent plant, but more like 83 percent. The key for von Holzhausen is that its banbu is now qualified for automotive applications.

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