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Would you swap leather for fish skin – and does it smell?

“You could use a piece of cod,” is a phrase you might expect to hear when discussing recipes for dinner. “You could also use perch,” is another. In fact, Heidy Rehman, founder of womenswear brand Rose Willard, is talking about fashion – specifically, the best material for handbags. “Cod is tough, almost patent,” she says. “Salmon is more malleable. It has the texture of suiting fabric and the feel of thin suede.”

Welcome to the world of fish-skin fashion or – as it is described, more palatably, by those who sell it – fish leather. Fish leather looks a lot like snakeskin but, its suppliers claim, is a lot more sustainable than most hides, being a food byproduct.

Lanai fish leather top from Rose Willard, £175. Photograph: Rose Willard

Rose Willard, a recently launched label dedicated to “unwavering ethical practice”, is betting big on the material: 20 items in its collection, and most of those on its website homepage, include panels made from vertebrates that once had gills. As well as sustainability benefits – “my initial concern was that fish leather would put pressure on overfished waters, but [our suppliers reassured me] they were using proper sustainable farms,” – Rehman argues there are practical benefits. Fish, after all, are good with water, so their leather is hand-washable, whereas garments using cow’s hide have to be dry-cleaned.

Although fish leather has been around for decades (the Guardian’s ethical clothing expert Lucy Siegle’s fish leather trainers lasted her an impressive eight years of careful use), it has yet to really take off globally. Big brands have dipped their toes in the water: in 2011, Alexander Wang created high-heeled sandals and trainers with perch. Recently, Nike, Prada and Dior have experimented with the material. But few have shouted from the rooftops about it.

Ouzel fish leather top from Rose Willard, £225. Photograph: Rose Willard

Undeniably, some customers will feel squeamish about the stuff – and might imagine clothes that smell like closing time at the fishmonger’s. “One of questions we always get is: ‘Does it smell?’” Rehman confirms. Yes, there is a scent at first, she says, “if you hold it very close to your face,” but “it doesn’t smell of fish, but it does kind of remind you of the sea. But it’s more gritty, earthy, rustic.”

Size is another limitation. According to Icelandic supplier Atlantic Leather, a salmon skin is typically 60-65cm long, measuring 10-14cm at its widest point and narrowing to 2-3cm. So scaly skin works well for trims and wallets but not for large totes. (The irregularity of each skin means that patching them together would probably just look weird.) Mainly, then, Rose Willard use the material in sweeping lines as a decoration that aims to flatter the female form.

Hannah Marriott wearing the fish skin-trimmed Rodor blazer, on sale for £400 in July. Photograph: Imogen Fox/Guardian

As for the fashion verdict? Not all Rose Willard’s designs had me hooked – those with angular trimmed necklines felt a bit Starship Enterprise for my taste – but some pieces were excellent; the fish-trimmed blazer is a particular catch. It certainly passed the sniff test (if I squished my nose right into it, I would say the smell was a bit like a ball bearing) and the compliment test, too. “That could be from Stella McCartney,” said one very fashion-aware colleague. “You look very svelte,” offered another. If either of them thought I stank while I was wearing it, they were too polite to say so.

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