Mixing the digital, physical and biological worlds, Duma's new venture aims to make us all better people
Fashionista Miroslava Duma talks fashion and technology
“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, actually do,” Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said.
It is easy to get caught up in the glitz of fashion. But beneath all the gloss and the glamour, there is a darker side. Fashion, for all its pussy-bow necklines and seasonal must-haves, is now the second largest polluter on the planet, beaten only by the oil and gas industry. While it may feel like a stretch to picture a handbag as being nearly as destructive as an oil spill, unfortunately, the facts speak for themselves. Globally, our desire to always wear nice clothes and carry new bags is wreaking havoc on the environment.
An estimated 65 billion animals are killed every year for food, the leather from which is used for bags, shoes and coats. The waste from abattoirs creates lakes of blood that leech into groundwater, while the demand for fur coats and handbag pompoms leads to the annual slaughter of a reported one billion rabbits. Dyeing cotton uses chemicals such as alkylphenols, which are harmful to aquatic life, while phthalates, used to soften plastics, PVC and artificial leathers, are classed as “toxic to reproduction” in Europe. Azo dyes, the most commonly used dye compound, break down into aromatic amines, which are linked to cancer and banned in the EU. Sports clothing that has been treated to reduce body odour, often owes its magical properties to organotin compounds, including tributyltin, which can cause respiratory disorders.
Our jewellery, sparkly as it may be, is not exempt. Gemstones and precious metals have long been used to fund conflicts (hence the moniker “blood diamonds”), while largely unregulated mining has destroyed vast swathes of top soil, polluted rivers and laid bare great tracks of once-fertile land. Working in all-too-often appalling conditions, miners themselves have little or no legal protection, and there are documented cases of forced child labour in many mining communities.
Nonetheless, while most of us seek absolution with a “what can I do” shrug of the shoulders, there are some brave individuals and entities tackling the problem head-on. One such organisation is Future Tech Lab. Founded early last year (as Fashion Tech Lab – it changed its name to better reflect what it is trying to achieve), it describes itself as “a disruptive movement of innovators bridging together fashion and science to create a sustainable future”.
It was founded by Miroslava Duma, a well-known fashion journalist and speaker who grew disillusioned by her role in the industry. “My 4-year-old son asked me: ‘Mummy, what do you do?’” Duma told me when we met in Dubai a couple of months ago. “I tried to explain that I work with all these great brands, and I help them sell more stuff. But then I thought, there has to be something else. Later, I was sitting in one of the fashion shows, looking at another set of clothing and thought: ‘This is my contribution to the world?’ I felt quite ashamed.
“I was looking at the faces of people sitting front row, and they were acting as if they were saving lives. And I thought: ‘Wake up, people. We aren’t saving anything; we are only adding to garbage and pollution.’”
Duma’s answer is FTL, a think tank, investment company and incubator. Unfortunately, soon after we met, Duma become embroiled in a scandal that threatens to derail all of FTL’s good work. Recently, footage has surfaced of her airing homophobic and anti-transgender views and, although she has since apologised profusely and the footage is undoubtedly several years old, the uproar has seen her publicly denounced.
But if FTL’s positive efforts are cancelled out as a result of the scandal, no one benefits. Aside from FTL, Duma also founded Peace Planet, to supply aid to children, and is on the panel of the Stanford Philanthropy Innovation Summit. She is an investor in the green fashion label Reformation, and supports the Naked Heart Foundation. While her now disavowed views clearly belong to some bygone, bigoted era, Duma’s capacity for thinking big is clearly ahead of the curve.
Names such as Austin and Gabriela Hearst; Livia Firth, founder of the Green Carpet Challenge; Diego Della Valle, chief executive of Tod’s; designer Diane von Furstenberg; philanthropist and model Natalia Vodianova; and Ian Rogers of LVMH have all lent their support to FTL, acting as advisers or mentors.
Small companies such as Modern Meadow and VitroLabs are both backed by FTL, and are pioneering the growing of artificial leather in a laboratory setting. They can now, between them, replicate ostrich, cow and crocodile leathers, if only on a small scale. Born of lateral thinking, VitroLabs was founded by a scientist and surgeon working with burn victims. Creating artificial human skin for grafts in Petri dishes, the pair realised that the same technology could be applied to leather as a whole. With sufficient funding, there is no reason not to believe that one day, they will be able to mass-produce leather for fashion and meat for eating, without having to kill a single animal.
Another company under the FTL umbrella is Worn Again. A British company that has already partnered with H&M and Kering, Worn Again has solved the issue of how to separate mixed fibres in recycled clothing. While pure cotton garments are easy to recycle, an estimated 65 million tonnes of clothing (approximately 200 billion items), made from a cotton/polyester mix, are produced every year. About 80 billion of these are purchased, with the rest disappearing into landfill, where it will take close to 200 years for them to break down.
As a solution, Worn Again can now separate polyester fibres from cotton, allowing the polyester yarn to be returned to the manufacturer. Imagine a Nike T-shirt comprising 80 per cent polyester and 20 per cent cotton. Now imagine technology that separates the polyester and returns it to Nike, which can produce the same style of T-shirt over and over again, reducing the waste. With much talk about the need for the world to move to a circular economy – a business model that trades resources again and again, instead of using them once and discarding them – Worn Again is a huge step forward.
In the jewellery arena, FTL and actor Leonardo DiCaprio are both backing Diamond Foundry, a company creating jewellery-grade diamonds in a laboratory. While so-called lab-grown diamonds were invented in the 1960s, only recently has interest developed for their use in jewellery, as mined diamonds are becoming harder to find.
EnviGreen is another company on FTL’s radar, and it creates bags from plants that are 100 per cent biodegradable, dissolve in water and can even be consumed without ill-effect. Offering a solution to the millions of plastic bags that currently blight every vista, the same materials could potentially be used to make single-use hotel bedding, which is dissolved when no longer needed. It could do away with the mountains of laundry created by hotels and even hospitals, on a daily basis.
“The two main generations that everyone is talking about now are millennials and Gen Z. Millennials alone exercise US$2.5trillion (Dh9.1trillion) per year in spending power, and are the biggest living generation in the United States right now. For millennials, if you are not socially visible, environmentally conscious, or responsible, you are not a modern brand,” Duma says.
One high-end success story comes from the Italian luxury brand Salvatore Ferragamo. In April, it collaborated with FTL-backed Orange Fibre, which invented a luxury fabric made from waste from the citrus industry. Ferragamo launched a capsule collection made from the material, bringing cutting-edge technology to its highly discerning clientele.
At the company’s launch event in Paris (which coincided with Fashion Week in September), the upper echelons of the fashion industry converged – from José Neves, founder of Farfetch.com, to Demna Gvasalia, the designer behind Vetements and Balenciaga, to Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino, Maria Grazia Chiuri of Dior and, in what might have been his final public appearance, the reclusive Azzedine Alaïa. Showing that the ideas behind FTL were too important to overlook, the rival houses of the Pinault and Arnault families, as well as Chanel and Hermès, all stood in the same room, at the same time.
“The luxury industry is pushed and driven mainly by beautiful design that creates emotions, and makes us spend more money,” says Duma. “At the same time, if you look at the tech world, it is amazing technology, but the design is ugly. The people in the fashion industry see the world through a prism of beauty and design, which is why, as yet, they haven’t connected with tech people. This is what FTL is trying to do: to translate technology into fashion language.
“We live in an era where the biggest taxi provider in the world, Uber, owns no vehicles. Where the biggest accommodation provider, Airbnb, owns no real estate. Where you can download and listen to billions of songs online, where you can have access to countless books online. The forces of revolution are the fusion of the digital, physical and biological worlds.”
Duma may have voiced some extremely upsetting views, but she also has some that could transform the world. There is no denying that Duma’s present eloquence is in sharp contrast to her past crudeness. And while her historical mistakes will never be defended here, this author, for one, believes that the work being done is too important to be allowed to be tainted. FTL must be allowed to continue, even if it transpires that Duma’s involvement with it cannot.