Miroslava Duma, a 32-year-old Russian entrepreneur with a low, earnest voice and an even lower elevation (she just pips 5ft in her Nikes), is describing some of the technological innovations that she says will bring about the “fourth industrial revolution”. New fabrics made from orange peel, including a silk of “Hermès quality” fabricated from the waste pulps of the world’s biggest juice manufacturers; lab-mined diamonds, grown under carbon heat to be technically identical to the real thing but which can grow up to “16 carats in two weeks”. Then there’s the fabric made with milk protein, “which feels like the best cashmere, is 100 per cent breathable, and keeps moisturising your body while you’re wearing it”.
The idea of such technologies combining to produce some of the world’s most intelligent and luxurious materials may sound like some far distant utopia. In fact, many of them are already here. Last month, the Italian luxury house Salvatore Ferragamo launched a capsule range of pretty print scarves and dresses made in collaboration with Orange Fiber (the peel-recycling company), using a silk-mix manufactured in large part from the recycled fruit. The lab-mined Diamond Foundry has raised $100m in investment, and piqued the interest of environmental celebrity crusader Leonardo DiCaprio and a sparkle of fine jewellery houses.
Both companies fall within the portfolio of Duma’s latest enterprise, Fashion Tech Lab (FTL Ventures). A private company working with 1,000 technologies to transform the industry’s attitudes towards manufacturing, it has already secured $50m in investment and an advisory board including designer Diane von Furstenberg, luxury tycoon Diego Della Valle, and publishing scion Austin Hearst. Duma, who is both founder and chief executive, describes it as “a hybrid between venture capital funds and groundbreaking discovery”.
Wearable technology is nothing new. We are now familiar with the idea of sportswear embedded with the microchips that read our heart rates, or biometric shoes that tell us to stop watching television. But the trouble with wearable tech is that it is too often unwearably ugly. Even the Apple Watch, with its peerless design pedigree, failed to really launch among the fashion cognoscenti who, while increasingly irrelevant, still have some sway over a luxury item’s success. With FTL Ventures, launched this week at the Financial Times’ Business of Luxury Summit in Lisbon, Duma hopes to bridge the gap between the tech innovators who have the means, and the brand creatives who have the design nous, to create really desirable new products.
FTL’s purpose has “three pillars”, she says. The first is as an investment arm, where it sources engineers and scientists working in bio-, nano- and smart technology and helps them raise funds. The second is as an agency “hooking up these technologies and bringing them extremely close to the $2.4 trillion industry of fashion”, in which Duma is immersed. And the third is creative. FTL is developing its own products and collaborating with other brands in an “experimental laboratory” that is being steered by fashion technologist and wearable tech designer Amanda Parkes. Duma plans to unveil a first showing of “beautifully minimalistic and modern designs” later this autumn. Perhaps the most extraordinary feature of this global sci-fi fashion forum, however, is the figure of Duma herself. Until last year, “Mira” was best known as a chic fashion plate, a favourite of street-style photographers and the founder of Buro247.com, a luxury fashion and lifestyle website. As an industry figurehead, she has come to be regarded as a powerful force of persuasive charm, businesslike intensity and ruthless efficiency: I once took a meeting with her in New York that lasted only the distance it took to travel two blocks in the back of her chauffeur-driven car.
But her new guise as a tech revolutionary has still come as a surprise to many in the fashion world, and been a fascinating metamorphosis. Now, her 1.6m Instagram followers are as likely to see her hanging out at the Tesla headquarters, or watching real fur being cultivated via stem-cell technology in a laboratory in Asia, as they are to see her marching between the fashion shows. Her wardrobe has seen a similar transformation: today, she wears her Balenciaga suits with a Google T-shirt, sneakers and an Ivy League hoodie.
For Duma, who is six months pregnant with her third child, and in the middle of an itinerary that has seen her travel to Lisbon, Stockholm, London and Silicon Valley in just a few days, the interest in sustainable industry is far from recent. “I was born in Siberia,” she explains over tea at the Connaught Hotel in London. “It’s not just the coldest area of Russia, but also the wealthiest area for oil, gas and natural resources. I grew up with the idea that there was nothing worse for planet earth than the oil industry.”
It was a chastening to discover, then, that the fashion world in which she found herself working had almost as gruesome a footprint. According to a 2016 report by Greenpeace International, the global fashion industry produces more than 80bn pieces of clothing each year. Three of every four garments end up in landfill - only a quarter of clothes are recycled. And that’s before you consider the 60bn sq metres of waste fabric that gets left on the cutting room floor. Or the 7,000 litres of water it requires to produce the average pair of jeans, of which there are 2bn pairs made each year. Or the tons of chemicals used to dye them.
“The discovery that the fashion and apparel industry - one I felt so blessed to be in because it was such a beautiful, creative and positive industry in terms of aesthetics and the pleasures it gave - was the second-largest polluter after the oil industry, was really a shock,” Duma explains. “I remember it was one of the shows, maybe two years ago. I’d just had my second daughter and I was looking at another collection, and looking at the people there whose facial expressions suggest they think they are saving people’s lives. And I thought, ‘What am I doing here? Am I really creating anything that can help anyone?’ It just didn’t really make sense for me any more. I thought, at the end of the day, I’d rather stay at home with my kids and learn Chinese. I wasn’t doing anything great with my life.”
Duma’s disillusionment with the fashion world was soon supplanted by her new love of tech. And she fell hard. Her introduction to its notoriously closed society happened through old-fashioned networking. Armed with a sense of purpose that seems uniquely Russian in its determination, she decided to put her contacts book to good use. “I was already very much into that world through a lot of my really great friends [like Rachna Bhasin, chief business officer at Magic Leap and Ian Rogers, formerly of Apple and now chief digital officer at LVMH],” she explains. “And they took me to all these different laboratories where they were really creating things that can help environments, planets, people. I had this chance to get in and to meet these scientists and although I thought I would be speaking an entirely different language I realised it was the same.”
Her mission has now become clear. She wants to bring the worlds of luxury and technology together. But how far do they want to be entwined? Very much, she insists. Consumer priorities are changing and the industry needs to prepare. “Kids are not ready to spend money on luxury,” she says. “They would rather go to a restaurant and spend really good money on really good food. It’s an experiential thing. But that’s what I’m talking about with this clothing: it’s about storytelling, it’s an emotional thing. When you wear a T-shirt made of recycled orange peel, you know the story behind it.”
Her intention, of course, is to bring yet more product to the market - and very expensive product at that (the prices will reach into the thousands), but she shrugs off the cost. “There will be things that will be super-expensive,” she says, “but if you think a designer hoodie sells for 800 bucks, and it is basically made from the same fabrics as the hoodie I’m wearing currently, which is worth 20 bucks and does nothing, it makes sense.” The new product will stand out, she argues, because it is innovative, because it is beautiful, and because it will provide a solution. “It has to be innovative. And it can’t be gimmicky. It’s not about a backpack that has an embedded light in, which looks fun but is unexciting. It has to solve the problems of customers and be technologically advanced.”
Like what? “Like a T-shirt embedded with a silver yarn that has such strong antimicrobial properties you can wear them up to 20 times,” she says, “And it will have zero bad smell. Which is great for students who don’t like to launder, and even greater for the environment.” Or, she adds, another company which is developing a similarly antimicrobial fabric infused with peppermint oil, because it’s even more sustainable than silver. “What we’re talking about is wearable tech: algorithms and microscopics embedded in fibres and fabrics that can solve a lot of the problems the iPhone does. In the future you will wear the technology, and it will do the same things for you.”
The market is there for the taking. A World Economic Forum report published in 2015 claimed that 10 per cent of the world’s population will be wearing clothes connected to the internet by 2022. “Imagine?,” says Duma. “Ten per cent of 7.5bn people.”
Even so, convincing a business still captivated by the narrative of the artisan and traditional craftsman-based manufacture isn’t easy. The luxury goods market is built on the pursuit of the unique: can it be persuaded that a lab-mined diamond is as good as the real thing? And will sustainable, wearable tech ever be sexy?
“It can, it is, and it will become even more so,” says Duma, who targeted luxury not only because it was where her contacts are, but also because she believes that with its support and investment the high street will follow. “There are always going to be people who are for progress and evolution and people who are against it because they are part of that old world,” says Duma. She seizes on the cautionary tale of Kodak. At its late 20th century peak the company was said to have produced up to 90 per cent of the world’s photo paper but it went bankrupt “when the business model disappeared . . . because everyone made pictures on their iPhones”.
If brands want to survive the coming revolution, she says, they need to start adapting. “The world does not need as many brands and designers. And I feel sorry because there are such incredibly talented people around, but every year around 24,000 students graduate in design, and every single one of them wants to become a catwalk-designer-slash-diva. And it doesn’t really work like that any more.”
She launches into a story about Google, where an in-house start-up called Niantic focused on how location services could work in gaming, and eventually spawned the phenomenon that was Pokémon Go. “They were able to scan the planet with Google Earth, but the only thing they could not do was get inside people’s houses, And then the kids playing Pokémon Go just let them in and they could map everything in the house.”
Duma’s point, it turns out, is that if brands don’t invest in tech, they will lose out on the data that will ultimately become their greatest asset. The luxury market, as with all markets, stands to gain as much from the information it gathers as its clients will gain from its “problem-solving” products. In this new world order, where everyone can be a content provider, he who has the biggest database is king, especially when that king is swathed in cashmere-soft milk protein materials. “In the tech world if you are working on data-mining, the evaluation of your company is multiplied by 100.” The fashion world still lags behind.
Wearable tech won’t just be sexy, says Duma, it will bring the power back to the brand. “It’s win, win win,” she grins.
This article was originally published by the Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.