“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.