Great challenges call for unprecedented innovation and collaboration, an area the fashion industry has historically found challenging. Chief Innovation Officer of new fashion startup, PANGAIA, Amanda Parkes, explained to me in a conversation last week that traditional material supply to brands and retailers is not set by what the material needs are, but by what textile mills and manufacturers choose to develop—or even more randomly, what has trickled down from the military (or other industrial) material developments.
There are fundamental reasons why fashion companies have not historically owned the manufacturing processes central to their products, and these are rooted in the research and development focus of materials being divorced from the design and aesthetics of fashion in these largely siloed sectors. PANGAIA is a hybrid company, apparently the first of its kind, that will bring together material science through its research and development facility, and demonstrate its textile prowess via its own-brand fashion collections. The collections will be created in partnership with artists and designers whose ethos aligns with PANGAIA’s determination to design and develop lower impact materials and products that are better for people and the planet than the current mass-market alternatives.
That’s not their only raison d’être, though. Parkes shared insights gained from two years of exploration of global materials research that offers opportunities for new applications that will give rise to new sustainable materials—without the need to start from scratch. Here, Parkes leverages her background in technical textiles and materials science and her understanding of the fashion industry, bolstered by one of the founders of PANGAIA, who is a long-term appreciator of fashion’s potential to initiate positive impact both environmentally and socially, Miroslava Duma. Other founders include Jasmine Mullers, whose experience spans Augmented Reality (WIR Global) and luxury retail (Bottega Veneta, Oscar De La Renta), Rachna Bhasin (ex-Magic Leap) and Nathalie Longuet, who has 25 years of experience in Investment Banking and Asset Management at Lombard Odier, Société Générale advising luxury brands and institutional investors.
“Moving into fashion, what surprised me most was the fact that fashion companies don’t own the means of their own production.”
In PANGAIA’s business model, revenue streams will come in the short term through product sales (via their DTC e-commerce store) and in the longer term, from B2B textile sales, materials licensing and brand partnerships for materials R&D. This shift in business model reflects a more widespread shift in the technology sector, says Parkes, who cites the breaking down of Silicon Valley investment and innovation models following the crashes of some big, high-profile startups. “Investment structure is opening up—there are different value systems [beyond simply ROI] including impact, philanthropy and recognizing where resources need to go.” She went on to say “High cap ex investment is not usually attractive, but this is opening up.”
PANGAIA is part match-maker for existing technologies, material solutions, and processes and part primary research lab, giving it the ability to improve material and product performance on an ongoing basis, explained Parkes. Pointing to their MVP (a seaweed and cotton t-shirt treated with an antibacterial peppermint finish to reduce the need for frequent washing), Parkes described their newly established lab in Florence staffed by a team of scientists and engineers who will tweak the textile compositions and test botanical dye uptake. In doing this they will develop new versions of their products iteratively, in the same way that technology companies upgrade and release new versions of their software, for example. She states in no uncertain terms that getting materials into the mass-market that have superior performance and sustainability credentials is the way to drive the commercial success of this company. They won’t be relying on patents and IP ownership, but seeking to achieve broad and deep market penetration with their sustainable textiles solutions, she said.
On the materials-science side, Enrico Cozzoni, Head of the PANGAIA Lab in Florence, Italy, told me why it makes sense for a team of scientists to join a fashion company. With a background in Aerospace Engineering and a Ph.D. in Industrial Manufacturing, he explained that his research interests have always been linked to innovative materials. During the development process of what was to become FLWRDWN (the new animal and synthetic down alternative that PANGAIA launched the latest iteration of this week) Cozzoni said “We have found [ourselves] to be completely aligned with the value system of PANGAIA as a company, and with the vision to be [high] performing, but also ecologically respectful of the ecosystem around us, so we have joined forces.”
Being in the PANGAIA collective allows us to get FLWRDWN into the market as a fully ecological, high-quality ready to wear product, in a quick, thoughtful and credible way.
Their newly launched puffer jacket range utilizing FLWRDWN, which has been patented by PANGAIA, is their calling card to fashion brands wanting to work with a materials science team who can speak the languages of both science and fashion—fluently. Parkes echoed this, explaining that core to this company is the relationships they have cultivated over the past two years at Future Tech Lab (a separate company investing in startups in material science and other fashion technologies) and the credibility of the PANGAIA collective, who run the company across in the US and European hubs.
PANGAIA is bringing materials science direct to [the] consumer—the future textiles/smart materials of the world now not only live in laboratories, but can reach the consumer with a click, and solve major environmental problems at the same time.
A point we addressed in some detail that remains a barrier to sustainable material development and adoption is the complexity of defining ‘sustainable’ and proving the environmental superiority of one material (and subsequent product) versus another. Parkes is transparent in her admission that the Life Cycle Assessment of any given material is only one part of the story. Alongside this is the location of garment manufacturing, the origin of all other material components, packaging and so on. Any one of these additional factors can outweigh any carbon and chemical savings achieved within the material itself. So where does FLWRDWN sit in relation to the comparative animal-origin down and synthetic blends on the market?
Cozzoni explained that “fill power, hand feel, thermal insulation, flammability and allergen tests conducted to date have shown either comparable or better performance results when compared to medium to high-quality down feather.” He stated that the results indicate FLWRDWN has superior performance to synthetic downs, and performs as well, or better, than down feather. In addition, “all three elements within its composition are biodegradable” he said. On the subject of the total impact of the PANGAIA puffer jackets, Parkes explained that full Life Cycle Assessment of the final product has not yet been done—partly because the material and manufacturing systems have not been fully defined and finalized yet, given that the product launched only recently.
The hybrid business model that PANGAIA is operating under has attracted investment from fashion stalwart Carmen Busquets, who was a co-founder and investor in Net-A-Porter. Also investing is Jaden Smith, the millennial superstar who has launched his own sustainably packaged water product and invested in the likes of Impossible Foods. Perhaps a less obvious investor is Shiv Khemka, Vice Chairman of the SUN Group, who said PANGAIA is “mission-driven, rooted in environmental sustainability, and with a tremendous potential to scale as socially conscious customers everywhere begin to demand high quality and design that is environmentally responsible at its core.”
Most importantly, Pangaia has an entrepreneurial team with tremendous experience and great partners that will together drive growth and build fundamental brand value.
Khemka’s comments appear to confirm what Parkes explained as a shift in investor sentiment away from financial reward alone, to encompass broader ecological, ethical and social factors. If this is the new blueprint for startup fashion brands there is much cause for sustainability optimism. As mentioned, enormous challenges such as the climate crisis require unprecedented innovation and collaboration to devise and deliver solutions. PANGAIA looks set to be the first fashion company truly tackling this challenge, from the bottom up.