Smart fibres revamp fashion use, sustainability


Cutting-edge technologies could transform fashion businesses into multi-disciplinary enterprises involved in much more than conventional apparel, stated Future Tech Lab chief innovation officer Amanda Parkes at this year’s Innovation and Technology Symposium, part of the Fashion Summit (Hong Kong) 2018.

“Fashion and technology have been like water and oil for a very long time. Our job is to blend them together,” she explained at the event held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

The blending of the “water and oil” might mean a fashion studio could even brew textiles, or that a fashion house could harness some of the fundamental natural properties of spider silk or perhaps orange peel, for use in garments.

Future Tech Lab is a venture capital firm founded last year and is itself described as a hybrid enterprise, funding and developing advanced fibres and textiles to make fashion a more environmentally sustainable business.

It is backing 12 tech start-ups involved respectively in biotechnology, smart fibres and wearable electronics. A new start-up is being added to the roster this autumn.

“The future of fashion technology is in the fibre itself,” said Dr Parkes, a scientist as well as financier, in comments to Innovation Hong Kong on the sidelines of the Fashion Summit (HK) 2018.

“We are striving to make high-fashion garments involving new technologies and new materials.”


Million-dollar spider web


Among its start-up portfolio is a San Francisco-based biotech firm that creates a synthetic version of spider silk.

“Biotech is a sustainable way forward. It has so much variability, so many ways to have things be cost-effective.”

It is no longer a secret that the glamorous global fashion industry – worth US$2.5 trillion annually according to United Nations Economic Commission for Europe data cited this year – has been a burden to the environment. Cheap-in-money-terms synthetic fibres such as nylon are expensive environmentally. Nylon takes three times as much energy to produce as does cotton, according to some industry estimates. Much raw cotton is grown with the aid of insecticides and synthetic fertilisers, some of which may be harmful not only to the environment but also to the human body.

Synthesised spider silk, on the other hand, is a sustainable biomaterial with outstanding properties including high durability, elasticity and softness.

Dr Parkes explained the start-up involved in this business makes liquid protein silk identical to natural spider protein silk via a fermentation process using yeast, sugar and water. The liquid protein silk is then spun into fibre strands.

“It’s a similar process to brewing beer,” she wryly observed.

The end product is plain raw synthetic silk, which can be dyed or mixed with other fibres and textiles.

“It is a very versatile material. You can basically do everything on it to make it visually appealing,” Dr Parkes said, referring to printing, dyeing or addition of beads.

Making laboratory creations that are commercially viable often takes a long time and a great deal of money. The microfibre cost US$100 million to develop, and some eight years to turn into marketable products for the Stella McCartney couture label.

“Typical investment models in the Valley around start-ups are looking at a return within three years. In the fashion business, it takes around seven to eight years,” Dr Parkes noted, referring to Silicon Valley in northern California.

“It takes a lot to get to a manufacturing scale because we are talking about inventing a whole new process that involves a lot of development, equipment and things that cost money,” she added.


Biodegradable garment


Something also making its way into luxury brands is a textile made from citrus fruit waste. Future Tech Lab is backing a bioengineering technology turning citrus cellulose into textile. The textile has been developed into a Salvatore Ferragamo “capsule” collection last year. A capsule collection refers to a few essential items of clothing that don’t generally go out of fashion.

The citrus cellulose idea, according to Dr Parkes, is tied to the Italian citrus juice industry, which reportedly creates 700,000 tons of by-products in Italy every year.

“They have all this waste that they were paying to dispose of, so we use them as a resource. It is kind of a soft fabric you can print on, and can be decomposed in landfills,” at the end of its useful life, said Dr Parkes, adding the textile manufacturing method could be applied to waste from a number of citrus fruits.

As more consumers become aware of the environmental impact of the apparel industry, a growing number of fashion brands are buying into the sustainability movement, with the likes of Stella McCartney, Adidas, Toms and Pauline van Dongen at the forefront.

Adidas’ UltraBoost footwear collection – made from plastic waste harvested from the world’s oceans – sold a million units last year. Nonetheless, the scale of most eco-friendly clothing product lines remains modest, which is “the biggest issue” in pushing fashion technology forward, noted Dr Parkes.

This is due not only to the likely hefty price tag in terms of development, but also because there can on occasions be risk to a brand’s reputation from involvement in such products.

“It’s not like if you have a sustainability claim [for a product], then people would pay more and buy more,” Dr Parkes explained. “It’s not a giant determining factor right now.”

Regarding brand image risk, she stated: “That’s something that the brands need to decide for themselves for their own identities. For some companies, sustainability may not be the identity of the product they want to sell. Sometimes brands might adopt sustainable practices without telling people. I don’t think it’s really been figured out.”


Smart clothing


Another form of sustainable product Future Tech Lab is looking to fund is wearable technology, such as textiles with integrated, miniaturised solar panels.

The start-up developing such solar panel beads to be integrated into textiles is working with Dutch designer Pauline van Dongen to create a prototype dress. The idea is that it will be able to convert enough solar energy to make the garment capable also of charging a smartphone. It is at an early stage of development.

“With wearable tech, we are where the Internet was in 1995,” said Dr Parkes.

“It’s because we’ve just started to collect so much data, for example tracking somebody’s heart rate or blood pressure 24 hours a day. We haven’t even begun to understand what that means for the long term,” in terms of textiles technology, she explained.

“Change is happening, but there’s still much work to be done. We are by no means in the perfect state,” she said. “We are in the process of trying to get there. There’s no one single trajectory. It has to be given time to evolve.”