Does Fashion's Future Rest in Miroslava Duma's Hands?
The multihyphenate visionary is ready to bring some much-needed change to a struggling, antiquated industry.
Interview by Valerie Steele
Portrait by Elizaveta Melina
November 28, 2017
They say everything in life is about timing; Miroslava Duma is hoping “they” are right. The 32-year-old Russian entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist has just made a major bet on the future of the fashion industry—a $2.4 trillion business that has historically been about as slow to adjust course as the Titanic. But, as we’ve seen in everything else in our orbit of late, it takes just one innovator and an eager customer base to turn the tide.
The fashion industry has long been called out by shoppers for its outdated, destructive practices—take your pick among issues of sustainability, working conditions, racism, sexism, animal rights, consumerism, and waste that have animated headlines for decades. With her new Fashion Tech Lab initiative, is Duma the disruptor we’ve been waiting for?
Since arriving on the fashion week scene in the early aughts with an impeccable wardrobe—well supported by her delicate frame and charming features—Duma could be easily confused for a well-connected socialite (she’s married to Aleksey Mikheev, who works in Russia’s Ministry of Trade and Industry, and her father, Vasily Duma, was once a senator). But her interest in fashion has always been more than skin-deep. After graduating from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations with a master’s degree in International Business in 2008, she took posts at the local offices of several major magazines—including Harper’s Bazaar, L’Officiel, and Vogue—before launching her own digital media platform in 2011 with fashion and lifestyle magazine Buro 24/7, and The Tot, an e-commerce site selling sustainable, ecofriendly, nontoxic products to mothers and their children, in 2016.
Her most ambitious project just launched earlier this year: an international investment company, venture capital firm, incubator, agency, experimental laboratory, and philanthropic organization she’s rolled up into Fashion Tech Lab. Aimed at moving the fashion industry toward a more socially and environmentally responsible future through the development and implementation of new technologies and sustainably-minded innovations, the project launched in May 2017 with a committed $50 million to invest. Just five months later (and as of the time of reporting), Duma now leads a team of 15, including the recently appointed chief creative curator Delfina Delettrez Fendi, spread across Russia, China, Britain, Italy, France, and the United States, and supported by two boards stacked with the biggest names in tech, fashion, and sustainability—Livia Firth, Diego Della Valle, Diane Von Furstenberg, Ian Rogers, Caroline Rush, Burak Cakmak, and Julie Gilhart among them. FTL’s portfolio has grown to include six companies focused on developing biotech, nanotechnologies, tech textiles, and wearable tech, with plans to take on more in the coming year.
FIT Museum director and Surface contributing editor Valerie Steele caught up with Duma after her company’s official launch at the Google Arts & Culture Lab during Paris Fashion Week. Here, the two discuss the some of Duma’s key investments, her ambitions for FTL, and the future of fashion.
Valerie Steele: How did you get into working on sustainability and technology?
MiroslavaDuma: Around three years ago, I was at a fashion show looking at the faces of people in the front row, whose expressions [projected a look] like they were saving people’s lives. I thought, Wake up, people—we’re only adding to the global problem of pollution and garbage. I was born in Siberia, which is the richest area for oil, gas, and natural resources, and grew up with an idea that there is nothing worse for planet earth than the oil industry. But when I discovered that the beautiful, creative industry of fashion actually comes right after oil and gas [as the second most polluting industry in the world], it was a shock to me. I thought, If I’m to be a tiny part of a giant propaganda machine to sell and buy more luxury goods, then it doesn’t make sense for me anymore. I realized that I was not so proud of myself.
I started to attend summits, and conferences, and forums. I was pulled into this world of biotechnology, material science, sustainability, eco-innovations. That was life changing. But meeting these inspiring scientists all over the world, I realized that they are not at all thinking about fashion and apparel applications for their innovations. I can say that I finally see a purpose in what I am doing professionally.
Steele: The projects you’ve been involved with are really fascinating. Can you tell us about some of the things that are going to be next for FTL?
Duma: FTL has many projects in the works, with education and creating larger global awareness as the underlying goal, but you’ll have to wait and see what is next.
FTL is not a traditional venture capital fund. There are three main pillars. First, we scout for the greatest technologies all over the world in material science, nano-biotechnologies, smart textiles, and wearable tech. The second is as an incubator and agency: If we find amazing technology, but it’s super early-stage, we can help those companies with strategy. We also bring these companies extremely close to that $2.4 trillion fashion industry—to try to form collaborations between these technologies and big brands. The third pillar is the so called “experimental labs.” The brands that we are pitching are not very quick to start using these new materials and technologies. And in our modern world, you are either fast or dead, unfortunately.
H&M Foundation told us that when they started the Global Change Award initiative two years ago, they thought that maybe they would get 100 applications and they could choose five winners. The first year, they received 2,775 applications from 112 countries, and 2,885 entries from 130 countries the next year. There are 196 countries in the world. Can you imagine that? There is a real revolution happening that no one in the fashion industry—a very beautiful, creative, influential, but still very closed, old-fashioned industry—really knows about. We are very much in, as we call it, the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The revolution is coming anyway, with or without us. So we’d rather be in. Our approach is to show that sustainability can be cool and it can be sexy.
For instance, we’ve invested in Vitro Labs, a laboratory in San Francisco that grows leather from stem cells. They can grow cow, ostrich, and crocodile leathers, and eventually fur, without harming animals. Diamond Foundry grows diamonds in a laboratory, also in San Francisco, using carbon heat. They’re lab-grown, man-made diamonds—they’re not synthetic, they’re not fake; they’re technically real. And no one can tell the difference. There’s another company called Mint Material, from Scandinavia. They embed peppermint extract into different fabrics for its antimicrobial, anti-odor properties. You can wear the clothes up to 20 times without having to launder them, and there’s no chemicals, and no need to mine, like with silver and zinc, which have similar properties. In April, we announced a big collaboration between Salvatore Ferragamo and Orange Fiber, another company we invested in that came up with the technology of producing fabric made of recycled orange peels that feels like Hermès-quality silk, to be honest.
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Steele: The fashion industry is facing a lot of difficulties now—with retail, for example. Are you pitching to fashion companies to provide potential solutions to the problems they’re already facing?
Duma: These concerns, are of course, part of the larger ecosystem of sustainability: Many technologies exist that can be a solution to these issues. With retail, there are some amazing possibilities: For example, 3-D printing T-shirts in a store in fifteen minutes, avoiding the carbon footprint of having to transport the clothes by car, by plane, or whatever.
Nowadays, consumers don’t want just another coat, they want it to tell a story. They want it to solve a problem. They want it to give them an experience. We live in the era of social and informational technologies. Where we have the access to any information any second. It’s in our pockets. The two main generations that everybody is chasing are Millennials and Gen Z. They are the ones who demand sustainability. These kids demand, like [French president Emmanuel] Macron said, “Make our planet great again.”
Steele: And yet many studies have shown that although young people claim to have great consciousness about environmental impact, in fact they keep consuming, especially with fast fashion. Ultimately, it seems that price is their main determinant. Is there any way that environmentally sustainable clothes can also be inexpensive?
Duma: Yes, of course. Once enough brands move toward sustainable practices, eventually costs will standardize.We live in the era of consumerism. The more people can buy, the more things are produced, the more there is prosperity. It’s a good sign that people want to consume, but trust me, as soon as there is an offer for cool sustainable products, people will switch to them. Those kids are still consuming because there is not much on the market. When we look at a technology, before we do the technical due diligence and financial due diligence, we ask the question, What problem is it solving?
For instance, we believe that the future of pharmaceuticals is a tailor-made approach to the treatment of every single person. There’s a wearable electronics company that embeds microscopic sensors in socks for people who suffer from diabetes. When insulin levels go up in the blood, veins in the feet are the first to react, so sensors can send an alert to a gadget and the person can understand what’s happening with their body.
There’s another company we invested in called Dropel—it’s a hydrophobic nanotechnology that repels liquids, so nothing stains. You can embed this technology into fabric, but it remains breathable.
Steele: Yes. They’ve been working on that for a while. The previous versions would eventually wash out, so it no longer repelled. But that is a question of refining the technology.
Duma: Exactly. And it’s not just for shirts or dresses: I have a friend who has three boys and she says she changes the carpets every two to three months!
Many groundbreaking discoveries were made twenty, fifty years ago, but were kept for the military, space, or highly competitive athletic industries. The example that I love to give is how, in the sixties, Americans and Russians were sending people to space. Alexei Leonov became the first man in open space when he did a twelve-minute “star walk.” At one point, the genius engineer from earth lost connection with the astronaut for two minutes: anything could have happened. But, thanks to the smart materials and microscopic computers that were embedded in the space suit, the engineer knew the astronaut’s heart was still beating, he knew his blood pressure, the temperature of his body. But also the materials that the space suit was made of—they kept him warm when it was -350 degrees Celsius [-620 degrees Fahrenheit] outside. Imagine! And nowadays, to warm up, we need at least seven layers of clothing—especially when you’re in New York in February. I was born in Siberia, but it’s nothing compared to your cold.
Steele: Yeah! What happened to all of that technology?
Duma: It’s been there, it’s just [that] the world and the industry developed in a completely different way. There was the era of luxury, with Gianfranco Ferré, Versace, Chanel, you name it—then it was mass-market brands like Zara and H&M who disrupted the industry. And that’s where we are now, with all these problems.
Steele: So the next phase is the sustainable and technological? You think there might be more demand from consumers for that kind of technology to be incorporated?
Duma: Absolutely. Because, again, the new generation was born with technology in their DNA. They live and breathe this. I read an article based on a report on the 250 most successful tech companies in the world. They came up with the five reasons they became so successful. The number one most important thing for all 250 companies—with multibillion dollar valuations—was timing: That the technology came at the right time.
Steele: Well, I hope you’re right.How is FTL hoping to lead the charge in getting the fashion industry involved in the next thing?
Duma: We held our launch event in Paris for just this reason: We wanted to show the industry that these technologies are out there and can be the solution to so many of the industry’s problems. The feedback we received from designers and executives was truly amazement.
Steele: You mentioned earlier that, for all of its problems, one of the things you loved about fashion is that it’s a creative field. How do you think these new possibilities contribute to creativity?
Duma: There are around 24,000 students that graduate from schools of design every year, and every one of them is dreaming of becoming a diva and catwalk designer. I think it’s time to understand that it’s all about teamwork nowadays. If you think about the big brands, there’s a huge team working on a collection, but there’s only one person coming out in the end for the last bow, which I think is really not fair. That’s why when Karl Lagerfeld brought out his team at Couture Fashion Week [in July 2016], it was so emotional, so touching, so amazing. People almost cried—and as you know, people in the fashion industry are not the most humble people on the planet.
I believe that for sure, all these mind-blowing technologies will stimulate fashion designers to become even more creative. They open up a whole new world. From lab-grown leathers and furs to water- and odor-resistant fibers, these technologies allow designers to create in a whole new way.