Inside Kering’s Hotbed for Materials Innovation: A Journey Larger Than Life

·5 min read

MILAN — What’s the supply chain process that brought to life Gucci’s Off the Grid collection crafted from sustainable materials including Econyl? And how did Brioni transition its carryover selvedge denim collection to sustainable cotton?

A visit to Kering’s Materials Innovation Lab, or MIL, provides most of the answers.

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Housed inside the luxury powerhouse’s Milan headquarters since 2019 but established six years prior, the unit is part of an ecosystem known as the Kering Sustainable Department, serving as its operational arm, and ensuring the group’s material innovation is embedded and reflected in the supply chain.

Other units forming the ecosystem include SIL, or Sustainable Innovation Lab, based in Switzerland and devoted to responsible practices in the jewelry sector, and Prato, Italy-based TIL, or Test and Innovation Lab, responsible for backing innovation with a scientific approach and evidence.

Acting as a bridge, Kering’s MIL maintains ongoing dialogues with the group’s brands, stakeholders, the Sustainable Department and, particularly, suppliers.

“Collaborating with suppliers is pivotal because they are the ones bearing the investments needed for the industrial implementation of innovation in the supply chain,” Christian Tubito, director of MIL, told WWD during a visit to the lab.

Rather than spurring pre-industrial, experimental research and development, the MIL targets its activities on textiles that are already available on the market, including trims, fabrics, yarns, non-woven materials and paddings, as well as alternatives to leather. It also has a say on soft accessories and visual merchandising when textiles are employed.

“At the beginning of our journey, the offering of sustainable materials was scarce, so we looked particularly outward,” to find new solutions or trigger suppliers to embrace them, Tubito said.

The material Library sits at the heart of the MIL, a highly curated, digital and physical compendium of cutting-edge sustainable options on the market. It features around 4,000 materials from 500 suppliers and includes yarns such as recycled polyester lurex; precious fabrics such as cashmere developed as part of Kering’s South Gobi Cashmere Project, and padding including one made of silk leftovers treated according to GOTS-approved coloring and discoloration processes.

Inside Kering’s Materials Innovation Lab. - Credit: Pietro D'Aprano/Courtesy of Kering
Inside Kering’s Materials Innovation Lab. - Credit: Pietro D'Aprano/Courtesy of Kering

Pietro D'Aprano/Courtesy of Kering

If the above may look like standard eco-friendly options the industry at large has already heard of, there’s more avant-garde solutions the MIL monitors, organizes pilots on and archives.

They include, among others, certified plant-based indigo dyes, currently part of a Kering pilot, by Stony Creek Colors; bio-based and biodegradable glitters, which the MIL is testing for the production of Lurex threads by Bio Glitz; a cashmere-like fiber created via fermentation and extrusion processes using microbes and sugar developed by Spiber; the latest spray dyeing technique, which reduces water consumption by Imogo; Itochu’s chem-based recycled polyester; a circular material made from fruit waste and algae through advanced material engineering by Peelsphere, a winner of the sophomore edition of the Kering Generation Award in 2021, and Colorfix’s microorganisms-based dyeing and fixating processes, whose application to cotton fabrics by Kering’s vendor Albini Group is currently undergoing industrial-scale testing.

Gucci’s use of the trademarked Econyl for its sustainable Off the Grid collection originated from an MIL-mediated collaboration with an Italian supplier in employing the regenerated nylon — developed by Aquafil and made from nylon offcuts and pre- and post-consumer waste (like abandoned fishing nets and carpets) — for high fashion.

Tubito underscored that materials innovation is built around six areas of intervention, including circularity and recycling; dyeing and printing; finishing and coating (Kering has been PFC-free since 2021); manufacturing and processing; material and substance, and overarching solutions including traceability.

The supply chain and manufacturing cycle of denim-intended cotton provides a good example of sustainable supply chain management, one of MIL’s three areas of interest, which also include sustainable raw materials management and reusable innovations.

As per Kering’s eco-minded ambitions, cotton comes from regenerative agriculture farms, as part of tie-ups with, among other entities, Materra and Organic Cotton Accelerator.

Materra is a planet-centric start-up technology company working toward climate-resilient cotton agriculture and employing greenhouse-backed hydroponics farming in India that ensures an 80 percent to 90 percent reduction in water consumption, and allows fourfold harvests throughout the year compared to regular farming. OCA is a multistakeholder nongovernmental organization advancing farmer prosperity while aiming to create a transparent, resilient and responsible organic cotton supply chain to jumpstart regenerative agriculture, also in India.

Fabric samples stocked at Kering’s Materials Innovation Lab’s textile library. - Credit: Courtesy of Kering
Fabric samples stocked at Kering’s Materials Innovation Lab’s textile library. - Credit: Courtesy of Kering

Courtesy of Kering

“Our goal is to bring our support wherever there is space for improvement,” Tubito explained. He also added that the MIL is committed to providing solutions to reduce cotton use, acknowledging its exploitation of resources, especially water.

“Recycled cotton is still little spread except in denim and packaging, because it still lacks the expected quality, but we have several really promising ongoing projects on that,” he said indicating cotton and linen blends as good solutions.

However, employing eco-minded raw materials is not enough, Tubito observed. It has to start with design.

Kering teamed up with its vendor Candiani, a denim specialist known for cutting-edge green technologies, to jumpstart a pilot on eco-design. The MIL’s director said the assessment showed a 50 percent reduction of chemicals and 80 percent reduction of water consumption compared with sustainable denim not designed according to eco principles.

“This exemplifies the bivalency of the MIL, which simultaneously works internally in tandem with brands, but also looks outward staying engaged with suppliers, as one of our goals is to channel their efforts and build trust with them,” Tubito said.

At the same time, the MIL usually “anticipates brands’ requests,” in Tubito’s words, as was the case with a bio-based coated GRS polyester for one of the group’s Italy-based brands.

This is pivotal, the executive said, as the greatest burden in the sustainable transition is often the time it takes.

Fabric samples stocked at Kering’s Materials Innovation Lab’s textile library. - Credit: Courtesy of Kering
Fabric samples stocked at Kering’s Materials Innovation Lab’s textile library. - Credit: Courtesy of Kering

Courtesy of Kering

“The real issue we face when tackling sustainable manufacturing is lead time and availability of sustainable raw materials, in the transition from a creativity-driven to merchandise-driven process,” he said. “We’re on a journey toward the compliance of lead times by supporting our suppliers.”

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