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Education and Innovation

Eco-friendly doesn’t necessarily mean organic. New technological innovations now offer us creative alternatives that are not only ethically sound but also more exciting, than ever. Here, Burak Cakmak – the Gucci Group’s Director of Corporate Social Responsibility – describes how the luxury sector has a vested interest in the environment and the possibilities afforded to us by science. The customer is, after all, always right.

Today, the luxury industry is under increasing pressure to evolve in order to adapt to the new concerns of our times. Traditionally, the ways in which luxury items have been produced – using natural, high quality and often locally sourced materials that are then transformed by the precise craftsmanship of skilled artisans – have had a relatively low impact on the environment in comparison to the mass market. As high fashion expands into new territories, the importance of using innovation to create new and dynamic ways of consuming is becoming clearer for an industry that is bigger than ever before.

A result of the economic downturn has been a marked change in consumer habits and non-essential items have been hit hardest. As much as we may hate to admit it, luxury isn’t a necessity for most. In order to compensate, the industry has to offer deeper value to satisfy the demands of would- be customers who increasingly expect their luxury purchases to be manufactured in an environmentally responsible manner.

Fashion designers can play a big role in influencing the way their creations affect the environment. The future of design has to move beyond the traditional characteristics of luxury – beauty, desire and exclusivity. Luxury, in essence, has to respect a wider sphere of impact that includes the environment and the people involved through the journey of its creation. Advances in cutting-edge design, science and material research and development are all key to generating new methods and processes to assist in defining the future of craft and manufacturing. Only this kind of innovation can help ensure that the luxury industry takes into account ecological concerns and climate change.

When the prized vision of designers is combined with the technological advances of expert researchers and scientists, the potential outcome offers a new definition of beauty that can delight and be appreciated by all. Sustainability isn’t necessarily achieved by using only organic or natural fibres. Even today, cutting edge technology provides innovative options to foster creativity beyond its previous limits. A first step that has been taken by many environmentally aware fashion designers is to use recycled textiles. A good example is Yves Saint Laurent’s New Vintage collection, designed by Stefano Pilati.

But in terms of technological advancements, we have recently seen the new Sergio Rossi “Eco Pump” stiletto designed by Francesco Russo, which launched on June 5th, the UN’s World Environment Day. To create this visionary shoe, Sergio Rossi collaborated with the German Fraunhofer Institute, a leader in research of alternative materials, and more specifically, its division dedicated to environmental solutions. The partnership resulted in the formulation of a fully biodegradable shoe using plant oils and “liquid wood” derived from wood pulp – a by-product of producing paper – in the creation of the sole and the under-heel. This is the first time “liquid wood” has been used to create a fashion product.
Biomimicry – an ancient design and engineering principle that takes its inspiration from the forms of nature – is also a relevant area of exploration. Recently, biomimicry has attracted the attention of architects and engineers who have partnered up with biologists to explore new approaches to solving man-made problems in a sustainable way. Their research has resulted in new breakthroughs such as manufacturing fibres in the same manner as the Golden Orb weaver spiders, self-cleaning surfaces inspired by the Lotus plant and a fabric that emulates shark skin. It won’t take long for fashion to tap back into nature to innovate, and the results will be designs that transcend the sustainability conundrum and inspire wonder in the consumer.

We are also seeing key luxury houses supporting innovation through new partnerships. For example, acknowledging the value of investing in the future of luxury, the Gucci Group will sponsor a new Ph.D. Scholarship at Central Saint Martin’s College in London, aimed at promoting creativity and innovation in sustainable textiles. Launching in September 2010, the trans-disciplinary research carried out by the Ph.D candidates will explore the technological potentials and creation of sustainable textiles – and thus the future of the fashion industry. Principles such as “biocouture” (growing fabrics from lab cultured bacterial cellulose), “upcycling” synthetic materials and “smart” textiles that have the potential to change their colour to adapt to the various conditions of the wearer shall be central to the candidates’ research. And, of course, we hope, other areas that have yet to be discovered.

With consumers’ demands for sustainably sourced products pushing the fashion industry, the business finds itself pulled in the direction of supporting innovation. The effect is the creation of a perfect Petri dish for sustainability to be the new paradigm of design rather than merely an afterthought – and thus at the centre of what the luxury industry has to offer. At the end of the day, true luxury can only be credible and desirable when its creations are supported by positive values. These positive values create a stronger attachment to the brand and the product. Values that not only include beauty, creativity and exclusivity, but also a sense of innovation and respect for our surroundings throughout the entirety of its creation.

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