Circular fashion and a restorative approach

With a startup accelerator programme and an interactive exhibition highlighting the industry’s ills and solutions, Fashion for Good has been fighting the good fight in Amsterdam since 2017. Its goal is to transform the industry from the current linear model (‘take-make-waste’) to a circular approach focused on restoration and regeneration.

High-tech solutions to industry problems

In Fashion for Good’s accelerator programme, carefully selected participants focus on fields ranging from innovations in garment fitting and high-quality recycling to intelligent machinery and a revolutionary virtual marketplace. In other words, the proposed solutions run the gamut of a garment’s life: from textile creation through improving sizing and fitting processes for the customer to high-value reuse of unwanted items and materials, and all the way to fashion that exists only in the digital space.

Amsterdam is an international startup hub

Fashion for Good’s hub in Amsterdam also houses a co-working space for businesses in the circular apparel sector and creates open-source resources about topics such as cradle-to-cradle clothing. The city is an ideal base for Fashion for Good’s various activities, says Anne-Ro Klevant Groen, who runs marketing and communications for the organisation. “A lot of amazing international brands are based here, including some of our partners,” she says. “Amsterdam is also a very international startup hub, so there’s a lot of innovation and lots of startups working on sustainable projects are based here. There is a great startup climate and a great investment climate as well.” 

If you can make it here…  

On the other end of this scale is the consumer, and awareness of sustainability issues is widespread, according to Emma Scarf, Fashion for Good’s venture analyst. “Dutch consumers are more willing to buy natural fibres and are generally more conscious. We’ve seen some of our startups come to Amsterdam to set up a base here because sustainability is something that Amsterdammers are more aware of than consumers in other geographies.” Klevant Groen adds: “Also, if you look at retail – a lot of people say if you have a successful retail space in the Netherlands you can succeed everywhere, because Dutch customers are very discerning. So Amsterdam is a very good testing ground. Basically, if it works here, it works everywhere.” 

Fashion for Good clothing display

Implementing new ideas and pushing things forward

The accelerator programme consists of an extensive curriculum featuring mentoring and industry expertise from Fashion for Good and its founding partner, the C&A Foundation, as well as its corporate partners – which include Adidas, Galeries Lafayette Group, Stella McCartney and Zalando. The aim is to transition participants’ innovations into the mainstream fashion ecosystem. But sometimes, the first steps are smaller. 

After all, if you want to push forward innovation in fashion, it’s not only industry experts that you deal with. “A lot of our participants come from tech-y backgrounds,” says Scarf. “So, we basically also just introduce them to the worlds of sustainability and of fashion.” Presumably, this goes beyond shoving a copy of Vogue in their hands? Scarf says: “We help make introductions with our brand partners and all the startups, we offer mentoring support, help them with any fundraising needs they might have, go through their pitch decks.”

The next step is getting the new products or ideas implemented. “We try and bring our brand partners and corporates here, and we set up meetings with the startups, basically to see whether or not the innovation could fit into one of our partners’ supply chains. Ideally, they can pilot it, or even just offer support on how the startup can grow, or how to make their idea or product more suitable for the fashion industry,” says Scarf. 

The programme has certainly had an impact. “Since we started in March 2017, we’ve introduced over 75 startups to all of our corporate partners,” says Klevant Groen. “We’re currently looking at over 40 pilots happening right now, so a lot of innovation and testing and piloting is being done as we speak.”

Clothing that only exists in the digital realm

One of the participants in the 2019 edition of the programme is Amsterdam-based The Fabricant. In a radical move, this fashion house goes far beyond typical sustainability efforts – including reducing waste and harmful processes by improving materials, manufacturing and retail processes – by moving everything into the digital realm, designing fashion that no longer needs a physical manifestation at all. Its photo-real 3D designs can be used in digital fashion editorials and social media. Digital prototyping and sampling (which eliminates the need for wasteful sample collections), digital ad campaigns and online digital fittings with personal avatars are other possibilities. 

Downloading a whole new wardrobe

Back in May 2019, a couture piece by The Fabricant called Iridescence was sold for $9,500 at the world’s first-ever auction of digital-only couture. Co-founder and creative director Amber Jae Slooten hopes digital fashion will become the norm within a few years. “People will be able to download and wear our clothes from anywhere in the world,” she replies in an email interview when asked about her vision for the future. “Our digital lives will no longer be limited to our phone screens but will be visible all around us. We will be able to share, wear and interact with clothing and identity in an entirely new way, without impacting the planet.” 

Producing digital clothes frees designers from any physical constraints to creativity, like the challenge of working with certain textiles. “You can come up with anything you want, our imagination is our only limit,” says Slooten. “For me, it is a huge and vast new world where anything is possible. It is a whole new tool for creativity.”

The Fabricant Iridescence

Global digital fashion capital of the world 

Amsterdam is a frontrunner when it comes to digital advances in fashion, according to Slooten. “Amsterdam has a great fashion community, but of course it is not Paris or London. We do think Amsterdam is the digital fashion capital of the world. The digital transformation is happening already, for instance at companies like PVH.” The American clothing company owns brands including Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, whose European headquarters are in Amsterdam. “They have a satellite start-up called STITCH,” says Slooten, “in which they teach their employees about digitisation and what it will mean for their brands.” She also mentions the Amsterdam Fashion Institute, which “has been pioneering in digital transformation for a long time as one of the only fashion schools in the Netherlands to teach CAD/CAM software. All of the transformation is just getting bigger and bigger, and this is only the beginning.” 

A city filled with sustainable initiatives 

For people who want to change their everyday sartorial habits, Amsterdam’s fashion ecosystem is home to many sustainable initiatives, activities and other developments. Klevant Groen mentions the textile studio Byborre, which is working on material development and ‘engineered knits’: “I think what they’re doing is really cool, they have 3D knitting machines and are doing a lot of testing and also use recycled material.” 

Another frontrunner on her list is the recycling facility Wieland Textiles. Beyond the strict confines of textiles and design, Amsterdam is buzzing with small-scale sustainability initiatives. “You see a lot of clothing swaps and a lot of places like [eco-hub for creative and social enterprises] De Ceuvel. And I think De Steek is really cool: a little knitting and mending studio in West, my own neighbourhood. They’re making knitting and embroidery and mending your own clothing really cool and fashionable, which I think is great. It really takes it back to craftsmanship and keeping your clothing for longer.” 

Making an impact and creating a movement

From making a difference with small changes to looking at the big picture and radically transforming it, there are many ways to shake up the fashion industry. Changing the consumer mindset is at the top of the list for Fashion for Good. And Klevant Groen is optimistic about the impact the organisation is having. “If you look at the amount of visitors we’ve had at the Experience here in Amsterdam – our events are sold out within weeks and we get more and more people into the museum, so we do see a growing interest in general. We see a lot of interest and a lot of movement happening. People are getting more and more excited about the story behind their products, and they’re actually asking the right questions. You see a lot of things happening in a positive way for sure.”

Amsterdam’s fashion community, she says, is “a very vibrant community. If you look at the people, consumers, who are asking us questions on our social media channels, at our events or during a visit to the museum... they really ask really good and critical questions, and that really helps change the industry as well.” She also believes community is key. “I think that collaborative spirit that we come across in our museum is something that’s really special. You can really help each other and inspire each other and motivate each other to move forward. I think it’s quite a nice movement.” 

Read more startup news from around Amsterdam and find out more about the city’s fashion industry