Why Global Fashion Agenda’s New Innovation Incubator Isn’t ‘Just a Pilot’

A volley of legislation is heading for the fashion industry, yet many brands and retailers are still struggling to raise the infrastructure that could shield them from the slings and arrows of scrutiny.

It’s this almost wilful indolence that contributed to the demise of Renewcell, said Christina Iskov, head of innovation and development at Global Fashion Agenda. In a matter of months, the Swedish textile recycler devolved from success story to cautionary tale.

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“I think there’s a disconnect between the regulatory alignment and brand commitment,” Iskov told Sourcing Journal. “It’s the industry’s fault that [the bankruptcy] happened because we didn’t make sure the investment was there to support it.”

To put it another way, while the initial spark of interest can be invigorating, it’s what happens afterward that decides whether an innovation sinks or swims.

It was this latter piece, the Copenhagen-based industry convener realized, that was missing from the curated array of supply solutions it has presented alongside its biannual Global Fashion Summit since 2018. Even the short-lived juried program it ran with Fashion for Good and H&M Foundation ended with the finalists pitching to potential clients.

“There was no prize; there was no real follow-up,” Iskov said. “And we saw that all the brands and retailers were super inspired and wanted to do something but then when it became Monday and they [were back at work], they were like, ‘I don’t know how to start, what do I do?’”

Early-stage and seed innovations were also being shut out, she said. And though the Copenhagen Edition of this year’s Global Fashion Summit will have a small area dedicated to more nascent companies, not all of them can afford the trek to Denmark, personnel, samples and signage in tow.

“Then they also need the investment,” Iskov added. Otherwise, they’ll either end up like Renewcell or, in a more likely scenario, they’ll be dead in the water from the get-go.

So Global Fashion Agenda turned to longtime partner PDS Ventures, which, as the investment arm of Mumbai-headquartered manufacturing giant PDS Limited, has amassed a sizable portfolio featuring the likes of recycled-textile producer Evrnu, bio-based pigment maker Nature Coatings and “future-proof” cotton platform Materra.

The result is the Trailblazer Programme, an innovation talent search that will award the winner with up to $200,000 in cash, plus commercial and operational backing from Positive Materials, a Portugal-based R&D hub that operates under the aegis of PDS Group. From now through the end of the month, the program is seeking solution providers tackling different challenges across apparel and footwear production. Representatives from Global Fashion Agenda, PDS Ventures, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ralph Lauren, Fashion for Good and H&M Group will review and shortlist eight applicants for enrollment in the initiative, through which they will receive feedback, investment pitch training and other guidance from PDS and other industry vets.

“There has never been a more urgent time than now for true industry support for climate-first innovators with, not only financial investment but most crucially, mentoring and support to unlock the scaling potential of early-stage innovators,” said Pallak Seth, founder and executive vice chairman at PDS Limited.

Iskov said that much of the program stemmed from the theme of last year’s summits, “From Ambition to Action.” Ambition is cheap and plentiful. Action? Not so much.

The Trailblazer Program isn’t a flash-in-the-pan project, she said. Global Fashion Agenda and PDS Ventures hope to do this year after year. There isn’t an expiration date on the mentorship, per se, either.

“We want to create an alumni [group] of solutions,” Iskov said. “We already have a really big community through our Innovation Forum with those solutions: we have quarterly meetings with them; we keep in dialogue with them all the time. We also bring them into the GFA ecosystem with brands and retailers. We want to do this with these GFA trailblazers so they become a new target group for GFA.”

Iskov doesn’t have a wishlist, as such. Already, she said, the program is getting applications that cover a slew of concepts, from new materials to AI-based solutions.

“The biggest thing for me would be a solution that’s really impact-driven,” she said. “And that can actually change something with numbers in the end for the production [of] materials. I think if we keep doing this initiative, it would also be different solutions that would be the winner, so it would not be only a material, for instance. That’s really important.”

Why just one winner? There are two reasons: This is the first time Global Fashion Agenda is doing something like this so it wants to start small. Divvying up the prize pot among multiple winners also diminishes the amount each receives. Since the whole point of the scheme is to disburse enough funding for a solution to scale, keeping the sum intact made the most sense.

Back to Renewcell. If brands and retailers don’t put their money where their mouths are, these innovations won’t be there when they need them, Iskov said. And the way that legislation is progressing, they will need them sooner than they think.

“This is not just a pilot project,” she said. “This is something we’re going to do going forward to really make sure that that the needle is [being moved] and we reach a net-positive future.”