Fashion-tech is quickly evolving into one of the most interesting branches of the industry. It has also gone from being my least to most favourite topics to research and discuss. One of the very first company’s that caught my attention in this emerging market was Orange Fiber: a small Italian company doing exactly that – creating luxurious fiber from oranges.
Founded in 2014, the company began as the centre of a thesis while co-founders Adriana Santanocito and Enrica Arena were at university. They posed that orange silk, derived from the cellulose extracted from the fruit’s peel, can actually produce an incredibly soft, silky material. After completing their studies and other work commitments, they spent over a year developing the fledgeling company’s infrastructure and processes prior to launching the brand. They’ve been growing at a steady clip ever since and have filed for patents on all citrus fruits in the country.
In the first four years since launching, Orange Fiber has won multiple awards, completed an accelerator program, and released their first collaboration with luxury brand, Ferragamo. During a call with Ms. Arena, Co-Founder and CMO, I found out that despite global interest, there are still a few hurdles ahead for the team. Read on to find out about the challenges sustainable brands face and how the fashion industry at large can help.
Tell us a bit about how it all started?
I was sharing a class in Milan with Adriana (Santanocito, Co-Founder and CEO) when she asked me to work with her on the English language portion of her project, and to be part of the team. I was working with an NGO on human rights so I became mainly interested in the sustainability and social entrepreneurship aspects of the idea, and that’s how it all started. After that we were selected for a final competition in Spain, which I attended because my English is stronger. When I came back, she asked me to jump right in and officially work together.
We worked for about a year and a half before we established the company officially and in February it will be our fifth year of activity. At the beginning I was in communications managing journalists, calling investors, and now I manage all communications dealing with investors and production and events. I’m now in both general management and operations where I coordinate tasks for each side. This is because I was managing investors but not production, which led to distortion of the processes and terminology. To have more confidence in presenting and control, it was better that I became involved in both.
Orange Fiber has been on a fast-track to success. Did you expect such a positive response so quickly?
I don’t consider us a fast track because we aren’t done yet! It’s great because we arrived at a viable product and got it to market, and the reaction has been amazing. But after the Ferragamo collaboration we realized that that kind of batch production is quite difficult to replicate. We’ve been reflecting on what we need to grow, which has meant getting back to the R&D stage. We are re-imagining the process to scale it and to make investors more comfortable, so it will mainly be an internal shift.
How did your partnership with Ferragamo come about?
They reached out to us after their material researcher read an article on our product. At the time we didn’t even have any samples! We stayed in touch until we had a few pieces to show them, and they really wanted to support our product and work together. We officially started the collaboration a year before Expo Milan, an event which has always been excited about this type of innovation. However, this year was all about food consumption and waste in relation to production, so it was the perfect year for us.
We set everything up in 2016, which resulted in a 2017 collection. It was crazy because we had this big production and we also had the H&M Foundation for Global Change Award acceleration, which we won that at the end of 2016. So at the exact same time we got to see how big brands deal with innovation and sustainability, and on the other hand we were dealing with a very high level Italian, multinational company. It was an incredible moment for learning and making errors. It was a very cool way of learning.
Can you tell us about upcoming collaborations or collections?
Not at the moment. We are looking into something that will hopefully come to fruition in the first quarter of 2019. We might know something more by February or March next year. There are brands that are currently doing trials, so that will likely be the timing if something were to take shape.
Do you plan on expanding the business internationally, or with the production of other fibers?
We have patents on all of the citrus family: lemon, tangerine – it’s all feasible. We have not proved that other fruits are possible, but we need to take it into consideration. If we want to continue to work with cellulose, we have to understand what parts to eliminate to get a similar purified pulp.
What we’ve realized now that we have some kind of brand awareness and experience in dealing with them, is what might prove more effective long-term. It might be beneficial to fund other companies or material scientists that want to develop these processes versus producing it ourselves – to become a platform in developing this market and these ideas rather than starting from zero. We come more from the communication and design side of business, so this might be a good option.
What types of tasks are typical in a workday for you?
There is no normal workday! It all depends on the schedule. Events and interviews are always present in my day. We love to share our experience but also, to share the idea that you can create a product that’s kind to the environment. If I’m in Sicily, one day out of two I’ll spend at the production site speaking with the technicians about when the production starts and where the tests are at. There might also be financial meetings or looking for fundraising opportunities or sending out samples to fashion schools and interest groups. We also tend to have a lot of group meetings to stay on top of things and everything gets divided by the whole team.
Who or what is providing you with inspiration right now?
We take inspiration from every corner. We’re friends with a lot of fellow innovators in materials and sustainability. Thanks to the acceleration we have been involved in, whether it be Global Change Award, H&M, or Fashion for Good, we’ve had the opportunity to be first row with innovators, and with well-established brands that are pushing sustainability forward.
I read a lot of reports about what brands envision for the future in sustainability and we are inspired by influencers in this area, like Ellen MacArthur and her work in sustainability in fashion and plastic pollution. We see where brands are heading, companies like Kering who is doing an incredible job, and H&M group. And we like to see if brands set ambitious goals so that we can too. That’s where we really find our energy.
Where do you see the fashion industry heading? Are there still obstacles facing sustainable fashion?
The next step is for brands to find a bridge between the high level of commitment of sustainability and the short term procurement of supplies and materials, because if we don’t make that connection it will be impossible for small innovators to bring new innovations to market. If brands expect a quick delivery time without paying a portion in advance, it will be unbearable for small brands. It’s not the type of supply chain that can benefit an innovator.
For example, big companies normally pay upon receiving the shipment, which is quite common in fashion. For us, that’s really difficult because our production time from orange to fabric is six to nine months. If you consider that length of time plus a couple of months after they pay once receiving the product, it means you have to sustain the company for one year. Which is fine if you know and can make a cycle of payments, but if you’re running a company that does batch production for a variety of brands…it’s impossible.
But it’s also very complex to integrate. This is because you have established budgets on collections, meaning you need to understand how to allocate funds, and how that will affect other areas. It can be very sensitive, so I understand their fear. However, the best way to produce and improve your product is if your client or adopter is supporting you in that, and if brands could put a bit more budget towards pre-paying, I think you will really see a boost in innovation.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. All photos courtesy of Orange Fiber.