Top fashion tech expert Lisa Lang is a fan of Estonian design

What is fashion tech? Fashion tech is technology that is 
wearable or somehow attached to your body. Lisa Lang, a German living and working in Estonia explains that fashion tech is a great opportunity for young designers.

Lisa Lang is a woman who shines. And it’s not just because of her bright character and self-confidence. She literally shines. When I first see her on stage at the Tallinn Design House she is wearing a pearl-embroidered black dress that lights up with one touch of a button. ‘I’m always looking for opportunities to make things glow,’ she opens her presentation with a charming smile.

Lisa, a German entrepreneur, technologist and speaker, is one of Europe’s most influential people in fashion tech. She features on Forbes’ list of Europe’s top 50 women in tech. Since the beginning of this year, she has been working with the skilled Estonian pearl embroidery designer Siret Esko. Lisa was in Tallinn this March to present the results of their collaboration.

If the Internet hadn’t happened, Lisa would have become a carpenter. Being a millennial, Lisa is just old enough to remember the time before mobile phones but among the first to have studied web design and software at a German university. Before jumping into the world of fashion tech, she worked in software engineering for a long time, so she knows everything about tech.

Cooperation with Siret Esko

Lisa and Siret met at the Tallinn Creative Incubator. Siret’s biggest passion is fine handicraft and pearl embroidery. Lisa’s passion is tech. It was easy to join fashion tech with pearls, so the two instantaneously clicked and the work was ready in less than two months. Lisa loves the quality Siret provides and she is happy that their work comes from within the EU. Siret loves how the lit-up diamonds add double luxury to the already luxurious pearl embroidery.

The cooperation is currently on hold since Siret’s company Siret Design recently signed a deal with Chinese investors to promote her work in the Chinese market. Investors picked out Siret Design from among small European enterprises because her work matches the taste of Chinese consumers. For the time being, Siret is moving her production over to China and focuses all of her resources on this major opportunity.

‘It’s experimental. Everything in design seems to be done already – in the last thirty years not much interesting has happened in the fashion industry. Fashion tech is changing that,’ she says.

In fashion tech you can use technology to make clothes both more beautiful and more useful. Lisa and Siret use LED lights to make dresses glow. Sensors are also great devices.

‘You can make clothes change colours, add mood sensors, and make smart and useful gadgets,’ says Lisa.

Electric couture – for the woman who wants to sparkle.

During her presentation, Lisa enlightens her audience on the topic of lights: ‘Technology can be made to look pretty and that can easily be done with light. Light makes us happy. In a time of digital revolution, design is especially important. It makes technology more emotional and accessible,’ she explains. Lisa describes how diamonds, crystals, pearls and light go well together, especially on a dress. If the wearer moves, reflections of the light change the way the dress looks.

We tend to think of LEDs as something hard and rigid, but Lisa and Siret demonstrate how they can be soft instead. Their dress obviously has pockets for storing batteries and switching the lights on and off.

It’s easy to move in the dress and go anywhere (although Lisa wouldn’t recommend swimming). ‘You can wear it, wash it, recharge it. For the woman who wants to sparkle!’ she adds.

Being a woman in tech

When she started her studies in technology, it was a male-dominated world. Lisa explains how she has always made sure that being a woman in tech is not a disadvantage.

‘I turn it into an advantage instead. I have different kinds of tools. The best thing to happen is to be underestimated,’ Lisa says.

Lisa thinks the most important requirement in the creation of an ecosystem that supports women in Estonia is that women and girls trust in themselves. ‘Don’t be afraid to ask for something: go and get it. Look at the role models. Some men can be biased, we need to be conscious and give feedback,’ she says, adding that it’s important to try to be blind to gender.

‘Being an entrepreneur, it is normal not to feel safe all the time. It is normal to be afraid. But you can overcome it. Do it anyway!’ she adds.

Bring digital to design: tips for Estonia

‘[Estonia] is in the middle of a big change. Change doesn’t happen quickly. People don’t starve and freeze anymore, but there are social challenges,’ Lisa says.

She likes Estonian design and tells me that she is a huge fan of the Estonian designer clothing brand Tallinn Dolls Tallinn Dolls is an Estonian designer brand. . Lisa believes that Estonia has huge potential and that Estonians are achievers. Always being able to tell where a design comes from by the look of it, she also sees specific “Estonian traits” in Estonian design. She says Estonian design is clean and simple but has a whimsical touch, which gives it personality. Lisa says the simple design is one of the hardest things to achieve.

‘Every country needs an identity. Estonian identity is very well visible through all of your amazing designers. Your design is connected to your cultural heritage and handicraft. Estonia has a long tradition of high-quality manufacturing. Now the question is: how to connect good craftsmanship with tech?’

‘You have the old manufacturing industry and the skilled craftsmen on the one hand and the digital know-how on the other,’ she says, explaining that our new generation is an expert in e-commerce and digitalisation. ‘Two bubbles are floating around in the same country, and they should meet. Go to your parents and grandparents to learn the manufacturing from them. Look around and use your assets. Trust yourself and be brave!’

She finishes our interview by exclaiming enthusiastically: ‘I will come back!’

Trash to treasure

‘What is happening now in the circular economy reminds me of the story of how people envisioned the internet back in 1994: no one is able to predict how exactly it will change our lives,’ claims Ann Runnel, who got into this branch of the economy six years ago. She wants to solve the massive problem of leftover fabrics in the garment industry, and since Estonia represents only a fraction of the waste creation in the industry, she’s starting where the masses are: Asia.

In cooperation with Reet Aus, a pioneer in upcycling in Estonia, Runnel was writing her thesis on why entrepreneurs focus on sustainability in their businesses. She ended up in Bangladesh, a country with a population of 168 million, which over the past decade has become the second largest readymade garment exporter in the world, just behind China.

‘I realised that one designer brand can solve 1% of the waste problem of a factory,’ Runnel recalls. But there are around 5000 garment factories in Bangladesh, which all combined create 400 000 tons of textile production waste per year – including all different types such as yarn waste, cutting scraps and fabrics – an amount that equals 1.2 billion pieces of clothing. Every single person in India could get a free T-shirt if the recycling of textile waste were to become common practice in their neighbouring country.

Runnel registered her company in 2014 and since then has been travelling to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and Hong Kong at least once a quarter. Reverse Resources is cooperating with a network of recyclers, with a capacity of over 5000 tonnes per month, they are ready to source their waste transparently through the new platform. Brands like H&M and Levi’s are among some of the largest parties who are keenly looking forward to the results of the current pilot projects.

‘Many of the world-renowned brands outsource the work to a large number of factories that are very intensely regulated,’ Runnel rejects the Eurocentric view that underage workers earn lower than average salaries, working overtime in harsh conditions in the sweatshops all over South-East Asia. The real challenge lies in making the production cycle more transparent, she claims.

‘Being so used to living in a digital society, it’s difficult to imagine the digital gap we face in these factories: how they still use paper and pen to run the operations.’ Reverse Resources offers the producers an online platform that enables each factory to track their production leftovers in real-time as well as access information from other parties in the industry – how much and what sort of leftovers are available and where.

According to her vision, the recycling processes need to be reversed precisely where waste is created. So far, all the leftover fabric gets collected into big heaps of fabric and is sorted later; Reverse Resources will help sort the waste instantly.

Currently, the textile producers who want to recycle leftovers will have to go through the tedious task of testing all materials themselves, making it a lengthy and expensive process. These days, more than 60% of all the textiles used in the garment industry are made of polyester, an easy-toproduce and cheap material that wears out fast and leaks microfibres into the water system each time you wash your clothes.

‘So far, the polyester leftovers have been used in furniture factories as mattress filling or burning it to make bricks,’ Runnel brings an example. These days there are a handful of companies trying to work out innovative solutions to recycle existing materials but all of these technologies are either still in lab or experimental phases. ‘In 3-5 years we’ll definitely see this in mass production,’ Runnel predicts.

Estonians create 21.8 million tons of waste each year, i.e. 16 500 kg per person. The good news is that only 376 kg of it comes from households and with this number we are among the smallest waste creators in the EU.

The bad news is that most of our waste comes from oil shale mining. Out of household trash, Estonians recycle only 28% of their waste, ranking among the worst performers in the EU as the leaders recycle more than half, with Germany far ahead of all the others with 67%. The EU directive dictates that everyone has to recycle at least 55% by 2025.

For the first time, Estonia is now participating in a project run by the Stockholm Environmental Institute to map the textile waste created in Scandinavian and Baltic countries. The results will be available later this year.

Making leather in a lab

‘Using one’s waste as another’s raw material is one of the key elements in the circular economy, also called the circular feedstock or industrial symbiosis’

Another branch on the verge of a breakthrough in the circular textile and fashion industry is the creation of fabric out of other industries’ leftovers (using one’s waste as another’s raw material is one of the key elements in the circular economy, also called the circular feedstock or industrial symbiosis). A few examples stemming from this field are currently being tested in labs around the world, spanning mostly fungi- or plant-based materials. Spanish-founded Piñatex is probably one of the best-known example, creating leather-like material out of pineapple leaf fibres.

Since pineapples do not grow in Estonia, local startups will have to find means to extract components from locally available resources. Gelatex Technologies is developing an environmentally friendly alternative to animal skin with imitation leather made from gelatine, a natural collagen taken from animal body parts like bones and joints that usually go to waste.

‘Our technology enables the creation of material that is chemically identical to real leather,’ Mari-Ann Meigo Fonseca, one of Gelatex founders, explains. ‘That way we give higher value to waste and can make up to 5 times more material from the same animal.’

In other words, Gelatex wants to solve the problem of burning more than 5 million tons of animal waste by literally sucking the marrow out of the bones and creating a non-woven textile out of the gelatine mesh that can be produced without using any poisonous chemicals.

Gelatex has nothing to do with so-called “vegan leather”, which was a craze some time ago until users realised it’s simply an oil-based chemical product. Many other innovators are trying to find solutions for reusing waste materials but so far many of them still use oil-based composition materials. 95% of leather used in the industry is chemically tanned. Vegetable tanning as the alternative is terribly time consuming and therefore very expensive.

Meigo Fonseca studied garment technology and became interested in ecological textiles while working for Baltic Intertex, which did product development for Scandinavian fashion designers. She met Märt-Erik Martens, a researcher who had been working on gelatine-based materials for medical use during his studies at Tartu City in the west of Estonia (pop. 91,000). University. They founded Gelatex in 2016, which has by now attracted the interest of many big producers of consumer goods.

With their lab operating in Tartu City in the west of Estonia (pop. 91,000). and having gone through three stages of the Greentech accelerator ‘Climate KIC 2017’ in Berlin and Tallinn Tallinn, the largest city and capital of Estonia (population 440 000). , they’re now off to the TechStars accelerator in Indianapolis, US, and Meigo Fonseca feels the time is ripe for a “real thing”: ‘My main goal is for the sustainable material to become a new norm.’

Sustainable living

Many similar innovative projects have to spend several years in incubation in the lab to wait for the right momentum. And for some, that moment might never come.

‘Academia could be the trend setter in this field,’ says Kätlin Kangur, who herself has studied Creative Sustainability at Aalto University in Finland and is now reading an introductory course on sustainability for designers at the Estonian Academy of Arts Estonian Academy of Arts (EKA) is an Estonian higher education institution. in Tallinn Tallinn, the largest city and capital of Estonia (population 440 000). . Last year she initiated the Green Group inside the Academy to start solving the issues of their own building.

Yet she claims that sustainability is a very vague concept. ‘Many people understand it simply as recycling. How to give up some of your personal comfort in exchange for the overall well-being is a far more challenging task. Changing your habits and lifestyle is much harder than replacing some physical items in your life.’

Kerli Kant Hvass dug even deeper into this field, looking at the post-consumer aspect of the garment industry. In her PhD thesis “Weaving a Path from Waste to Value – exploring the fashion industry business models and the circular economy” she researched the role of fashion brands and their responsibility to minimize post-consumer textile waste through innovation and industry collaboration. She worked with brands such as JACK & JONES, NAME IT, Filippa K and Eileen Fisher.

‘The fast fashion industry is constantly picking up speed, there are so many new collections coming out and the logistics-cycles are becoming more and more complex,’ she claims. Over the past 15 years, people have started to buy twice as many clothes as they used to, wearing them 3 times less often. It’s the classic chicken or the egg causality dilemma: are the prices cheaper because the quality is lower or vice versa?

Buy fast, wear slow

Kant Hvass is now helping run a pilot in partnership with the Estonian Re-Use Centre and a Dutch company Wolkat. To prevent around 50 tons of textiles ending up as landfill every month due to the limited recycling and reuse capacity of used clothing in Estonia, Wolkat will send them to Morocco where they are sorted by colour and material type, shred and then spun into new yarn from which new cloth is woven. From this cloth, products such as blankets, bags and laptop sleeves are made.

The reason why the materials are currently sorted in Morocco is the cost of labour and the long-term expertise in recycling that Wolkat has gained over 50 years. Ideally, at some point the work will be done in Estonia. ‘So far the re-use system in Estonia has been catalysed by the simple pleasure of getting rid of your old things but consumers are becoming much more aware and want to be able to follow the whole cycle,’ Kant Hvass summarises.

Ann Runnel also claims that she herself has become so much more aware of her own recycling habits that she even takes all of her worn-out socks to the H&M waste collection stations because she knows that these will end up in a sorting factory in Germany and then be recycled in India. But is it actually sustainable for the socks to travel so far? Runnel explains that circular economy will initially start working where there are enough resources. In Estonia, the amount of waste is so small that is not economically profitable to start sorting waste.

‘Gelatex wants to solve the problem of burning more than 5 million tons of animal waste by literally sucking the marrow out of the bones and creating a non-woven textile out of the gelatine mesh that can be produced without using any poisonous chemicals’

The circular economy goes much deeper into economic models and will look into the matter of how to make profit by reusing materials several times without constantly pulling in new resources. All chains in the system become interconnected: logistics, design, production, sale, communication, product take-back and end-of-life treatment. It creates interdependence for all parties involved.

She believes that once the industry is ready, the politics will follow. In order to play her role both in changing the rules in business world as well as political, Runnel was recently elected as an expert for EU Mission Board for Adaption to Climate Change.

‘We are currently talking about the first round of recreating value for the resources but the goal should be an infinite number of rounds,’ she sums up the challenges that are yet to be unfolded. ‘The Reverse Resources platform helps to build new supply chains and trace waste end-to-end from the source of the waste up to recycling, shining light through the current black box of textile waste trading and making sure that we can all know that the waste really reaches the best new lifecycle.’

‘Over the past 15 years, people have started to buy twice as many clothes as they used to, wearing them 3 times less often’