For Pangaia, a London-based startup that combines street-style elan with tree-hugging sensibilities, materials play a starring rather than supporting role.
It’s part of its philosophy of “high-tech naturalism,” taking materials abundantly found in nature and augmenting them with science and technology to solve the apparel industry’s most pressing social and environmental problems, such as animal welfare, waste and pollution.
Earlier this month, Pangaia launched a slightly rejiggered and expanded iteration of Flwrdwn (pronounced “flower down”), a bio-based insulated fiber, derived in part from wildflowers, that it describes as a “plant-powered” alternative to traditional goose down and synthetic fill made from fossil fuels. Clad in recycled nylon, the broadened collection includes a puffer jacket, a puffer coat, a puffer beanie, a puffer scarf and puffer slippers in colors with names like hibiscus red, orchid purple and jade green.
Flwrdwn, which began as an exploration into the use of waste materials, took scientists in Italy a decade of in-lab research to formulate and finesse. It’s also proprietary intellectual property, which means Pangaia is purposefully vague with specifics, including the type of wildflower. It’s “basically a weed” that requires no farming and “grows best when it is left alone in a field,” Amanda Parkes, the brand’s chief innovation officer, told Sourcing Journal. It also supports the natural habitat of monarch butterflies, which are at risk of becoming endangered.
Pangaia combines the wildflower with a biopolymer and then “infuses” the mix with a cellulosic aerogel to create what the company says is the “future of warmth”: Insulation that is lightweight, breathable, animal-free, petrochemical-free and biodegradable under specific conditions. Like any down product, it can be reclaimed for reuse with the right setup. (Pangaia is partnering with The Renewal Workshop on a return-and-repair scheme as part of the inroads it’s making into circularity.)
“[Flwrdwn] hits all the sweet spots,” Parkes said. “It’s vegan, plant-based, biodegradable and it’s also warm and cozy and lovely. There are no compromises.”
Flwrdwn isn’t a static material, nor will it be exclusive to Pangaia. Next year, the startup plans to roll out both lighter-weight and heavier, more insulating versions. “The beauty of owning a material like this is you can tweak it depending on the eventual end product that you desire,” said chief brand officer Maria Srivastava. Pangaia is also in discussions with other brands to adopt the fiber. In the meantime, its collection doubles as a showcase that signals the material’s market readiness to the industry.
While it’s still a niche product, the fiber is not only scalable, Parkes said, but “infinitely” so. The feedstocks “mostly fit” into the existing supply chain, with a few machine modifications here and there, but require nothing overly specialized. There are some kinks to work out, such as improving machine washability and achieving tighter seals on seams, but “we’re just going to keep tweaking the formula and making it better and better,” she said.
Prices will also naturally fall as the company ramps up production and other brands buy into the material. For now, a puffer jacket or coat will run between $750 and $950. “We’re at the high end right now, but it can come down,” Parkes said. “There’s nothing in the formula or machinery that necessitates it being really expensive.”
Flwrdwn is just one way Pangaia is taking a stand against petrochemicals. Last week, the startup announced its investment into Brooklyn material science firm Kintra, which makes 100 percent compostable biosynthetic yarns.
Instead of petroleum, Kintra sources corn- and wheat-derived sugar to produce its resins and fibers, which undergo a melt-spinning process similar to polyester, nylon and other synthetic materials. While they’re not “drop-in replacements” for their plastic-based counterparts, according to founder and CEO Billy McCall, they can provide a comparable look, feel and performance without contributing to the problem of microplastic pollution, which occurs when tiny synthetic fibers slough off during laundering and slip past wastewater treatment plants to enter rivers, lakes and oceans.
Another benefit of the technology is its compatibility with existing infrastructure. “It can drop into existing synthetic supply chains,” McCall said. “There’s no capital equipment investment.”
Kintra will be working with Pangaia, which declined to reveal the size of its investment, to take its proof of concept, scale it and “move it through the value chain” from spinning, dyeing through to garment construction. Its first products with Pangaia, which neither company is prepared to reveal just yet, are poised to debut in the fourth quarter of 2021.
McCall says he’s excited about working with Pangaia because Kintra will be able to get direct feedback about its fabric and adjust its processing accordingly. “We get to create a very specific tailored product, rather than just some fabric that you’re buying off the shelf,” he told Sourcing Journal.
As with Flwrdwn, Pangaia isn’t keeping Kintra to itself; McCall says Kintra is ready to start shipping samples to any brand in the first quarter of 2021. Parkes characterizes this as a “hybrid partnership,” which she says she hopes will become a model for Pangaia’s future collaborations with emerging innovators.
This kind of team-up allows Pangaia to tailor, test and re-test materials as they’re being honed while speeding them through the R&D process. “It’s sort of like a win-win, where [the companies get] what they need to kind of move their startups forward very quickly [and] we get product more quickly,” she said. “So it’s part investment, part commercialization but also a kind of dual research and scale-up.”
Part of Pangaia’s mission, she said, is to create as much change across the fashion industry as quickly as possible. “We do think that exclusivity is damaging the industry, especially when you have new technologies and new breakthrough materials,” Parkes added.
Kintra may end up creating not just one but a suite of yarns from different feedstocks from non-food sources, including agricultural waste. But first it needs to build a sturdy foundation. “I wish that there was an abundance of bio-based feedstocks for companies like us to play with, but the reality is [but] it’s still very early,” McCall said. “Once you create a demand you can have a bit more breathing room to choose what you want. And the more demand there, the cheaper the raw materials become. That’s just how it works.”
Pangaia, too, will be becoming more strategic as it grows. Soon, each of its core offerings will include a breakdown of its impact on water, carbon and energy. The brand is also linking arms with New York’s Eon to create digital passports for its products and facilitate resale, repair and recycling.
“Circularity is very, very big on our agenda for 2021,” said Srivastava. “Absolutely.”