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Lux Inferior: Navigating Sustainable Fashion Innovation

I’m really mad with the luxury and fashion industry. I waited and I hoped for sustainability to change the way we buy. But these industries use the word sustainability like it’s a thing to hang their entire business model upon: the truth is, they don’t really care because you don’t. Not really. Sustainability doesn’t sell handbags, shoes or jewellery. Luxury does.


Sustainability doesn’t stop people buying yachts or taking private jets in the luxury space. Aspiration does: the luxury life. I wanted to get under the skin of luxury to see whether I could help change a few minds. I visited a luxury conference recently as a regular nerd, a game developer who just so happens to run a digital fashion company. I don’t know what luxury thinks they’re doing about sustainability and more frighteningly: neither do they.


women with VR headset floating purple background

YSL’s SL


A few years ago, just before lockdown kicked in, I was volunteering, as I do every Saturday at my local second-hand market. To give you the full experience, the second-hand place I volunteer is vast, like a hangar, over two floors and the charity it serves supports education in parts of the world that need the most help. The second-hand market takes in pre-loved stuff.

I work in the clothing department and as you can imagine, we are flat out most Saturdays with sorting through donated clothing. Unless the clothing is beyond repair, we sell it. Our clothing team washes the clothes (we take items home to wash and iron) and we even sew ripped or split items. We do good business too. From pre-pandemic to post-pandemic we have sold second-hand everything to thousands of people who might not be able to afford new stuff, or have a need for something in particular. Occasionally we receive a big consignment of clothing items from someone who may have passed away from old age or illness. On Saturday I was sifting through such a shipment when I saw it. An original Yves Saint Laurent Swiss silk dress, circa late 70s/early 80s. I fell in love instantly. So I got my purse at the ready and offered to pay. “No, no, you can’t do that,” my boss said. “That’s for recycling.” Recycling? I pondered why she said recycling when she really meant “in the bin”—when she piped up and said “you can’t wear dead people’s clothes.” It’s an interesting conundrum but one that shouldn’t affect whether or not we save a perfectly good, vintage and beautiful heritage item from landfill. So I took it anyway and paid really not so much for it. YVES SAINT LAURENT. I still love it and I wear it regularly, including today at this event. Green silk with magenta cherries, it’s garish and a real talking point. Sure, it isn’t the most sustainable thing in the world, silk tends not to be. But here’s what it isn’t. Landfill.


The First Cut is the Deepest


Cut to: I’m standing in a packed auditorium about to speak into a mic. This panel is about sustainability, yet I am already prepared to discover that no one actually cares about sustainability. Everyone is talking about themselves: how good their business model is, how everyone loves the quality of the items, of course—it’s luxury—that’s what it’s supposed to be! But then they started talking onstage about how innovative they are.


Innovation is a concept that not that many people understand. There’s an ISO for it which explains innovation as “a new or changed entity realising or redistributing value”. Innovation is often the latter part of the sentence and therefore something of an emperor’s new clothes statement. For the luxury industry, it’s the invisibility cloak of traditional methods and practices. For me, it’s the reason why I exist. As a lifetime student of design I am surrounded by bad design, and when bad design happens to great brands shouldn't we innovate out of it? It’s what we did effortlessly during the pandemic—which was a poor design on the human condition—why aren’t we doing it now? If we’re looking at innovation in luxury, where should it be happening? Because “it can’t exist everywhere.” Someone said this actual thing to me at the conference.


At the end the panel moderator asked the audience to share examples of how they are being sustainable in innovating luxury. “We have created an exclusive green jewels collection (use case unknown), and we are the most carbon zero supplier of blahblahblah.” And another: “we make handbags by hand” Or something. Why? How is that innovative? It’s barely sustainable.


A new sustainable guru was wearing a very fine silk suit from a London tailor. He divulged that to get in front of the bigwigs of luxury he had this specially made and had flown into London from Asia to collect it before coming here. He wanted to make a good impression on the bigwigs. Did he make a good impression on the climate? Not at all. Sure we can all offset, but it’s just to pay for your conscience and for the entire footprint of another organisation’s climate mistakes rather than their own. There has to be a better way.


You see, sustainability is not easy. ESG statements are not easy to make when they can be investigated as a matter of public record (when the companies are, of course, public). The panel tried really hard to shoehorn every single ESG statement about their respective businesses into the conversation but they knew that deep down there was no way that they were sustainable. At all. Because, what’s the point in luxury? When you are paying big money, you want a big return on that.


I heard some discussion in the breakout room about a shoe company where each pair costs over $15k. It’s a great business model, it’s even strangely innovative. But if you are buying a pair of shoes for $15k you want $15k of service. And I want $15k of after service. How does sustainability fit into that conversation? Surely it cannot. It isn’t. The shoe will go out of fashion but the horse will need to be killed to make the glue. The cow will have to die to make the leather. It’s one less cow which will be replaced by another. How are the shoes presented? What is the sustainable value of these shoes beyond its perceived value? Green jewels? High street crystals?


I’m holding the mic and wondering whether I should say what I want to say: luxury you are doing it wrong. “According to Snap Inc.: 85% of all Gen Z have avatars, what is luxury doing to service this market? I am Kelly Vero, CEO of NAK3D and we are a digital-first developer of assets for the entertainment and video games sector to create solid sustainable and tractionable sales data for the luxury and fashion industries. Gen Z needs fashion content for their avatars and together with NAK3D you can make it sustainable by being digital first. Cool eh?”


The Chewing Gum Hypothesis


The room erupted into muted, shocked sounds and staring eyes. The kind of thousand yard stare that heralds confusion and fear. I am the turd in the wedding punchbowl. The square peg in the round hole. Who is this woman with blue hair? Did she land here from outer space? Is she from the future? She’s wearing a garish green silk and magenta cherries dress. Why is she dressed like that?


What the luxury—and let’s face it—the fast fashion industries need right now is someone who has landed from the future via outer space because god knows fashion is getting faster and it needs to get a grip of itself. Even luxury is getting as fast as fast food. Something that we cherish in painted canvas with gold clasps and hand crafted handles from a heritage luxury brand is being replaced by the next shiny thing, or the next collaboration with [insert your licenced IP here] because that’s just the way fashion is moving since the demographics changed. Scary huh? But luxury isn’t ready.


So what’s the point in doing a Juicy Fruit X [insert your luxury brand here] collab where the sheer essence of chewing gum as a luxury concept is explored through a variety of wasteful samples, merchandise and then photoshoots when one digital product can carry the entire weight of a campaign?


✏️ Design Phase - create the digital asset containing all properties and metadata (which you’d normally find in a PLM).


🧊 Development - this replaces manufacture. If you want to be sustainable you aren’t ready. Instead, examine and explore the digital asset between design and launch. No physical samples are required AT ALL here, I mean, you have already developed the PLM from the asset itself. The digital asset IS the PLM.


👗 The Master Asset - after user input, projected data from textile or design detail makes the final digital asset.


🪙 The Gold Standard - this one asset is used for EVERYTHING: ecommerce thumbnail, merchandise (including NFT), photoshoots, social media and add games and virtual worlds, AR try-on and VR experiences to that. Your 85% of Gen Z demands it!

Do we really need to make so much waste by adding physical logistics? No we don’t. Digital logistics are as simple as uploading to the cloud on one side, and securely allowing downloads on the other side. What I’m saying is, in 2023, the traditions of the fashion industry are making everything a million times harder (and not even sustainable or carbon zero or whatever).


Though the conference was small, there was a lot to get excited about. I found this amazing swimwear company for men called Rivea. I could not for the life of me understand why the CEO of the company wasn’t telling his story about how his swim shorts are made from 10 plastic bottles collected from the mediterranean sea and beaches. How one button is made from ocean granules and how the swim short carry pouch was not only waterproof but also biodegradable. That was the story of innovation I wanted to hear. But amongst the digital and sustainable creators, of which there were loads, I saw dreadful specularity of very high luxury items (gunmetal grey is not silver chrome, my friends), photo realistic AR try-ons that didn’t anchor the body very well at all (but somehow still managed to service some of the big players in the luxury industry) and a bizarre interaction with a supposed sustainable startup who pointed to the Airpod (very sustainable—not) in her ear indicating that she can’t talk now because there’s something or someone more important than the person standing right in front of her.


Sustain to Survive


Things have to change around here. This traditional way of doing things and even handling business doesn’t work. It’s coming apart at the seams. It’s a broken toy method where it’s safer to throw everything away rather than fix the original problem: the design.

  • Don’t talk about sustainability if you don’t mean it. Forget about it. Do something else. Save the whales. Maybe, support girls in education (they need help now more than ever). Talk about that in your ESG, it’s way more demonstrable.

  • If you are the so-called panacea for digital in luxury, at least have the foresight to actually produce a high quality of product. If your client’s consumers are paying a lot of money for a bracelet, don’t create an AR try-on that looks like you don’t care. Listen, your luxury clients don’t know what quality looks like in digital, but you do.

  • If someone asks you how your business is sustainable, you better think about how you are going to get to the event by the most sustainable means possible. Your ESG statement is not an opportunity for you to brag. It’s an opportunity for you to be honest about the areas of your business you have to work on to truly be carbon zero.

As for me? Well, I took the train to the event using a train company that offsets its footprint as part of the ticket cost, I wore a 1980s YSL dress salvaged from landfill (I actually told someone at the event about this, she was chewing her leg off to get away from me in case I had fleas), and I walked a million miles to get to the venue because there is only one hotel nearby.


I came away feeling like I’d planted a seed in my new luxury industry friends' collective minds, hopeful that we can push towards a sustainable future by going digital first. My piddly little startup NAK3D is exactly that. We don’t need to staff our office with a million people to move a piece of paper around the room, we don’t even have an office. We’re working with clients luxury and otherwise who believe in making changes to their business to evidence their ESG statements, digital is doing that for them. And when the 85% of Gen Z with-their-avatars cease going to physical luxury stores, and stop buying from ecommerce stores (which they will) because they can buy directly from their avatar’s inventory or in-game it will be in view of NAK3D’s digital first approach to luxury and fashion; that will be the most sustainable move in history (and you can take that to the bank). Until then, we wait and we hope for real measurable change.

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