Last spring heritage luxury brand Coach unveiled Coachtopia, a sub-brand with a Gen Z focus conceived with circularity inbuilt, and the range has already sold out multiple times. Each product uses virtually no new materials, is designed to be remade or repaired to expand its lifespan, and contains an NFC chip which acts like a passport informing consumers of all the stops the item has made on its journey. The range has become something of a blueprint for the industry. FashionUnited delved into the layers of expertise behind the success of the brand’s pioneering launch, with particular focus on that ubiquitous material within the luxury accessories sector, leather, and the surprising role airplane seats have had in Coachtopia’s success.
The bonafides of a modern luxury brand are no longer demonstrated through a logo-laden purse on the arm of a celebrity with an authentication certificate tucked into the inner pocket, but are instead demonstrated through its sustainability receipts. Coachtopia partnered with Gen Phoenix, a UK-based materials technology company whose patented hydroentanglement process creates leather from at least 50% recycled leather scraps thus offsetting waste otherwise destined for landfills. At a Selfridges London pop-up, Coachtopia showed consumers the process of crafting its material from scraps, literally laying it all on the table, while the brand’s Instagram account invited consumers into the Gen Phoenix factory, which operates with 100 percent renewable energy and 95 percent recycled water, to view the process of giving discarded leather new life.
Although its origins are not in fashion, Gen Phoenix already boasts a high profile network of industry partners: Tapestry, the house of modern luxury lifestyle brands that includes Coach, Stuart Weitzman, and Kate Spade, and as of last week, when the news broke that Tapestry had acquired Capri Holdings, adds Versace, Jimmy Choo, and Michael Kors. Gen Phoenix is also in partnership with Dr. Martens with whom they will launch a product later this year.
Behind Gen Phoenix’s pioneering technology is another ecosystem of players to help the startup navigate for commercial success: the investors. Boston-based investment fund, Material Impact, demonstrates a passionate commitment to helping early stage tech companies with noble goals launch their game changing products, putting it simply on their website as: “Money with a mission.”
“We look at material science innovations and deep technology innovations, and a big swath of our team have Material Science PhDs, so we’ve been in start-ups and also helped businesses from the ground up,” Elyse Winer, Partner at Material Impact tells FashionUnited. “The impact is the second part of our focus, addressing large scale real-world problems like food and water, healthcare, transportation, and, in the case of Gen Phoenix, sustainability.”
What the fashion industry can learn from other industries
Sustainable materials, a category associated with innovation, has long been a focus for Material Impact but, says Winer, “We really look for scale and applicability, the ability not just to create something novel, but to scale it up to meet the demands of the brands tech companies are aiming to work with, at a price and performance that does not need any trade offs within their sustainability metric.”
Gen Phoenix, who for 15+ years had been producing recycled leather material for the mass transportation category, met the criteria. “You have definitely sat on a Gen Phoenix seat before,” says Winer. “They’re in over 200 airlines, but also in the bus and railway industries. If you can build a material that stands up to that kind of repetitive use, at the level of scale and performance, you can absolutely create meaningful product in the luxury goods space as well.”
Big brands have had difficulty introducing innovation due to their size and infrastructures, but Coachtopia was created to be a species of testing ground, a sustainability incubator, to bring products to market. Although separate and distinct from the larger organization, the aim is to eventually introduce those materials into the Coach mainline.
The fact that the innovations have been tried and tested in other industries means that much of the work has been done, removing risk for the fashion industry. It also opens up potential for sourcing other feedstock. “We started with leather scraps, and we can break that down to the fiber level and put it back together to create a sustainable recycled material that’s durable and meets the performance needs of the luxury sector,” says Winer. “But we can also do this with other post-consumer, post-industrial waste material, with plant-based inputs. We’re not reliant on any one feedstock and that is what is compelling and exciting for brands that have ambitious sustainability objectives.”
But the Gen Phoenix recycled material has so far been used only in the lining of all of the small leather goods and bags at Coachtopia. What about the all-too important exterior? Can it go from a bus seat to front and center of an ad campaign? In luxury fashion, the word “industrial” is not one that inspires desirability, even though durability is an expected quality of a thousand-dollar purse. “Aviation and bus transport have very different aesthetics from the luxury fashion industry,” acknowledges Paul Deninger, Chairman on the board of Gen Phoenix and Operating Partner at Material Impact, but adds it’s all about the specific engineering. “On an airline seat you need fire retardant, anti-microbial coatings for performance, and to meet regulation, whereas the luxury market has a different set of needs: finish, hand quality, durability and the experience of wearing the product. But we have a mantra in the company: no compromise.”
Deninger’s outlook for fashion is optimistic and he says CEOs now speak about materials in their earnings calls. From automotive to footwear, Material Impact’s motivation is helping brands meet their sustainability goals, and their method is to mirror the brand’s roadmap to match theirs. “Gen Phoenix is a name driven by a vision,” says Winer. “Rising from catastrophe to become more beautiful than before is what we are aiming to do with waste, and the vision of Coachtopia is all about making waste beautiful and cool.”