WHERE DID THE IDEA OF YOUR START-UP COME FROM?
Sara and I met during a training course, pretty much like a master's degree, that we attended between 2018 and 2019. It is called “Talenti per l’Impresa” and aimed at recent graduates.We had just finished university and were working on our own, so we decided to attend this course. It is focused on training young people in the fields of startups, innovation, and entrepreneurship. During this course, the idea of Atelier Riforma was born, in particular, the original idea came to me thanks to my childhood memories. When I was younger, in fact, I used to receive a lot of clothes from older siblings and cousins and then I would have asked my grandmother (a skilled seamstress) to modify and embellishing them, so that it could resonate more with my style and thus, I could wear them.
The idea, before I even learned about circular fashion, was to offer a service of clothes re-fashioning, to make them interesting again for someone else. The main concept is to extend the service life of the garment and take it as far as possible from becoming waste.
WHAT WAS THE INITIAL ATELIER RIFORMA PROJECT?
After “Talenti per l’Impresa”, we continued with the project for a while, without forming the company yet, to see if it could be something interesting. The responses were very positive and so we decided to establish it. It was a bit like diving in, we were starting from scratch both financially and professionally because I was previously working in a polyclinic and Sara was a lawyer — two completely different paths!
We founded the company in 2020 and, in the meantime, a pandemic also broke out — certainly a special time to form a new company! Luckily, it didn't affect our path that much. We started collecting used clothing from people who wanted to dispose of it. We started also to collaborate with non-profit organizations that were already collecting used clothing and might have excess or types that were not suitable for their users, and what we did with these garments was catalogue them carefully in our warehouse.
Gradually we created a network of designers and various sartorial professionals who could give new life to these garments, in order to put them back into circulation through the e-commerce we created. It was the first e-commerce (2020) in Italy dedicated to upcycled clothes, i.e., sartorially transformed garments through the creativity of artisans: still nobody knew what upcycling actually was. It was a B2C type of e-commerce, so aimed at the individual end consumer.
It was a bit of a gamble.
Going forward in the activity, we realized that this was a very positive project from both environmental and social points of view. Social because in the sartorial network we also involved social tailors, therefore, projects focused on the job inclusion of disadvantaged people such as migrants, women victims of violence and ex-convicts. It has created a very interesting network indeed.
HOW DID THE CURRENT PROJECT, RE4CIRCULAR, STEM?
We wanted to make this positive impact more scalable, applying it to a much larger scale. With our starting idea - a business model related to upcycling with a network of tailors transforming garments, then resold on our e-commerce - the impact could only be local, related to our reality. Instead, we wanted to do things even bigger so we could have a proper change on the whole industry. From there we started thinking about Re4circular as a tool to be provided to any reality in any place so that we could recreate this circular system. The need for the change came from recognising that the first idea was too cumbersome, the project itself from both an environmental and social impact perspective was very nice but difficult to scale.
Re4circular consists of a technology that we can provide to entities that collect used clothing but also to fashion brands that have to manage large amounts of unsold garments (now they can no more be destroyed as in the past). They can use this technology to classify garments: Re4Circular technology can extract from a simple photograph of the garment and of the label all the information that is essential to understand whether that garment can be oriented to reuse, recycling, upcycling (tailoring transformation) or to other types of circular processes. All these data is extracted and recorded, which is important because in this way all this information can flow directly to a digital channel: our marketplace platform. Unlike the first e-commerce (B2C), this one is B2B (between entities and companies) so that supply and demand for these used, unsold, or discarded garments can meet.
So, it becomes very scalable as a business model because we provide the equipment to the realities that need it, and they pay an annual fee for the use. Another element of innovation is that we don’t do stocking, so the garments only move once and don’t go around the world passing from hand to hand; simply when they are purchased and sent to the buyer. From the platform we can monitor everything that happens so that we can facilitate these kinds of transactions and shipments.
WHO’S THIS PROJECT AIMED AT? AND WHAT IS ITS PURPOSE?
We have two types of clients:
· on the one hand the entities that catalogue and sell: from cooperatives that collect used garments; to all the fashion brands that have unsold garments in stock that they want to direct towards the circular economy; or brands that have take-back services and then collect used garments themselves from customers. On the other hand, companies and professionals, that buy on marketplace: the whole world of circular fashion, from thrift stores to upcyclers and refashioning artisans, to companies that recycle textile fibres. So, anyone that can reuse, recycle, and upcycle used or deadstock garments.
On the marketplace they can find the garments that are most suitable for their business, and they can see both the image of the garment and all its features.
In contrast, offline the supply chain has very little transparency because the buying and selling of used clothing is done in bulk: basically, you buy big bales of clothing in a closed box without being able to know what is in them, their characteristics and this leads to further waste after purchase and consequently a waste of money and resources.
This very complex, long, and opaque supply chain currently leads in most cases to the massive export of used garments that are collected and end up as waste in developing countries (such as Africa, South America, or Asia) that do not have the tools to manage them. Therefore, I would like the project to be a bit of a solution, an answer to this gigantic problem of digesting end-of-life garments.
Re4circular is a meeting point between these two worlds: the world of collecting used clothing and the world of circular fashion that is looking for those. What takes place via Re4Circular is always a wholesale purchase, but with a purchasing precision almost comparable to that of a B2C e-commerce. Through this marketplace supply and demand can meet in a much more efficient and transparent way.
Over time, Atelier Riforma has evolved digitally, always keeping in mind that technology is a tool and not an end. A useful tool to be able to apply circular economy to the fashion industry and thus making it more environmentally sustainable.
HOW DOES THIS PROJECT HELP DECREASE FASHION'S ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT?
Our interest in environmental issues was precisely the driving force that led us to transform Atelier Riforma from a simple idea to an innovative company.
There are two key aspects of Re4Circular that help decrease fashion's environmental impact: one is to make sure that the share of clothes meant to be dispersed in the environment is decreased. Instead of ending up in landfills, we put it in the context of the circular economy and therefore use it as a resource. Moreover, with Re4circular, waste recovery is incentivised at the local level in each individual country instead of exporting it and thus relocating the problem elsewhere.
Another way is to reduce the use of virgin raw material because the fashion industry uses a lot of natural resources: from the petrochemical material to make synthetic fibres; to the water that is used to make clothing; to the land to grow cotton or raise sheep for wool. Using waste as a second raw material avoids the consumption of virgin raw materials, and results in an additional positive environmental impact of Re4circular.
WHAT ARE THE WAYS TO HELP SLOW FASHION?
Through the overall circular fashion, you can help slow fashion. Circular fashion consists of all those activities that use existing material instead of extracting new natural resources from the planet, therefore, they rely on what already exists and turn it into a resource. There is also a hierarchy in doing so, that speaks to us of efficiency, at the top of which is reuse: all businesses that encourage reuse, such as thrift stores, vintage stores, thanks to which garments are used by another person without undergoing any modification, are just put back into the market.
Then, upcycling: even garments with flaws (slightly ruined; no longer trendy) can be made fashionably interesting again through tailoring. The garment is put back into circulation after a little processing that consumes no energy or material because the only energy is that of tailoring.
In order of hierarchy, then there is textile fibre recycling: for this process there are very specific requirements, so currently it is mostly done on pre-consumer material such as offcuts or production waste because it is homogeneous material. Whereas used clothes are made of different materials and many times they don't have a label and you don't know what material they are made of, so it is more difficult (although there is a lot of research being done in this area to try to increase the amount of post-consumer garments that can be recycled).
For now, we have just started by targeting the first two destinations, so reuse and upcycling. We are also starting to introduce recycling, but it takes time because you need very large quantities to do it.
There are also other processes of lower economic value (downcycling), useful for that part of clothing that cannot be recycled. You can use the material in architecture construction (insulation panels, soundproofing); or make bricks out of textile scraps; or packaging; in short, there are so many ways. We also have partnerships with other types of waste recovery at the last resort: there is for example a very interesting Dutch startup, “Bio Fashion Tech”, with which we will start a collaboration. They can make molecules for perfume or biofuels or pigments for colouring from the waste of textile scrap.
This is all part of circular fashion, which, in my opinion, is really the current answer to the fashion industry's environmental problem and the answer to fast fashion to which it stands precisely in contrast, being part of slow fashion.
FOR RE4CIRCULAR YOU DEVELOPED AN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (A.I.), HOW DID YOU DO IT?
Sara and I used to spend entire days cataloguing hundreds of garments that we used to collect in our warehouse with our beloved Excel, a very tedious and time-consuming job (because you enter data manually.), a job, however, that can be easily automated. One day I was complaining while chatting with an old friend and fellow college student, she was doing a PhD in the field of Data Science, among the topics was Artificial Intelligence. Externalising my boredom about this work, she tells me that one could try developing an A.I. to be able to speed it up, she adds that she would talk to some fellow engineers working on this specific field. So, we started talking to them and started to do some small tests and train the A.I. How do you do it? You show pictures of clothing and labels and record the data “this is a shirt”; “this other image is a pant”; “this writing that is on the label means cotton”; “this colour that you see is red”; “this other colour is light blue”; “this brand that is written on the label means OVS”; “this means Prada, which has this value”; “this garment is for kids ”; “this other is for women”; “this other garment is winter”; “this is for summer season”, etc.
All those are the information that we recorded manually, photographing and cataloguing about 8,000 garments by hand to train our AI. The training of the AI is still a work in progress: the first version was released in March this year. Starting in this November we will do the second and third versions that will try to speed up the A.I. because it still has quite long image processing times; then it will increase the accuracy of the algorithm because, just like a child, the more exercises it does the more accurate it becomes.
I think by the beginning of next year we will have the final version of our A.I., for which we have filed a patent application. Application filed both at the national and European level, and the technology is covered from cataloguing with AI to the marketplace with all its functions. As of today, we are waiting for the response and possibly proceed to respond to the observations made, we are counting on being able to get at least the Italian one. Currently there is nothing similar either at the national or European level.
Artificial intelligence already is used in the fashion industry, but it is mainly used to recognise images of clothing for marketing purposes: for example you can share on social media this little dress saying you really like it. AI algorithms can recognise this information and suggest a brand to produce more of this type of clothing. We, on the other hand, apply computer vision to the circular economy, so to the possibility of recovering clothes at the end of their life and making sure they do not become waste.
HOW DO YOU MANAGE TO MAKE A.I. WORK? DO YOU HAVE AN INSTRUMENTATION?
Yes, the equipment basically consists of a horizontal surface (e.g., a white table) and a C-stand that holds fixed any device with a camera (e.g., a smartphone) in a particular spot. The garments are spread out onto this surface to be scanned thanks also to a set of lights to cancel out all the shadows, making the work of the A.I. easier. Then the label is brought closer to the camera to make the description of the garment complete. The device is connected to a computer from which an operator can remotely control the device’s camera, and see everything on screen: basically, you take the photograph of the garment and one of the label, thanks to which then all the cataloguing and digitisation of the garment takes place, which then goes directly to the marketplace platform.
This is the prototype, in the future the idea would be a scanner-like machine large enough to hold a garment lying down and through a touch screen the operator can activate the cataloguing and digitization, as well as make any corrections of some data that are not extracted. This would allow a speeding up at the registration level: with the current system it takes about a minute and a half per garment, with the scanner we are talking about a handful of seconds.
It will then be an industrialized process.
IN AN INCREASINGLY DIGITAL ENVIRONMENT LIKE OUR SOCIETY, CAN COMMUNICATION PLAY A KEY ROLE IN THE GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT OF THIS PROJECT?
In our startup, the communication aspect in the sense of dissemination of information, public awareness, etc. has always been the basis of everything. I was advantaged because before I got involved in Atelier Riforma, I was involved in science dissemination in the field of food science, which is where I come from.
I've always been very passionate about science communication but also about all the different tools that permit to do that.
Right from the beginning we have participated in a lot of information events towards citizens; written a lot of articles; created infographics; posts; we have even recorded podcasts; done webinars and talks of all kinds.
To try to change an industry you have to start with the consumer, which is the main push, so, you have to give the right information in explaining what the problems are and what could be the most possible solutions. And when a consumer is really aware, their behaviour changes and so do their consumer choices, that's how change can happen.
We are also very active on social networks: from Instagram to LinkedIn to Facebook, digital communication has also allowed us to get a lot of exposure, and this has really helped us. In my opinion, every startup needs to work a lot on the communication aspect through all the channels that exist.
WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS?
Entrepreneurial goals? We would like to get to the industrialisation of Re4Circular that is currently still a prototype, we would like to get to a greater accuracy of the technology and increase its speed, being able to provide an instrument that is a real machine. In addition, we would not like to limit ourselves to the Italian territory but to be able to expand since we have the European territory as a target. The main idea for the target would be a little bit broader but what we have set our sights on is Europe because we are following the legislation that is moving so much in our direction: the enhancement of circular recovery of textile waste and separate collections.
With Re4Circular, we would like to achieve a decrease of the amount of textile waste that goes to landfill, particularly in developing countries as is currently the case, and to create, precisely through Re4circular, a European circular economy ecosystem that enhances all the expertise that there is in this field, also leading to the creation of new jobs in this sector related precisely to circularity.
We want to be a bit of a tool to reach this level.
There are so many perspectives so many open yards I am quite optimistic currently.
IN WHAT DOES A CO-FOUNDER/CEO HAVE TO DARE?
When a founder decides to materialize an idea, he/she really takes a leap of faith especially at this time when in the startups world one is surrounded by a somewhat toxic environment. Startups are constantly competing, you have to prove that you’re the best, that you have the most promising project, that you have revenue projections of millions in a very short time.
This really requires a lot of courage and a lot of mental strength which, I am not ashamed to say, many times I did not have. Sometimes it is extremely difficult to compete with other, perhaps more advantaged realities, with capital, with connections, which we, starting from scratch in that area did not have.
The people around are also important to be able to move the idea forward, had it not been for Sara and then having another person who believed in the project maybe I would never have founded it.
There were times when you think you can't accomplish anything and you think you are going to stop, then actually the determination to believe that you are doing something worthwhile, something that, even in a small way, will serve to change the world perhaps for the better, pushes you to hang in there.
In this, in my opinion, the founder has to dare, he/she has to hold on in today's landscape, which is not one of the easiest to stay in.
for DARE CLAN