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Amanda Parkes never thought she’d wind up in fashion. Then again, 2-year-old Pangaia, where she serves as chief innovation officer, isn’t your typical fashion company.
“We are a materials science company,” Parkes said on the latest Glossy Podcast. “We’re all about the future of materials, and we really think that’s an approach that can change the fashion industry from the inside out.”
However, many fashion fans best know Pangaia as the brand behind the rainbow-bright sweatsuits with lines of text that have been worn by Harry Styles and Kourtney Kardashian.
Parkes started her career as a mechanical engineer and product designer, before eventually going back to school, at the M.I.T. Media Lab. There, she earned a hybrid computer science-materials science Ph.D. and the rare job title of fashion scientist.
“I came into fashion through the back door,” she said. “When I was in college, 20 years ago, there was no such thing as a fashion scientist.”
But, she said — despite the lack of interplay between the two worlds — fashion and science go hand-in-hand.
“Fashion is an amazing platform to be able to show off science,” she said, adding, “I was really shocked when I got more into the fashion industry to realize that big fashion companies don’t have internal research. I was coming from tech, working with companies like Intel and Google. They are doing their internal R&D 5-10 years out to change and transform and make their industries what they want them to be. Fashion didn’t have that as much inside of the big companies or at all. So I saw that as first of all massive opportunity for [Pangaia] to fill in the space.”
Parkes also discussed the power of the Gen-Z shopper, the state of greenwashing and the future of sustainability in fashion.
Below are additional highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.
The fall of fast fashion
“I actually feel quite good that fast fashion is slowly dying. And I [credit that] to Gen Z and Gen Alpha not playing into it, in a really encouraging way… They’re back in the vintage youth zone, and they think it’s super cool. And if we can make it cool to not have fast fashion, that’s a huge step forward. There are also a lot of different things that are making it much harder to create fast fashion. There’s a new bill that’s potentially being voted on in New York State — the Fashion Sustainability Act — for which [brands] will have to create a lot more transparency… The pricing thing is also interesting because — we sit at a premium level, more expensive than high street, but not at all luxury. And some people are like, ‘Oh, your stuff is so expensive.’ And other people are like, ‘Why don’t you charge $800 for your tracksuits?’ So that’s sort of a funny place to be in fashion — just recognizing how the cost of something almost never directly reflects the materials in it. It might reflect the brand or something about the craft, but if you read just the business models inside of a fashion brand, how much money is going toward marketing and advertising versus the raw material costs? If you shift those slightly — and what we try to do is use the materials themselves as our content and the marketing — you could have a higher cost of materials and still sell a product at a reasonable amount. That’s especially as these new digital technologies start to scale and we do have more regenerative cotton more readily available. So I want to think about it as: The very worst of fast fashion is going to disappear because it just will not have the right kind of support… It needs the fire of teenagers, and I think that’s dying a little bit.”
Recruiting scientists for fashion
“Fashion is a fun idea, especially for a lot of scientists who are like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to work in a boring environment.’ And what I really love is that I have so many teenage and college-age girls and women coming to me, saying, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve always loved fashion, but I really love math and science, and I never knew what to do. And now I have a direction.’ That feels amazing, because I was that person. I was all about the craziest trends, but I was really good at math and physics, and I loved it. And you don’t necessarily find the right environment to be in. [Fashion] definitely can appeal to a whole new generation of people, whatever gender, who actually have a very creative response to fashion in a very visceral way. And they can apply their technical skills there. So I love that idea. I have the best, most talented scientists in the world in my network. And we don’t have to necessarily pull all the talent away, but what if we collaborate? I want them to stay in their lab and do their microfluidics work and be on the cutting edge. But we just want to borrow a little bit of their time and their grad students and put something together that can be really commercial.”
On accidental greenwashing
“Greenwashing has to go. I will say that, while a lot of brands do seem to be greenwashing, I don’t think it’s intentional. It’s not that easy to get the right information and to do the analysis. We had to start very much as a scientific company to be able to have the [necessary] bandwidth and knowledge and expertise and just decide that this was our business principle and priority. That’s not easy for an existing brand to suddenly build up all those resources and shift their priorities, and so they do jump on things that seem easily accessible. For example, one of my biggest issues is ocean plastics. It’s amazing that we’re pulling plastic out of the ocean — we absolutely need to be doing this, it’s fantastic. But you know what the very worst use of this is? It’s to put it into something that is a fiber that actually sheds more, gets washed continuously, so it breaks down, and then you’re making more and more microplastics that are even more damaging. What we should be doing with the ocean plastic is putting it into construction materials, for example — things that never go into the ocean, don’t get washed, don’t break down. [Brands] totally have the right intention, but the idea of having ocean plastic bathing suits makes me crazy. It’s the worst possible use of the fiber, although it intuitively feels right. I want to try to get this [information] out in a way that doesn’t blame anybody, because I do understand why you would go there.… It is really like the Wild West out there.”