Alberto De Conti likes to describe himself as “the only biochemist who moved from genes to jeans.” He holds a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Milan and an international MBA from the Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School, though he spent 15 years at Levi Strauss & Co. where he became global director of business development and innovation. In 2012 he joined Garmon Chemicals and set up the first design studio embedded in a chemical company and then led companywide marketing efforts as chief marketing officer. Starting from January 2018 the German chemical company Rudolf Group – established in 1922 and operating globally - tapped him to open a company division whose mission is to be a dedicated interface primary to apparel brands and retailers for the development of product creativity according to advanced and responsible chemistry principles.

Here, Alberto De Conti explains to SI his vision about how chemical companies have developed in the last 20 years and how differently they approach their clients in the fashion and denim business. He also underlines how much the chemical industry can evolve and become an ally–rather than an enemy–in preserving the environment.

Laboratory service at the Rudolf Group
Photo: Rudolf Group
Laboratory service at the Rudolf Group

In your experience, how are chemical companies involved with the fashion and jeanswear markets evolving right now?

During the past decade, a number of European chemical companies began to credibly play a very active role in the creative processes of brands and retailers which, in turn, increasingly appreciated and enjoyed a rather sophisticated level of innovation. Very well-known examples from the past are the introduction of 3D effects pioneered by Levi’s, signature fabric-touches proposed for years by Diesel and others, including distinctive glossy looks driven by premium brands like AG in LA. Nowadays, we witness a sort of phase two. With public opinion soaring at the realization that apparel manufacturing and washing are sometimes highly questionable (especially in denim), a very strong need for environmental consciousness has developed across apparel. The power of cooperation has never been greater and chemical companies are now at the core of collaborative efforts providing both creativity and peace of mind.

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What new steps or innovation shall they be mostly focused on in order to better serve this market?

The apparel market is in turmoil. Although a large part of the global market still enjoys what fast fashion offers, there is an emerging demand for denim and fashion clothing that, while looking good, suits various wearing occasions and flirts with utilitarian attributes. In other words, clothing that supports our activities in our day-to-day lives. Structured and fully integrated chemical companies–that is firms that own the entire process from lab synthesis to pilot runs and industrial productions–are expected to provide solutions in that direction, as well as a holistic vision of the future that places long-term sustainability at its heart. That vision encompasses a vast number of interconnected issues, from creativity to toxicology, from style to energy efficiency. 

What main challenges are you focused on when offering your clients products that try their best not to pollute or harm the environment? 

There is an excess of technical innovation and solutions that are scientifically sophisticated and environmentally conscious. In a moment of confusion about the best practices to follow, the main challenge, really, is getting an effective and stable dialogue going with apparel brands and retailers. Questions like “What is your point of view and long-term strategy? What does it mean to be responsible, sustainable and ethical in your category? What shade of ‘green’ will you be? How can you do this in a way that is authentic and credible for your brand? How can you pursue differentiation through responsible solutions?” are just what chemical companies ask brands and retailers to effectively develop product creativity across the various segments (denim, fashion, sportswear and outdoor). As an example, think about the progress recently made about water repellency on garments without the questioned fluorine. Not only now we can have much better chemistry on garments that protect us during rainy days, but we can afford to wash less a cool denim that also dries much faster. Beside personal convenience, you wouldn’t believe the beneficial impact on Planet Earth.

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What new ecofriendly developments and chemicals aimed at the jeanswear and denim industry is your company focused on right now?

In an increasingly artificial and media-driven world, it is surprising to see how little aesthetic innovation in denim ends up in the stores. The research of surprising, safe, compelling and affordable looks that can fit both vintage-inspired and modern execution is definitely one of our areas of focus. In addition, consumers are losing touch with what is real and an increasing amount of people are seeking to reconnect through product quality. If you think about it, it is often hard for all of us to differentiate jeans by price. Eco-friendly chemistry that helps enhancing fabric characteristics and visualizing quality is going to be another driver for us. We believe that brands that manage to position quality and responsible product choice as important parts of the purchasing process will have a great competitive advantage.

Will sustainable chemicals remain a utopia?

Textile chemistry has, without any doubt, developed a bit of a bad name over the past years. However, there is no such a thing as good, or bad chemistry. There is intelligent use of intelligent chemistry and then there is stupidity. Respectable chemical manufacturers are in the business of marketing the intelligent kind (free from dangerous contaminants, for example) and of educating customers on how to use and dispose of it. The fact that some European chemical manufacturers are located in residential areas, or right in the middle of luxuriant forests, makes utopia sound pretty tangible. 

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