Alberto De Conti explains us the chemistry in the denim industry
We interviewed one of the most important experts of chemistry in the denim industry to understand how the chemistry is going to che change in the blue world.
CHEMICALS… PEOPLE SUDDENLY GET TERRIFIED WHEN THEY HEAR THAT WORD. WE KNOW THERE IS GOOD CHEMISTRY AND BAD CHEMISTRY. CAN YOU TELL US WHERE THE LINE STANDS?
Thank God I don’t actually register the same level of terror you describe! Nonetheless, I wonder why the same people don’t get equally terrified about pharma, cosmetics, constructions and food then. That’s probably because there is not the same emotive association to chemistry and that, being a food technologist, makes me smile. But it does say something about the passionate connection with clothing and the overactions this highly emotional industry triggers. I don’t know if it is because of technical unawareness or hidden agenda, but way too many “opinion leaders” contribute way too confidently to the spreading of information that has way too little scientific ground. And that’s exactly where you draw the line: between the hard facts and the fairy dust.
TALKING SPECIFICALLY ABOUT DENIM, GIVE US A TANGIBLE EXAMPLE OF BAD CHEMISTRY?
When best practices are followed, chemistry is synthetized, purified, controlled. It is all very logical, consistently analytical, almost clinical. Very much like building or landing a plane: there is no room for improvising. On the other hand, if cheap chemicals – usually by-products of other industries – find their way to the textile processes carrying through with them so-called “unintentionally added substances”, it can be troubles. Latest hazard-based and risk-based screenings have reduced frequency enormously, but consider contamination by heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and mercury. They could be hidden in inexpensive commodity chemicals coming as by-products of industrial sources such as metal processing in refineries, coal burning in power plants, petroleum combustion, nuclear power stations, high tension lines, etc. Think twice before buying a suspiciously low-priced container of otherwise rather harmless sodium hydroxide from a chemical supplier that has no analytical capabilities.
AND A GOOD ONE? EVEN TWO, THREE… MAKE US FEEL GOOD.
I have the privilege to operate in an organization where an illuminated CEO (Dr. W. Schumann) and a very imaginative VP of R&D (Dr. G. Duschek) and his team place chemistry generated through alternative and responsible thinking at the very center of the company strategy. Take BIONIC-FINISH-RUDOLF® as an example. It’s a unique, patented system for water repellent finishing of textiles that makes use of the self-orientating, branched polymers called dendrimers. In other words, Rudolf has copied birds’ feathers hydro repellency and transferred it into fascinating technical functionality being adopted by some denim brands. Another inspiring example is the manufacturing of hydrophilizing agents entirely produced out of recycled PET bottles. The properties of natural substances like Kitosan applied to textiles would qualify as a third example.
WHAT ABOUT THE NEW TREND CONCERNING HOLISTIC SORT OF APPLICATIONS? NATURAL OILS FINISHING, BIO-DEGRADABLE POLYMERS AND RESINS? IS THIS A TREND?
It is a very fair and legitimate desire coming from a very good place rather than a real trend. In my experience, however, the very same people who ask for solutions allegedly associated with this “trend” usually leave the meeting room as soon as they hear about the slightly inferior performance or the slightly higher price. When it comes to performance, we must observe that when Mother Nature’s brilliant work foresees, for example, a natural oil, there is always a biological process behind that replenishes it. Think of the continuous production of sebum that protects our skin; something kind of hard to accomplish on a pair of jeans… Regarding price, we must be aware that some of Mother Nature’s marvels can indeed be replicated by investing time and energy (see BIONIC-FINISH-RUDOLF® above).
If you look at that from this angle, the general lack of commitment and long term-vision within the fashion industry, which expects everything fast and cheap, is one of the main obstacles on the road to meaningful and articulated technical innovation. I have been on both sides and I know that a deeper dialogue between apparel retailers and chemical companies would be game-changing.
IS “NATURAL” ALWAYS BETTER THAN “ARTIFICIAL” OR “SYNTHETIC”?
It really depends what “better” means and, especially, better than what. Let’s take the example of fabric softeners, widely used in denim. We can go “synthetic” and use silicones made out of silicon, the seventh-most abundant element in the universe and the second-most abundant element on the planet. Otherwise, we can go “natural” and use, say, cationic softeners, made from natural sources such as stearic acid, myristic acid, palmitic acid. In the latter case, we enter immediately in competition for resources with other industries and mainly with the food industry. Ask the panda if a sweatshirt made out of natural bamboo is always better than one made out of polyamide…. There aren’t always easy answers.
WHO IS THE CHEMIST IN THE MAKING OF A YARD OF FABRIC AND A PAIR OF JEANS?
I am a professional who began his career working on enzymatic applications for textiles in biotech labs and then joined the R&D group of Levi Strauss & Co. where I eventually became Global Director of Business Development & Innovation. I have been fortunate enough to be equally exposed to both real science and compelling, creative design thinking and that now makes me neither truly left-brained, nor truly right-brained. I am a father who hopes to set some example for his kids in terms of being loyal, compassionate, thoughtful, open-minded, responsible, and determined. I am a pragmatis dreamer who joined the RUDOLF Group to open a new division dedicated to fashion and that develops product creativity according to advanced and responsible chemistry principles.
WHAT IS IN YOUR OPINION THE EVOLUTION OF DENIM IN THE NEXT 5 TO 10 YEARS?
We are living in an increasingly artificial, superficial and media-driven society and it is embarrassing to see how much of exactly the same denim thing is being produced and ends up in the stores. I believe that the rhythm of this non-sense will have to slow down and we’ll have to help final consumers reconnecting through product quality, without losing touch with what is real. And the notion of “real” will hopefully differentiate itself from “authentic” during the next 5 to 10 years so to become synonymous with original and innovative. It has been a slow process for the denim industry to embrace fabric performance, but now, paradoxically, men’s materials are lighter and more elastic than women’s. It’s possibly going to be equally slow a process, but I am confident that an emerging, novel breed of conscious chemistry will enhance fabric characteristics so to create a new generation of denim that is as rebellions as it is functional and versatile. Denim brands that will manage to position quality and urban functionality as important parts of the purchasing process will have a great competitive advantage.