Saving the World One Shirt at a Time: An Exclusive Interview with Sustainable Entrepreneurs

An exceptional trio of sustainable entrepreneurs has the won the Red Dot Design Award. The accolade of this prize is an internationally recognized quality label for excellent design, and this year it has rewarded the efforts of a team of Italian visionaries. They are the founders of WRAD, an environmental fashion brand that fully embraces the creed of the United Nations that pertains to sustainable development: meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The GRAPHI-TEE™ by WRAD fully emphasizes the life of the resources, along with the artistry of its creators.

Matteo Ward understood the true cost of fashion, while working as Sr. Manager at Abercrombie and Fitch in Germany, as well as Co-Chair for A&F Stores Diversity and Inclusion Council. Silvia Giovanardi with a background in the Menswear Graphic Office of the Italian Luxury House ETRO, always kept her interest and attention on natural fibers with one goal in mind: creating fashion capable of amplifying our mother Earth’s resources. Victor Santiago has worn many hats throughout his professional path: model, casting manager, fashion photographer, and ultimately eco-entreprenuer. His expertise in marketing and branding along with his creative flair have helped the shaping of WRAD’s image. When the three joined forces it wasn’t to make business, but to change the world and save it from the aberrations caused by climate change and inspire younger generations to follow in their footsteps.

In this Exclusive Interview the three co-founders of WRAD Matteo, Silvia, Victor express as one voice their constructive enterprise:

WRAD is not a conventional brand: how does it represent a call for action?

Our primary focus was to contribute to solving a problem of information, regarding the true impact of fashion on the environment and on people. In Southern Europe the level of awareness is still really low compared to Northern European countries. So we became active in schools and universities, offering an educational format which has, after one year of work, inspired thousands of students and ourselves every day. This gradually created the conditions to transition from inspiration to facts, creating innovative products that lived in function of their purpose inspiring the market to express intangible environmental and social values in tangible ways.


Your GRAPHI-TEE™ reprises Monterosso Calabro’s traditions, in what way?

As narrated by Roman historians, dyeing fabrics with graphite was a process already common to people 2,000 years ago. Romans used to get their graphite from a mine located in what is today known as Monterosso Calabro, a small town in Southern Italy. The women of this small town have been passing on, from one generation to the next, skills and know-how to dye their fabrics with this precious mineral. Our journey to build GRAPHI-TEE started exactly from there, from Monterosso. We had to learn everything about the original technique, since our goal was to innovate the process and build it into a closed-loop, circular cycle repurposing the graphite powder wasted today by tech companies. It took us two years to get there, from tradition to innovation. But we made it, thanks to the endorsement of our incubator and investor Perpetua We Had To Invent it, an Italian company devoted to catalyzing projects that share its same DNA and values: innovation, smart and resource-efficient processes, Made in Italy design.


How does it feel to be the winner of this year’s RedDot Design Award?

The RedDot Design Award is one of the most prestigious design awards in the world and winning Best of The Best for product design is still unbelievably crazy for us! Just think at who won this title in the past (Bose, BMW, Apple). We had to read the e-mail that announced our victory 4 times to believe it, and asked everyone around us to re-read it out loud. It’s humbling not only to have won this prestigious prize but also to have gained recognition about the philosophy of our brand. For us GRAPHI-TEE is not just a t-shirt, but an innovative product capable of inspiring the market, a simple product capable of conveying important values, for a good purpose, in a smart and groundbreaking way.


Do you feel as entrepreneurs and designers to be part of a contemporary counterculture movement?

WRAD is our response to what we, as humans, demand from brands today in any industry: transparency, value, purpose, inclusiveness, empathic altruism. WRAD is both our act of rebellion and emancipation in the fashion industry. And in this sense yes, we are a cultural movement that speaks to contemporary needs. And we work hard to make sure our brand assumes a functional role in society. So from design to marketing, finance to logistics decisions our approach is always the same: we are devoted to our purpose. We never design a product and then build a story around it. We instead always start from the values we hear and feel everyday when we are out talking to our students in schools or in the streets. We then work to find the product or business strategy which is most suitable to address those topics and provide solutions in a participative, collaborative and inclusive way for our people. It’s not always easy, it will take time to keep growing in this sense and we have failed multiple times already. But that is also part of who we are and we invest in our mistakes.


What is the secret for a successful start-up company?

Each start-up is different, with its own personality, identity, DNA. There is no set of rules to follow, or any specific formula we follow other than holding ourselves obsessively accountable to our purpose each day. But while there are some general dos and don’ts, we ultimately believe it is how you respond to all of the obstacles and challenges that will come up our way, in the tricky start-up journey. There are also psychological challenges you don’t foresee at the beginning, that are going to define the success or failure of your project.


There are three main factors that have truly helped us so far:

1) Having a true purpose and obsessively holding yourselves accountable to it everyday;

2) Working in symbiosis with third partners: there is value waiting to be created out there, by building synergic relationship with people within and out of your supply chain. Investing in the creation of symbiotic economic models will benefit all of the stakeholders involved;

3) Work to build new business models that are inclusive, that allow the market to become both a player and an actor. Making your people no longer a consumer but a real investor, sets the real foundation for the making of a solid, sustainable and valuable market.


How does Made in Italy distinguish itself today in a world of highly trained competitors?

For us it is looking at Italian traditions with a new approach. We ask ourselves how can we leverage on the know-how we have, to build new models far from the old-school linear approach that has defined the fashion industry for centuries? There is real economic value waiting to be unlocked from the creation of new circular relations inter and extra industry. And Italy, for a variety of reasons, has all the conditions to successfully re-define the concept of Made in Italy in a progressive way, where the past is used as inspiration and our present as the ground-field to innovate. GRAPHI-TEE is a great example of it, where Made in Italy means not only high quality of manufacturing and fabrics, but also circular innovation, collaboration, technological advancement and originality.


Do you feel that millennials are taking action against climate change?

If we look at data and statistics from all consulting, governmental and investment groups out there, there is little doubt about it: more than 2/3 of Millennials and Generation Z put the protection of the environment and people at the top of their personal agenda. Data also reflected this, if we consider the demographics behind the political choices in the last wave of elections that are currently redefining the Western world. In our WRAD experience, every semester we directly approach 2500-3000 students in schools and universities across Italy and it is truly inspirational to witness their response. We feel their determination and motivation in using fashion as a way to positively reduce their own environmental footprint in this world. People truly care when they know. And many students, after attending our programs, end up voluntarily joining us and becoming themselves speakers and ambassadors in our projects. The educational format we developed is now part of the official offer of Fashion Revolution and available in 92 countries worldwide.


Who are the eco-advocates and activists who inspire WRAD?

We are inspired by a number of players who have also shown us their support and valuable mentorship in this initial stage of development for WRAD: from Livia Firth and the incredible team at EcoAge, to Andrew Morgan (director of the movie The True Cost), Orsola de Castro, Carry Sommers and Marina Spadafora from Fashion Revolution. Their work and activism is inspiring and also a guideline for us. We are extremely thankful for their work. We are deeply inspired by our network of suppliers: Walter Corriga from TessileEcoBio, Maria and Teresa from TM Project, Isabella, and many others. Furthermore the inspirational boost and motivation needed to keep progressing with WRAD comes from our peers, the students we approach everyday and the members of our community and team. Their sensitivity, degree of engagement, unconditional passion and dedication is an example.


What future goals do you want to achieve through sustainable innovation? 

Right now those who are investing in GRAPHI-TEE and wearing it are, de facto, helping us support our R&D program aimed at tracing more innovative and sustainable paths for the fashion industry opening our brand up to new opportunities. This past month we have been able to register a patent for a new dyeing technique which was developed by combining two technologies: our repurposed graphite dye process and KITOTEX SAVE THE WATER. This new manufacturing process we invented together with Susanna Martucci from Perpetua We Had To Invent It and Gigi Caccia from Italdenim. It can reduce the environmental impact of the fabric in the dyeing stage by 90% in terms of water, energy and chemical consumption. A groundbreaking innovation we plan on launching with a new product this fall. Another field we are then focused on is the development of new fibers obtained in circular ways. We are at the seed stage with this one, but the future looks promising as long as we continue to invest together as one, to create better paths for fashion manufacturing. In 2030 there will be 8.5 billion people on this planet. Keeping the status quo and continuing along the linear path set in the past is not only irresponsible and unsustainable, but also unrealistic and detrimental for all of the stakeholders involved. Hence this crisis is our biggest chance and opportunity to lead change and real progress.