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Stella McCartney Presents the Hult Prize for Redesigning Fashion to Banofi

The banana leather innovators were awarded $1 million, and reveal they are already in talks with luxury brands to develop products.

Hult Prize president Lori van Dam, Stella McCartney, Banofi founders Isobel Campbell, Jinali Mody and Margaret Boreham.GREG CAPARELL / COURTESY HULT PRIZE

PARIS — In the end, it was bananas.

After a daylong “Shark Tank”-style pitch session with six final teams, Stella McCartney presented this year’s Hult Prize to banana leather developer Banofi.

Founders Margaret Boreham, Isobel Campbell and Jinali Mody were awarded $1 million seed funding toward the development of their business.

The trio launched their business two years ago sourcing banana waste from farms in India, where their research and development and production are based.

“We have a commercially viable material that people can use today,” Campbell said.

Mody modeled cuffs and bracelets while Campbell sported a corset and Boreham wore a full moto-style jacket made from the material. Banofi has already partnered with Yale University on a line of notebooks and luggage tags, and is now working on pilot projects with several fashion companies. Accessories brand Misfit Panda has already placed an order.

While the first round of the material worked for hard leather goods, they have developed a form that will work on soft leather goods. That advancement now has them in talks with two major luxury brands and one major French conglomerate, though they kept the names under wraps.

The trio were honored to receive the prize from McCartney. “She actually had seen the material before this, and she said she’s really excited about how it’s changed,” added Mody.

On stage, McCartney discussed the importance of making change within the fashion industry, which often comes down to the bottom line.

“The only way you can really make a difference, you have to show the business of fashion that you have a healthy business alternative,” McCartney told the rapt audience in a fireside chat. Providing alternative materials “attracts a great generation of consumer, younger and cooler and out-of-the-box-thinkers,” she added.

“Just talking about a new silhouette, or the next color, I’m like, that’s great, but really, who cares? To say it like that seems so old school to me. The fashion industry is fairly old fashioned and uses about 10 materials at the end of the day,” she said of the industry’s reliance on high-volume, low-cost textiles which pollute or cause deforestation. McCartney emphasized that the industry needs to invest in new materials development.

She added that she is working to remove leather from the fashion industry in the same way that many designers now shun fur, and claimed that its low price point does not account for the environmental damage it does.

McCartney also gave advice to the students. “It’s important that you truly believe in what you’re about to embark upon. For me, personally, having a real commitment, a core belief system in why I do what I do and having a reason that just goes beyond something kind of meaningless,” she said. “Really believe in your mission — and fight like hell.”

The 14-year-old Hult Prize focuses on a different social or sustainability topic each year. Even if everyone is not into “fashion,” everyone wears clothes. Devoting this year’s prize to the fashion industry was an opportunity to unite various disciplines from engineering to economics to marketing, said the Hult Prize’s president Lori van Dam.

“A lot of people aren’t aware of just how toxic the clothing industry is for the environment, and so we thought it was a really cool opportunity to educate people about what the impacts really are of, for example, the need to have a new outfit to wear on social media every single time,” van Dam said. “It seemed like a really multifaceted topic where we could get a lot of compelling ideas that could also inform people.”

Stella McCartney and Hult Prize president Lori van Dam on stage with moderator Dana Thomas, left.GREG CAPARELL / COURTESY HULT PRIZE

Hult professor Dr. Caryn Pang, who spent much of her career at Macy’s Inc. before moving to education, emphasized that the industry needs to change.

“It’s an industry that for many years has been about overconsuming, and so now we have to really think about changes — what can we do with what we have now? How can we create a circular economy? How do we become innovators?” she said. Pang noted the prize is focused on next-gen solutions that are also viable business cases.

“Not all of them have a fashion background, but they have the creativity, the heart and soul, and the drive to make a difference,” she added of the presenting projects.

The other finalists on stage at Paris’ Élysée Montmartre theater were Graff Inc., which manufactures sustainable material from textile waste; Effct, which repurposes textile waste for use in furniture, construction and packaging; Riiverse, which repurposes textile waste into building materials and other industrial uses; Innovious, which uses the fallen leaves of palm trees to make clothing hangers and hangtags, and Labwear Studios, which develops on-demand manufacturing and circular product design to reduce overproduction and waste.

Each of the other five finalists was awarded $100,000 to develop their business.

It was the first time the prize has been devoted to fashion solutions and entrepreneurship and it held preliminary competitions in 12 cities worldwide including Nairobi, Lisbon, Dubai and Rio de Janeiro, before narrowing the competition down to the finalists.

Judges spanned the creative industries with Olivier Gabet, director of the Department of Objects of Art at the Louvre; Sweaty Betty founder Tamara Hill-Norton; Polimoda head of commercial development Niccolo Sbaraglia, and fashion environmentalist and interdisciplinary designer Runa Ray among the panelists.

There were also judges from the finance and funding world, including executives from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, along with venture capitalists.

The Hult Prize team noted that many of the teams have patents pending on viable products that are either on the market or ready to go to market, and some have strategic partnerships with large corporations, such as Riiverse’s partnership with Coca-Cola in its native Taiwan. After going through the program’s accelerator, they are all investment-ready companies seeking venture funding.

Former President Bill Clinton, who has traditionally presented the prize when the ceremony is held in New York, appeared on video to announce that next year’s prize will be open to any topic that is related to the U.N.’s sustainable development goals.


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