Sustainable innovations may be the future of fashion, and women are subtly leading the charge.
Despite their general lack of representation in the venture capital realm — making up just 15 percent of general partners, according to PitchBook — women are turning up the stakes on sustainable fashion investments via community.
More from WWD
Alante Capital is one such women-led venture capital fund and advisory platform backing innovative technologies that address climate change and enable a resilient, sustainable future for apparel production and retail. The firm was founded in 2016 by finance industry and supply chain veterans Karla Mora and Leslie Harwell, who met through a mutual contact at JP Morgan. Seizing the “massive opportunity,” for innovation in the words of Mora, the firm covers bases on the East Coast, or Litchfield County, Conn. where Harwell is based, and the West Coast, where Mora works from her office in downtown Santa Barbara. The Alante team (which also counts Eileen Fisher as partner) is just getting warmed up.
Its “Innovation Community” — counting Lululemon, Lilly Pulitzer and Chico’s among others — is one such project in motion.
“When we first started, the main misconception was that you can’t make market-rate returns if you are focused on impact and sustainability,” cofounder and general partner Karla Mora, told WWD. “Leslie and I built an evidence base, independently and now together, that shows this doesn’t have to be the case. Finding scalable solutions to an industry’s existential challenges is interesting and rewarding work — and it is an exciting time to be at the forefront of aligning financial returns with impact.”
Alante is helping solve some of fashion’s sweeping problems, be it reducing reliance on virgin materials, powering the circular fashion economy or tackling the mammoth challenge of overproduction. This includes investing in raw material up cyclers like Circ and Novoloop (boasting a recent $10 million capital infusement from Alante), funding alternatives to synthetic materials like biodegradable polymer-maker Mango Materials and seaweed-powered Sway (also a finalist in the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize), as well as unlocking branded resale and rental opportunities under the likes of Flyp, Treet, Lizee or ZZ Driggs.
Combatting overproduction in supply chains is another explicit aim under firms like Indyx, as is improving supply chain efficiency under startup Fit:Match.
While a portfolio has to represent actual market needs, the founders are not to be overlooked. “In terms of what we admire in founders, there are a lot of technical skills that are company or sector specific — but frequently the soft skills are what really makes founders stand out to us,” explained Mora, saying resilience is the top trait. “We started Alante at a tough time for start-ups to succeed, and it has been inspiring to see how these resourceful thinkers have repositioned their companies, figured out more efficient processes and have found new ways to meet customer needs in a rapidly evolving retail environment. We are also big on talking openly about failure and shortcomings, and frankly it is a green flag to us in pitches. Willingness to be honest and vulnerable early on is a good sign of self-awareness, which we see as a critical component to success.”
Leveraging its experience to build out what it calls its “Innovation Community,” Alante’s by-invitation group comprises thought-leaders (as well as investors) at various stages in their corporate sustainability journeys. The goal is to convene to strategize on “systemic change in their industry,” in the words of Harwell. Lululemon, Oxford Industries (which includes Lilly Pulitzer, Tommy Bahama, Southern Tide) Chico’s FAS, Eileen Fisher, Mara Hoffman, Bemis Associates and Outerknown are already part of the new community.
One of Alante’s earliest advisors, Kate Dillon Levin, joined the team to spearhead the Innovation Community. Levin has worked in carbon finance and impact investing for the last decade, after transitioning from the ’90s-famed fashion model ranks.
“It was always important to us to remain pragmatic, which means we do a lot of listening,” Harwell said. “We launched our Innovation Community when we realized that our knowledge base and perspective — after five years of watching, listening, researching and analyzing — can also provide a solution to the strategic needs of corporates in the ecosystem.”
Impact investors are keen to help scale and evolve their portfolio companies over time, and Alante aims to lead with relationships to generate impact. Inviting more advocates — apparel brands, start-ups, investors or otherwise — to take part. Mora added: “It takes an ecosystem of actors working together to bring about systemic change.”