The Agenda: Business - Issue 171 - Magazine | Monocle

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fashion –– portugal
Cleaning up its act

The coronavirus pandemic saw activewear become a fashion staple and demand for casual sportswear continues to grow. Yet this sartorial shift poses environmental challenges. Petroleum-based materials such as polyester, nylon and Spandex are non-degradable and come with a chemical-heavy production process. That’s why brands are working on eco-friendly activewear. And with new EU regulations that would make them liable for their waste expected to be passed into law, the player with the winning formula would hold sway in an important market.

Clothius is Portugal’s biggest producer of seamless clothes, with a hi-tech factory in the northern town of Barcelos. Here circular looms deliver clothes that are almost store ready. “They come out with the tags and washing instructions printed on them,” says Jorge Vale, Clothius’s director. Since its founding in 2014, the business has seen its clientele change from sportswear brands to fashion labels with athleisure lines, such as Karl Lagerfeld and Calvin Klein. “Only about 15 per cent of what we make is for sport; the rest sits in this hybrid,” says Vale. While high-performance gear still relies on synthetic fabrics for optimal breathability and elasticity, athleisure offers leeway for experimenting with sustainable materials. “Twenty per cent of our yarns are recycled and we offer clients natural and regenerated materials, from Lyocell to bamboo fibres,” he says.


The push towards sustainability is felt across the Portuguese textile industry and businesses are betting that production innovations will give them a competitive edge over places such as Morocco and Turkey. In 2017, Valerius, Clothius’s holding company and the country’s leading textile group, invested €25m into its own recycling plant. It can now make 2,100 tonnes of recycled yarn a year from its own waste, overproduction and unsold stock. Considering that Portugal has to import many prime materials for textiles, investing in recycling plants makes a lot of sense. 

“Our aim is to be a completely circular business,” says Rute Santos, head of business and product development at RDD Textiles, Valerius’s research and innovation hub. Along with its work in recyclables, the centre is researching fibres made from food waste and bio dyes made from bacteria. “There’s a long way to go in terms of making this a clean industry,” says Santos. “But Portugal is well positioned to offer solutions in Europe’s textile market.”

grooming –– indonesia
Homegrown talent

The impetus for starting Oaken Lab, an Indonesian perfume brand, came from necessity. Co-founder Chris Kerrigan, wary of the effects of mass-market deodorants and aftershaves on his skin, began to experiment with making skincare products at home. He ended up taking an intensive perfume course and realised that he wanted to go further than kitchen-table R&D. He and his wife and business partner, Cynthia Wirjono, launched Oaken Lab in 2018. The duo co-founded the Goods Department, a concept store, and Brightspot Market, a boutique fashion festival that they still help to run every year.


Both of these businesses are in Jakarta and have succeeded by championing local brands with thoughtfully designed and high-quality products. Oaken Lab, which sells perfume, body and hair products and other grooming essentials, now has stockists in six countries. It emphasises its

“We started small and we always listen to responses from the first people who adopted the brand”

Indonesian roots through products such as Batavia Barber, a perfume named after a historic barbershop in Jakarta’s Old City. The local links are more than nominal: the fragrance comprises vetiver from Java and patchouli from Sumatra, and customers have responded enthusiastically to Oaken Lab’s handsomely packaged, sweet-smelling scents, balms, candles and accessories.

“We started small and we always listen to responses from the first people who adopted the brand,” says Wirjono. “It made us realise that we do have a place in the market and that it’s still very underserved.” Oaken Lab now supplies its products to restaurants, retailers and hotels. In 2023 it opened three bricks-and-mortar shops, one in Bali, one in Jakarta’s Indonesia Design District and a larger flagship, which opened in south Jakarta in October and delivers new and immersive experiences of the products. “We were waiting to find these perfect little spots,” Wirjono says of the time it took to open physical shops. “We don’t want to overexpand; we want every location to be meaningful.”

podcasts ––– austria
Talk of the town

Austria’s postal service has been undergoing modernisation for years but its first foray into the audio world in 2022 marked a new high. Aptly named Postcast and inspired by the country’s long tradition of radio drama, it explained the system’s intricate inner workings from the point of view of a parcel, voiced by a well-known Austrian public radio presenter, as it travelled from Vienna to the second city of Graz.


Though technically a corporate podcast, its innovative storytelling made it a hit in the roster of Oh Wow, Austria’s first dedicated podcast production house. “It was a lot of fun to make but also quite challenging because it was actually more like a semi-fictional mini-series than a corporate story,” says Oh Wow’s founder Jeanne Drach, an Austro-French musician and entrepreneur who had lived in Algiers, Dakar and New York before settling in Vienna (she puts

Oh Wow is partially funded by the Vienna Business Agency, whose generous schemes have powered a rise in new journalism and media initiatives in the city in recent years

her languages to good use, hosting shows in English, German and French). Drach started the company in 2019 when she recognised a gap in the podcast market, as did the City of Vienna. Oh Wow is partially funded by the Vienna Business Agency, whose generous schemes have powered a rise in new journalism and media initiatives in the city in recent years.

Another of Drach’s hallmarks is her emphasis on empowering women. All Oh Wow employees are women (the postal parcel spoke in a female voice too), while the company’s flagship show, Jeannes Welt, focuses on inspirational women in the Austrian arts, media and beyond, including musician Ankathie Koi, author Stefanie Sargnagel and rights activist Mahsa Ghafari. The show is about to get a revamp that will invoke another Austrian tradition – that of the Varietétheater – to include readings, comedy and music alongside its spoken-word content. “It is going to be a cultural audio magazine, a weekly portion of feminist optimism,” says Drach. “It will also be our own playground for new sonic experiments.”

luxury –– china
Second to none

Most downturns have their upsides and China’s current economic malaise is no different. The market for secondhand luxury goods is booming and Shanghai-based platform Zzer is one of the rising stars. Gross value reached a record ¥2bn (€259m) last year on the back of a push into bricks and mortar. 


Zzer currently has four shops and founder and CEO Zhu Tainiqi is targeting at least 10 different cities across China in the next two years. The 35-year-old credits his wife with introducing him to secondhand luxury. It was her bad experience of trying to offload several Chanel handbags that prompted him to swap private equity for entrepreneurship. “The Chinese have been buying half of the global supply of luxury goods for the past 20 years,” he says. “Our closets must be full of handbags and I thought there must be a better way to help circulation.”

Experts authenticate every product on the shelves while sellers set the price and pay Zzer a cut. Customer demand drove the decision to go into physical retail. “More and more buyers wanted to see the goods and when we decided to open our warehouse it exploded,” says Zhu. 

Chinese consumers are willing to buy secondhand: handbags generated 60 per cent of Zzer’s revenue in 2023, with jewellery and accessories the next fastest-growing segments. Zhu attributes the change in habits to Japan’s vintage shops, a popular destination among Chinese tourists. “The market size of luxury in China is huge,” says Zhu. “Growth might slow down overall but it’s still going to be a success.”

travel –– slovenia
Just the ticket

Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, got a new railway station to mark the start of 2024: a temporary pair of platforms outside the Union Brewery.

It is, however, a first step. Due for completion in 2026, the Emonika project promises spectacular new bus and rail stations. Adjacent commercial, residential and retail buildings will fill prime city-centre land that has been embarrassingly empty for decades. 

Emonika’s long gestation is largely due to a struggle to find the right combination of stakeholders. Several commercial investors came and went before Hungarian bank otp stepped in, alongside Slovenian Railways and both the national and city governments. The municipality estimates the overall cost at €1bn.


Ljubljana will get a track-straddling, glass-roofed railway station designed by architects Sadar 1 Vuga. For the bus station, Bevk Perovic will offer passengers an airy terminus.

Architect, urbanist and co-founder of Outsider magazine Matevz Granda questions the need for “another shopping centre” to add to Ljubljana’s already plentiful supply of malls. And he suspects the provision of almost 3,000 car-parking spaces “shows the main purpose of the project: not to get people on a train but to get them into the shopping centre”. 

It seems a fair point, given that the works do not include substantial upgrades to improve train speeds and frequencies. The new station will be welcome but an improvement on 19th-century journey times would be even better.

food –– usa
In the bag

When American-Pakistani entrepreneur Umaimah Sharwani was at university, her mother, Paro, would send her Ziploc bags of spices, lentils and rice to make her favourite South Asian comfort foods. By adding water, a hearty meal would be ready in 20 minutes. Now, after working in product development and distribution – including for Google and Glossier – Sharwani has turned her knack for building direct-to-consumer products to South Asian pantry staples. 


The result is Paro, a US-based food brand that currently consists of a trio of larder essentials: a red daal, kitchari (a porridge-like dish with mung beans, spices and basmati rice) and tarka seasoning oil to top it off.

“If a barrier to entry to South Asian dishes is time or access to ingredients, I want to do that work for the consumers,” says Sharwani. She launched Paro in February 2023 and the business has seen a growth trajectory with a consistent, month-to-month expansion of 20 per cent.

Sharwani’s advice for those looking to start their own consumer-products business is straightforward. “Look at who you can bring on the journey with you,” she says. “And have a good understanding of where you want to go, because it will help you prioritise.”

food –– japan
Bait and switch

Between depleted oceans, an unstable climate and an exploding global population, the outlook for food production looks grim. Japanese manufacturer NH Foods is tackling the problem by developing alternative foods. It launched a range of soy-meat substitutes in 2020 and from April will be selling its latest offering: plant-based tuna. “We were thinking about sustainability, primarily and the scarcity of ocean resources,” says food development manager Kenichi Watanabe. “But also about environmentally conscious consumers and people who don’t want to eat raw fish or maybe can’t for health reasons. We chose tuna because the consumption is huge.” 

A scientist who studied cosmetics development, Watanabe spent six months working on the “tuna”, which is made from plant ingredients such as yam powder. NH Foods (the initials stand for Nippon Ham), which was founded in 1942, is best known for its Schau Essen sausages but now also offers dishes such as deep-fried “chicken” and breaded minced “beef” cutlets made with a soy substitute. 

“We already had the processing techniques,” says Watanabe. “The big challenge with the tuna was getting the texture and smell right.” For now the tuna will only be going to hotels and restaurants. There’s also a soy meat Korean bulgogi wrap and a plant-based ramen broth that replaces fatty pork with a soy alternative. For this part of its business, the company is looking at annual sales of ¥10bn (€63m) by 2030 and research suggests that the alternative market globally will hit €41bn by the end of the decade.

The Entrepreneurs
laura kramer on...
The smell of success

To Francis Kurkdjian, imitation is not just flattery; it is a testament to his prowess as a perfumer. “It’s a mark of acknowledgment of your talents,” he says. “Coco Chanel was not afraid of dupes. It shows that you inspire other people.” Kurkdjian is talking about his intoxicating fragrance, Bacarrat Rouge 540. One of the best-selling perfumes of the past decade, it’s also one of the most copied. But countless attempts have been fruitless because, despite best efforts, true craftsmanship is hard to replicate. 

Kurkdjian says that he doesn’t envy those trying to match his work. “I prefer to be copied than to be asked to copy other people.” He’s highly confident in the uniqueness of his creations. Kurkdjian’s first fragrance took the world by storm in 1995; Le Mâle for Jean Paul Gaultier became a scent blockbuster. “I was just 25 years old,” he says. “How do you follow that? I had to reinvent myself.”


What followed was the creation of more than 40 perfumes for fashion houses such as Nina Ricci, Burberry, Dior and Elie Saab. Collaborating with designers was a dream come true for Kurkdjian, whose early fascination with fashion fuelled his desire to work for couture houses. By 14 he knew that he wanted to be a perfumer. “I was not into smells at all,” he says. “I was dreaming about the bottle, I was dreaming about the advertising.” And it was that original love of the other aspects of perfume that led to his next move. “The business model of perfume creation was quite removed from my dream job because things were very segmented: perfumers on one side, marketing and design in other people’s hands. I felt disconnected.” 

So he decided to take things into his own hands. In 2009, he co-founded the eponymous haute perfumery Maison Francis Kurkdjian with business partner Marc Chaya to bridge the gap between his creations and the final product. “We had this crazy idea to make a brand that’s driven by creativity and by my dreams,” he says. As the fragrance house prepares to celebrate its 15th anniversary, Kurkdjian contemplated the future of scent. “What is important is the end goal, to make someone feel something through their senses,” he says. “We should be confident in the capacity of creators to push boundaries.”

To listen to more interviews with business innovators, tune into Monocle Radio’s ‘The Entrepreneurs’, live or as a podcast.

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