A year spent making grape leather in the South of France. It may well sound like the premise for an A-list romantic comedy, but – looking back on 2023 – the reality, it’s safe to say, is somewhat removed from that hazy Hollywood fantasy.
Now, that isn’t to say it’s not exciting – it is. (Or it is to us, anyway.) And that isn’t to say there weren’t highs, lows, and unexpected plot twists – there always are, of course. It isn’t even to suggest that the whole thing is totally unromantic in practice – we’re not made of stone, after all.
Instead, what it means is that the year just gone was categorised – more than anything – by immense effort, by trial and error, by new connections made and by new ways of working. And, to that end, we wanted to put together a round-up of sorts – a kind of document of last year’s trials, tribulations and its many successes; a way of illustrating the intricacies of navigating next-gen materials and the often decidedly less forward-thinking world of the fashion industry. A reminder that – for every step backward – there’s a step-and-a-half forward to be taken.
Which, admittedly, isn’t exactly beating the rom-com accusations now that we think about it.
“We were hoping to have produced our first roll of grape leather alternative material at the end of 2023, but we had last minute challenges with the pre-production hand-made samples and the differing types of grape marc that we were trialing,” says PotG founder Samantha Mureau, reflecting on her expectations for how last year ought to have ended and where the company found itself at the end of December. “The surface of the material wasn’t as smooth and velvety as it has been with other grape varieties, which is an interesting observation in itself – we’re constantly learning as we’re experimenting.”
And such, of course, is the nature of progress – it’s always moving forward, but it isn’t always linear. There are never – or, at least, hardly ever – any straight lines when it comes to creating, and even fewer when what you’re creating (or trying to create) is change.
“We found ourselves ending on a high note in a different way,” Mureau says, having seemingly found herself on a different but no less exciting trajectory for the year. “We were over the moon to have had our grape leather alternative material samples showcased at Vogue Business, Fashion Futures Event in the Design Museum in London.
“The event brought together thought-leaders, designers and startup founders to discuss the changes coming in fashion. This was very much thanks to Joey Pringle, of Veshin Factory, who made the most of his space to highlight 10 companies that he’s working with – or will be – in 2024.”
Being a part of that showcase felt, to Mureau, in many ways like a culmination of all the work – every labour of love, undertaken by everyone involved – and, while it may not have been where Planet of the Grapes expected to be at the end of 2023, it makes for a high vantage point to look both back and forward.
Research, Development & Then More of Both
“The final project of our first year of R&D came to an end in February, working on our grape leather alternative with very invested students at ITECH University, followed by the incredible Professor, Agnès Thomasset and also with the help of my Scientific mentor, Steve Block. The grape leather alternative was at a stage that was ready to be taken on again by a new group of future material scientists.”
“The like-minded people that are genuinely pushing for change in the fashion industry that I have met or with whom I am in touch with are definitely keeping that momentum for change going strong, especially the new generation of Designers.”
Prototyping, Production, and Proving It Works
“In March, the first prototypes of our material – still resembling the colours of the harvested grapes but with a fashion-colour twist and reptile texture – were produced with an innovative pre-production coatings company in Milan. Thanks to the Small But Perfect Accelerator program we had the finance to do R&D and produce A3 samples of our new grape leather alternative material, which looked beautiful.”
“With a huge sigh of relief, the material samples cut cleanly, could be sewn with no problem, and with no snags or ripping from the machine needle – all tested by a craftsman in Leicester, UK, who had worked in the industry for 30 years. What’s more, it also glued well, took to the edge painting and finishing, and resulted in the creation of a mini Odette bag, designed by Silva Hrbar Owens of Under Her Eyes.”
Presenting The Present, Looking to the Future
“In April, I presented the material in an interview with Yasmin Jones Henry at the Fashion Revolution Open Studio, in front of a dedicated audience to Circular Design, including my parents, Jane Shepherdson, my mentor and Buying Director from back in our Topshop days, Orsola de Castro, who set up the Small But Perfect program, Amanda Johnston, who asked if I would like to showcase at Future Fabrics, Dilys Williams of one of my most influential V&A Shows, “Fashioned by Nature,” and so many more incredible people.
“At the end of the eighteen-month Small But Perfect Accelerator program, I thought I was going to be on my own in this new materials world. I soon realised that I had made some great, like-minded friends – including Silva Hrbar Owens, who I collaborated with and whom I will collaborate with going forward.”
Parley for Progress
“In June, came showcasing on the Parley for Oceans-sponsored Innovation table at Future Fabrics – it was really incredible to be at such a forward-thinking show, and to be in London again.”
“This was great for meeting like-minded people, with the same aim of pushing forward with new innovative materials for the fashion and lifestyle industries. Finally, I was meeting Designers, innovators, investors, researchers and podcasters that I knew of or had been in contact with, for real.
I was excited to have finally met Clare Press of Wardrobe Crisis and to have had an impromptu, chatty interview with her, and to have met so many others – Joey Pringle of Veshin Factory, Stephanie Downs of Uncaged, Edward Hill of Materra, Daniela and Annette Felder of Eco-Couture label Felder Felder and Wealth Manager Katherine Samuels.”
More Money, More Materials
“At the same time, and after six months of looking into finance, I was awarded a grant by the French public Bank, BPI, and their French Tech program, for R&D to develop our material. This was a big opportunity (and, of course, a big relief) and that’s thanks to BPI and AMPA, the incubator based in Aix en Provence, who have taken me under their wing.”
“For now I think that we have been going at a good, nice, slow Provençal-style pace, and I am pleased with where we are, especially seeing that the fashion market has been pretty complex and slow too.”
It All Comes Back to the Vineyards
“Back round to the Vineyards, and a slightly earlier harvest. We had the chance to experiment with many different varieties of grape, all thanks to Domaine des Artauds, with their family run domaine, and Famille Sumiere, with their historical vineyards, as well as to the IAU-ACM University – where I teach – and their vines, and also Chateau Calavon.
And, of course, thanks to my next door neighbour and his wine label, Hecht & Bannier.”
A Look Behind The Scenes
“I was surprised and delighted at the same time when business news BFM of Marseille asked if they could film behind the scenes of Planet of the Grapes and called us their “Startup of the Week” in their wine edition.
This led to being on the front page of the Business section of our local La Provence newspaper.”
So, here’s to the next 12 months. À votre santé.