A fashion social enterprise journey from entering the European Social Innovation Competition to scaling up – by Valeria Valotto of Progetto Quid, Winner of the 2014 European Social Innovation Competition
Fashion not only transforms us: concealing our flaws, making us feel pretty, sexy or professional, it also transforms, for better and for worse: cities, politics, trade and the world.
This potential for transformation is in our hands. As it was in Quid’s team’s hands six years ago, when we decided to apply to the European Social Innovation Competition, and won it. We applied with Quid, back then a little more than a garage-stage social start-up, now a thriving social enterprise employing 142 people.
Founded in 2013 with the mission to create employment and career opportunities for those who’d otherwise struggle on the job market whilst leveraging on and injecting new ideas into Italy’s century-long history of fashion. With its own ethical fashion brand, Progetto Quid, Quid recovers end-of-line fabric – still to be found in large volumes in Italy’s fashion districts – and redesigns it into limited-edition and affordable fashion collections. Behind the design, manufacturing and sales of the brand there’s a highly diverse team because Quid welcomes those who are otherwise overlooked in the labour market.
For Quid and Progetto Quid the European Social Innovation Competition was more than a prize, it was the beginning of a journey, one that provided us with vision for our mission, equipped us with means – tangible and intangible – and helped us establish connections with people who still nowadays help us unfold our potential for transformation.
The European Social Innovation Competition’s Academy was our first opportunity to really focus on our entrepreneurial vision. We realised there was a name for what we were doing: social entrepreneurship. Theories of change, canvas models, logical frameworks – all of the work we did back then is today condensed into one sentence: ‘Limits are Starting Points’. This phrase encapsulates the quintessence of social entrepreneurship and the nectar of entrepreneurship: both strive to solve problems, the former thriving on societal challenges, the latter on market gaps.
That’s how we designed our mission. We responded to two shortcomings in our ecosystem, because it’s in those limits that we saw the starting point for something new and unique.
The first concerned unemployment in a country by constitution ‘founded on labour’, and where a specific social enterprise framework, the ‘Type B Social Cooperative’ has been set up in the 70s to foster labour inclusion of vulnerable employees. Yet Italy’s labour market is one of the least inclusive in Europe. More so in 2013, when the country was timidly getting back on its feet after the financial crisis: in a fragile market it’s the most vulnerable who are most at risk of unemployment. Despite large investments from State and civil society, some more than others struggled to take roots on the real economy, long-term. The second concerned the lack of sustainability in the fashion industry, a 100 billion euros-worth business, deeply rooted in our ecosystems and a point of pride for the country, yet still resistant or struggling to implement sustainability across its value chain, more so in 2013 in the aftermath of the financial crisis, to which the sector responded with divestment and delocalisation.
We wanted to transform these limits into starting points for something then unseen: an affordable, ethical fashion brand on a mission to redesign the Italian labour market, one dress at a time.
This was the transformative potential we saw in Italian fashion. The training and mentoring, the application process, the drafting of proposal and business plan pushed us to consider every single aspect of our future venture. The prize money from the Competition helped us make it real: we were able to hire on a permanent basis our first five employees and rent a workshop. Staff increased between 2013 and 2014, going from 0 to 15. Today we’re 142, from 15 counties, aged 19-67, 86% women. With a ‘train-empower-retain’ model we work towards the long-term labour inclusion not only of those groups that are regarded as ‘vulnerable’ in the eyes of the law, but of all those people who have encountered discrimination on the labour market. Employees, depending on talent and aspiration, work across several units: from design to prototyping, from manufacturing to quality control and packaging, from sales to marketing to logistics. Today those five employees who started with Quid in 2014 are being trained as coordinators, with a bottom-up, hands-on training initiative, leading to the design of an inclusive leadership model.
Alongside the workshop, we were able to rent a small warehouse. This enabled us to stock and recover more fabric and to start developing our suppliers network. Today we team up with 24 suppliers, from brands to stockists to textile manufacturers across Italy’s fashion districts. Together we inject new life in otherwise unused fabric, prolonging the lifecycle of hundreds of thousands of metres of fabric. This is in turn designed into low-impact limited-edition collections affordable to all pockets.
From 2014 we were able to develop the business model we had envisaged thanks to the help and support of our Competition mentor. Quid’s products are distributed across two channels, B2B and B2C, for a 3.2 million EURO turnover in 2019. Today we bring our collection to over 400,000 customers, through our 9 stores and in 100 multi-brand stores and one e-shop. Our collections are a tribute to the creative potential and skills that would have otherwise gone unnoticed and unexpressed.
Alongside developing our own brand we have also established ourselves as an ethical supplier for brands – fashion and lifestyle – that have an interest in sustainability but lack the processes and know-how. In 2014 we secured our first B2B client, the Calzedonia Group; in 2020 we finalised collaborations with Unilever, IKEA, L’Oreal and Zalando. Our co-branded products are the tangible proof that contamination between profit and non-profit is possible and looks good.
Just like in any other journey, what made the difference back then was the company we kept: the people we travelled with and those we met. From the staff in the Consortium to our trainers at the Competition’s Academy, from the European Commission to our fellow Competition contestants: the network we were introduced to in the course of the competition is the same network that today pushes us and pulls with us to transform our limits into starting points.
And if anyone out there sees, like we did, fashion’s transformative potential, join the European Social Innovation Competition this year to turn limits into starting points for something that is yet to be seen.
Entries to this year’s competition close on 4th March 2020.