From Issue 63: The Custom-Made Is Always Right – Tamsin Blanchard Discusses On-Demand Production
A few years ago, I visited Unmade, a knit and tech start-up (that’s right, knitting and technology, the two are surprisingly well suited) based at the innovations incubator Makerversity, at Somerset House. There, I met Ben Alun-Jones, appropriately bespectacled and techy-looking, who showed me the industrial knitting machine that he and his cofounders had hacked so that it could create mass-customised product – a different design every time, with no need to recalibrate the machine. He compared it to a 3D printer that can be programmed to print on demand. The founders wanted to disrupt the way clothes are manufactured by making only what was actually ordered – to the personal specs of the customer.
Five years on, Unmade haven’t quite revolutionised the industry. But they are well on their way. The team has grown to about 30, and now works directly with famous names in the industry (we can’t say who or they will have to feed us into the knitting machine). Their mission statement is clear – to enable the industry to move away from an outdated, wasteful, unequivocally unsustainable model of mass production and mass consumption to a leaner, greener model that makes product on demand. The industry, they say, is at the beginning of a new revolution that will see customisation, personalisation, collaborations, limited editions and local production as the norm. Instead of piling them high and selling them cheaper and cheaper, the high street of the future will be highly curated, where the customer drives levels of production in a way that is sustainable and considered. Using their technology, brands are now able to integrate an individual, one-off piece into their existing production line.
Traditionally, clothes are manufactured in massive volumes because that’s the way to keep the margins low and profits high. But it’s a model that is not working, and has resulted in a glut of clothes that nobody knows what to do with. Last summer, Burberry admitted to having burnt clothing and accessories worth £28m that were surplus to requirements but too risky to send out to the resale market as it would undermine the brand’s intellectual property and value. In March 2018, H&M reported that they had $4.3bn worth of unsold inventory and had already admitted to burning defective stock to generate energy for their power plant in Vasteras. Nobody would argue that we have a problem, but to solve the problems of overproduction we need systemic change. Production has become disconnected from demand.
According to Alun-Jones, we have the technology to make radical change in the industry, we just need the culture to change. And that could take time. “We largely have all the technology we need to do this today,” he told me when we met at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in May, where he was showcasing the recent collaboration between Unmade and Rapha that allowed cycling teams to create customised jerseys. “I think we are on the journey to directly connecting supply and demand in a much more immediate way than would have been possible before.” He questions whether the industry is ready but points out how quickly things can change. The effect of Extinction Rebellion’s campaign, along with Greta Thunberg’s school strikes, on consumer attitudes as well as government policy has been immediate. “It’s quite powerful the way attitudes can shift,” he said. If the business case can be made for a switch to mass customisation and on-demand production (and he believes it can), then he believes change can happen very quickly. The cogs are all in place.
It’s already starting to happen, particularly with the more agile, technology-led sportswear brands. Adidas opened their first robot-powered Speedfactory in Germany in 2016, which will eventually be able to make 3D-printed mass customised ocean plastic soles that are made for every individual’s foot. NikeiD launched back in 1999, allowing the customer to personalise their trainers, and Converse followed in 2005. So this is not new, but the trend towards demand for more personalised product is growing.
According to McKinsey’s State of Fashion 2019 report, on-demand production will lead to a boom in personalisation and a redefinition of “made to measure”. “Fashion is seeing the start of a seismic shift where products are ‘pulled’ into the market based on actual demand rather than ‘pushed’ based on best guesses and forecasts,” it predicts. And it will change the way clothes are made using mass customisation, from niche start-ups to Uniqlo.
The key is linking the production to actual demand so that only items that have an owner go into production. This is something San Francisco-based denim tech company Unspun have already put into practice. “We are at the point now with technology where we can make customised clothes, so not only are we tackling the inventory problem, we are also honing in on the life phase of the garment and seeing how long we can make that last and how we can make the consumer-garment relationship stronger,” said Brooke McEver, product lead at Unspun. McEver is one of those people who makes you think she really can change the world. She previously started the sustainability department at Bangladesh’s biggest fashion export factory and co-founded a social enterprise dedicated to creating transparent supply chains. We met in April at the Global Change Awards (GCA) in Stockholm, an annual event with the mission to make fashion circular, run by the H&M Foundation, which rewards sustainable innovation with a share of a €1m grant. Unspun cofounder and visionary Beth Esponnette was speaking at the event. The start-up was a GCA winner in 2017.
The idea is that they can take a customer’s exact measurements in 3D and then spin a pair of jeans to fit on demand. What’s really interesting is the process can be reversed and unspun again to a reusable spool of yarn. Unspun are partnering with a major European denim brand to provide on-demand custom-fit production, so the idea is gaining traction. Customers can try out the service in their two stores in San Francisco and Hong Kong, where you have a consultation over a coffee or a beer to discuss how you want your jeans, from the width of the turn-up to the taper of the leg. Currently, their custom made-to-fit jeans cost from $200. “It’s so easy and simple,” explained McEver. “Some people want to suck in their stomachs, and I’m like, ‘Unless you want your jeans super-tight, man, just be normal!’ You have to be you.” Unspun collect 10,000 data points through the 3D scan. “We know every single piece of the leg, not just waist, hip and knee. Once we have your scan, we build a custom pattern for you each time from scratch.”
It’s already possible to have a scan at gyms and clinics around the world that are currently using the technology to monitor changing body shape. The scan takes 30 seconds and your own personal algorithm is ready in minutes. The 3D weave machine is still a work in progress but it’s on its way and, ultimately, the most efficient way of making the jeans would be in a local micro factory within easy posting distance from wherever you are. If you gain or lose weight, or wear them out, in the not-so-distant future you will be able to return the jeans to be unspun and start the process all over again.
The idea of localised micro-production is one that is exciting milliner Leo Carlton. Earlier this year he launched a pop-up collection of 3D-printed hats at Joyce in Hong Kong following an exhibition at London’s Sarabande Foundation. The headwear – “hats” is too constricting a word – is 3D-printed using plant-based PLA material that can biodegrade. Ultimately, his vision is that he will take a scan of his client’s head, have a consultation about what the client needs, and then sculpt the piece in 3D using Oculus Rift technology. When he is 3D sculpting, he looks like he is playing a VR game. It’s quite physical as he waves around the VR tools to create precisely what he wants. Then the prototype can be 3D printed and perfected without any waste. The client’s headpiece will then be sent digitally with a code allowing it to be printed as many times as the client pays for. It doesn’t matter if the client is in Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur, it can be made in a local print shop, or even at the client’s home. To view the collection, Carlton has set up a VR boutique where you can shop, Black Mirror style, in the windows of your mind.
Localised on-demand production does not have to be made by a machine or a robot. The Amsterdam-based designer Duran Lantink has an idea that involves a global network of localised seamstresses and tailors. How it works is the client sends him photographs of two pieces of clothing she or he no longer wears and he collages them together digitally and then sends the working drawings to a local seamstress who can make the design to his exact specications. The concept is a work in progress but a smart idea that could revolutionise both the way clothes are made and the way we reuse our discarded items.
Another revolutionary start-up is Teemill, a company based on the Isle of Wight that is making state-of-the-art, ethically sourced, organic cotton T-shirts that anyone can order to be screen-printed (using low-impact dyes) to their own design. There are no minimum orders. “We only make products people actually need, when they need them. And everything we make is designed to come back and be remade when it’s worn out,” says Martin Drake-Knight, Teemill’s super-smart cofounder.
The big idea fuses on-demand production with cocreation, allowing anyone to design their own T-shirts as part of a circular economy. Every piece can be returned to Teemill to be remade into a new one. It’s the ultimate platform to democratise fashion in a low-impact, sustainable way – potentially allowing anyone, anywhere, to set up their own brand and online store from their mobile phone. Teemill is a model that means there is no inventory, no deadstock, no mindless waste and overproduction – and no need to incinerate excess stock or send it to landfill. Need a new T-shirt? Tap and it’s in the post. In effect, Teemill cuts out the need for the designer (not to mention the high-street store) altogether. But that’s another story.
Graphic by Jay Keeree for Unmade. Taken from Issue 63 – MONIED, SOCIETY, SUBMIT – on newsstands now.
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