Sustainability

Episode 17: Ruth Kelly | SAACHS

Ruth Kelly on finding her path to SSACHS and making change in the active apparel industry.

Ruth Kelly is the head of materials and materials editor of SSACHS, a design agency for performance and active lifestyle apparel, which also publishes a digital magazine under the same name. We had a fun conversation discussing her journey of leaving her corporate life to join SSACHS with her partners. As a creative fabric expert, thought leader, and educator, Ruth shares insights as to how she approaches material development, what makes a good material partner, how the pandemic has influenced design trends and sustainability, along with the necessary digital marketing tools that are needed to help connect suppliers, mills, and brands. You’ll also discover the meaning behind the name SSACHS!

Portrait of Ruth Kelly, of SAACHS
Ruth Kelly, Performance Materials Expert | Entrepreneur | Editor | Fabric Developer & Innovator

Ruth’s Interview Transcript

Nancy: Hello, I’m Nancy Fendler, and you’re listening to Material Wise, your podcast on material matters. It’s my chance to talk to designers, product developers and other guests about what inspires them to create. Why and how they select the materials they choose, and the relationships they’ve built with their customers and industry. My guest today is Ruth Kelly, head of materials and materials editor of SSACHS, a design agency for performance and active lifestyle apparel, which also, creatively enough, publishes a digital magazine under the same name. Passionate about performance materials, Ruth is a creative fabric expert, thought leader, and educator. She has successfully led raw materials teams in the UK, Canada, Hong Kong, and Sri Lanka – and across the supply chain from performance brands such as lululemon, where she worked for seven years as materials director, to manufacturers. Ruth combines her network of connections with practical in-depth knowledge of the fabric development, sourcing, validation, and production process to make ideas come alive. I spoke with Ruth from her home office in Vancouver, BC. We had a fun conversation discussing a range of topics from how she left her corporate job to join SSACHS with her partners to how she approaches materials development. We also chat about what makes a good material partner, how the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced design trends, along with the necessary digital marketing tools that are needed to help connect suppliers, mills, and brands.

In case you’re wondering where the name SSACHS came from, it’s actually a derivative of the Trossachs area in Scotland, where the SSACHS founders have close ties. As the Trossachs is a wonderful outdoor area loved by cyclists, hikers, and runners alike, it’s a great name for a sportswear and active lifestyle design company. I hope you enjoy the episode. Nancy: Ruth, thanks so much for being on Material Wise. I’ve heard so much about you and glad to finally chat.
Ruth: Well, thank you so much for having me, Nancy. I’m really excited to have a chat and share some of my thoughts and stories.
Nancy: Yeah. Wonderful. I’ve done a bit of research on SSACHS. Am I pronouncing it correctly?
Ruth: Yes, you are. Yes.
Nancy: Okay, SSACHS. Can you tell me how you got involved? It’s such an interesting business with the design and the magazine.
Ruth: Yeah. Well, it’s been an extremely exciting journey. We’re just at the beginning of that journey still. How I got involved with my two business partners, Diane and Soudi, who are both in the UK, although we’re all British, it was actually the powers of LinkedIn and connection and networking that got us together, because a bit like yourself, Nancy, we’d all been existing in parallel worlds throughout our careers, having worked in sportswear, in big corporations, the big brands. Diane reached out to me on LinkedIn and was like, “Hey, Ruth, really interested in what you’re doing. I’ve got a magazine. Would you like to be interviewed?” Of course, as a new consultant in this world, it’s always nice to have someone who wants to interview you. It comes across a lot more authentic from a PR marketing point of view. So, I jumped on a call with Diane and, law of attraction, we just hit it off so well that it morphed into an amazing conversation. I wanted to say an interview, but it wasn’t an interview or a job application, it was just a really cool conversation. We realized we had so much in common that I actually came off that call being invited to join the team and head up the materials section of the magazine. So yeah, it was just having this lovely feeling of, oh, these are a great bunch of people they’ve got, they’re trying to do exactly what I’m trying to do, and isn’t it so much better to be part of a network and part of a team rather than trying to do everything by yourself?
Nancy: Absolutely. It just brings me back to, maybe we’ll come back to this, but one of the articles that you wrote for the magazine on collaboration and how important it is and how you can often do so much bigger things with it, and even though you have different strengths, but when you bring it together, it’s really powerful.
Ruth: Yeah. I always try and go back to the teachings of Richard Branson, because he always talks about that not one person can do everything and be super strong in everything. So that’s one thing I’ve learned is to be aware of what your strengths are, and also be aware of maybe where you’re not so good or you don’t enjoy things, and having that confidence to be able to let other people take the leads who are amazing at that, and then that’s where it’s so much better as a team.
Nancy: Absolutely. Was there a kind of a defining moment where the three of you… I mean, you had this call on LinkedIn, but I know you had worked with some very big brands in the past. Were you head of materials with some of these brands? Was there a time where you just said, “Okay, I’ve had it, and I want to do something on my own?”
Ruth: Yeah. Well, I wasn’t head of materials, but I was a director for lululemon. You know, like any big brand there is especially, I think, as well, when you work for a publicly traded company, there’s obviously another set of responsibilities and pressure to keep, quite rightly, well, you could argue about that, but that’s another podcast, but there is this pressure, anyway, to provide newness and more, more, more profits. Having been working like that for seven years, it’s exhausting. It’s super fun, but there is an element of what I call a hamster wheel. Oh, here we go again. Here’s another season. And those seasons seem to be getting shorter and shorter and you’ll feel like yourself and your team have pulled out a miracle or done something really amazing, but it’s never good enough. It’s always like, what’s next, what’s next. So maybe that’s the cynic in me, being in the industry a little bit more, but I think coming into the twilight of my career, shall we say, not at the beginning, you start to look at things differently. So, it’s, okay, what can I actually do for myself to really create the life I love? It was a big thing for me having to break those shackles of the monthly salary. So, being able to step out of that and, okay, how can I create financial stability for my family in a different way, in an entrepreneurial way? That is super scary, that is, and it’s taken me many years to get the courage to try and do that, but I found it’s extremely freeing when you do. You know, you kind of now think of, “Why didn’t I do this years ago?” Right? But it’s been in that mindset of, “Oh, I always need to work for someone else. I need to get that salary to come in,” especially when we’ve all got responsibilities, et cetera. So, yeah, I think that was part of the drive, and the drive to also try to make a change in the industry. You know, we can all sit and complain about, oh, I don’t like the fact that there’s all this pressure, or that things aren’t sustainable, or that I don’t feel I have a life, or I’m not producing great products. We can all get in complaints, but for me, it’s also, how do you be part of the solution rather than part of the problem? So also stepping outside of that enables you to have different conversations because you don’t have to put that on that layer of working for a company and have to apply their filter to everything.
Nancy: Absolutely. It’s very frightening, I know, but so rewarding. I have a feeling it will be interesting to see when we come out of the pandemic what will transpire with company work, what people do. I think a lot of innovation, or I hope lot of innovation, comes out of this situation, not just in product ways, but just personal ways as well. I listen to podcasts a lot, and yesterday on my walk I was listening to Brene Brown and Daring Greatly. I’m just like, “Oh yeah, that’s why I did this.” I know it’s scary, but.
Ruth: Awesome. I mean, I was fortunate enough to see her speak. She was one of the keynote speakers at the lululemon Leadership Conference and she is amazing. She’s so much fun, as well. I think she was a little bit scared that she was coming to lululemon and that people were going to be, you know. Then, this was quite a few years ago, so early on in her public speaking career, so I guess she’s had her some experiences where maybe she tried to be a little bit goofy and people didn’t kind of get it. But of course, the lululemon team was totally into it and she had the whole room up dancing. Yeah, she’s awesome.
Nancy: Oh, she’s funny. Maybe we can get a little bit more into materials now. So how do you think materials influence design?
Ruth: Great question, Nancy. Yeah, this is something where it’s, to me, it’s a symbiotic relationship. I talk a lot about, with designers, what comes first, the chicken or the egg, and it can be both, right? So often it’s that influence of you pick something, you pick this material up, you have this tactile, it’s visual, experience. As a designer, you can get excited, you can start to visualize how that can transpire, how that can be used in a design and how it can create something that is going to, especially in sportswear, provide a soul and a function, and, okay, it might sound a little bit pompous, but actually enrich someone’s life by making them feel good, by making them not have to worry that they’re going to get caught out in the rain when they’re on a run. So, yes, you can pick up fabrics and have that very visceral relationship with them and that can spark the design process. But then equally, there’s also the other way to look at things, the other side of the coin, where as a designer you might have an idea of something that you want to create and you can’t actually find the exact thing either visually or aesthetically that you want, or performance wise, that you need. That’s super fun as well, being able to work with a designer and help draw out their ideas, especially as they’re the experts, maybe, in apparel design, and you’re the expert in developing the fabrics and being able to do that. I’ve also worked on other aspects where when I was at lululemon I did, a few years ago, a reflective embroidery collection. I was really interested in how that whole design and development played off each other. So, the whole project came to light because we were trying to innovate in the area of reflectivity. So, when you’re out on a run, especially in the fall in the Northern hemisphere, you want to be able to feel safe, and with reflectivity, it’s very technical, there’s a lot of limitations as to what you can do. I had this idea, it was two o’clock in the morning, using my background from the intimate apparel world, I thought, ooh, what about taking this new reflective yarn that’s very difficult to knit or weave because it’s super stiff and applying that to an embroidery technique which is not normally used in sportswear. I kind of thought, hmm, I knew I couldn’t go to the design team and explain this because they kind of wouldn’t get it. They needed to see something. I could see it in my mind, but I knew they needed something to actually see. So, as a side of desk project, went along and persuaded a company that I noticed was an embroidery company. “Oh, hey, if I can get you some yarn, would you just be interested in just doing me a little sample?” They’re like, “Yeah, yeah, sure. No problem.” So did that. Then when I showed it to our creative director, he was like, “Yeah, just go for it, Ruth, that’s awesome. Just go for it.” Then it was the question of working with the design team to be like, okay, this is the potential, how can we actually engineer what we need to make the best use of this technology? So sometimes you also get into that realm where they are both influencing each other, and so that you’re doing the development of the material at the same time as the development of the garment. So that was super interesting to be able to make these adjustments on the fly as we fit the garment. Oh, we need that embroidery to go a little bit more up there. Let’s alter, let’s tweak, that design. So that’s super cool as well.
Nancy: Yeah. It’s symbiotic how you work together, and you really need both so one can feed off the other. What do you think is important to you when you create a fabric? Obviously, the yarn, what the fabric has to do, but do you just have like these brainstorms that maybe come from design or just like, “Oh, I have got to have an invention here?”
Ruth: Yeah, it’s a bit of everything. You know, for me, it’s like lots of different plates that you’re spinning at the same time. So, you have to have a real appreciation and a desire to produce something that’s aesthetically beautiful or handsome, or whatever that can be. That’s really important because you could be an amazing technical person but create something that just doesn’t look or feel great and nobody’s going to want to wear it. It doesn’t matter how great it is technically, especially when you’re putting something next to skin. Then the other thing is, being a bit of a geek as well, a bit of a technical nerd, as you said, it’s about getting into that detail of the fibers, the yarn, the number of filaments that’s in there, the construction, the finishing, the amount of stretch, all these different parts of the recipe. It’s a bit like baking a cake that you’re playing around with, and it’s fascinating how they all inter-react to the good or detriment of the overall finish. A third element is also the commercial aspect that you need to ask, is this a commercial product? What does that mean? How can I get that into mass production? Then, of course, don’t forget sustainability as well. So that’s a very important new fourth place that we need to keep in there. Am I producing something that is going to be sustainable? I mean, that’s a whole other debate, but at least am I producing something that is going to be part of someone’s closet for a while. It’s going to be durable. It’s going to be something that they’re going to treasure. That’s really important to me as well.
Nancy: Speaking of sustainability, it means so many different things to so many different people. What does sustainability mean to you?
Ruth: Well, I think the first important thing to think about is from a design point of view. Because we can talk about circularity of design, we can talk about recycling, et cetera, et cetera, but as I said earlier, it has to be sustainable in terms of it has to be something that we all produced and that it’s going to be treasured and loved. Because if you think about circular design, or end of life, you’re talking about you’ve already built in this obsolescence into the garment. You’re already thinking about end of life. But what if something was so treasured, such good quality, that it isn’t wearing a way, but also it isn’t becoming obsolete because it’s no longer in fashion or it’s no longer considered aesthetic? I don’t know, maybe I’m an idealist, but I think the more that we can do to that, that is going to be huge, and we definitely need to look at our level of consumerism. So, I think, yes, everything else is part of the solution. Recycling, biodegradable, waterless dying, using renewable energies in factories, like all of these are super, super important, and we also need to look at the amount that we consume and the amount that we produce. So, for me, it’s about producing better and producing less. That doesn’t necessarily go with a consumerist or a capitalist culture, so again, we’ve got this…right?
Nancy: Yes. No, and I’m hearing that from other guests on the podcast. I think that’s a fabulous trend. We all have too much stuff and if we can buy better and wear longer, that would be better. But you’re right, consumerism. When you’re designing all these different seasons, you have to keep coming up with something else and something more and something more. So, it will be interesting to see what happens. How do you think the supply chain has been helping brands with their sustainable efforts?
Ruth: I think that’s a really good question. I think there’s good and bad. I wouldn’t even say bad, it’s just really hard. You know, it’s hard for us all to figure out and to really tell the authentic stories. People, quite rightly, are cynical about, “Oh, it’s just greenwash. Oh, here we go again. “If I look at the mill, say, and they do a better job than others at telling the stories. It can be confusing because sometimes their salespeople aren’t always maybe the best technical and don’t know the story themselves. One thing I’m sure you’ll appreciate, Nancy, that can be super confusing is even something as simple as the recycled yarn. The fiber supplier manufacturer might have yarn beyond the plant and might give it their own brand name, and then the mill wants to give it another brand name, and then everybody gets really confused, you know? I found out fabrics that I had been working with for years, have actually got a component of a Serona yarn, and I didn’t even know, right? So, I think we can do a lot better. I think, certainly from the mill level, people are really trying to do good and they are really trying to help the brand. You know, it’s been tough for them because when we started these conversations years ago, it was always about price and people wanted the sustainability aspect but didn’t want to pay anything extra. Now, that price difference is still there, but it’s becoming much, much smaller. It’s going to be interesting to see in terms of smaller dye batches and things like that, how we can carry on. Because there’s so much waste with minimums and lot of dead bolt stock, that type of stuff. There are some great group buying platforms that are out there now for smaller brands or people where you can actually buy our redundant stock, so that’s a good thing. But yeah, still lots to go. Of course, some great research that’s going on at the moment in different materials, looking at adjacent industries and looking at their waste and can that be used as a feed stock? So, I think, yeah, it’s a very complex journey, and we’re just at the beginning and there’s no silver bullet for any of us in this.
Nancy:  Yeah. Just trying to do the best that we can.
Ruth: Yeah, and just ask questions. I always say to people, be curious. Stay with the mill, but ask questions, be curious, be cynical, just keep asking and asking, and that’s how you learn.
Nancy: What do you think makes a good textile partner when you’re looking for materials or you’re developing materials?
Ruth: The number one thing is open and honest communication. I mean, I’m assuming here that you’ve got the technical know-how, right? That’s a big. So, I think it’s finding the right person who fits your business, okay? So, there are different suppliers that will work with different brands or different manufacturers, so it’s understanding their business model and seeing if it fits in with yours. If they are geared to produce big runs and that’s what you’re looking for, awesome. If you want somebody who’s smaller and flexible, great. You always have to do your research to understand what their business model is, but also what they’re specialist in. Because a lot of mills, and I’m just talking about fabric mills here, specifically, but it goes the same for any textile partner, be it when you’re going further upstream looking at fiber or day stock chemical partners, is understanding what they’re best in the world at, right? Because they might have a wide portfolio, but they’re really good at this, okay? Maybe that’s what you want to focus in on. But as I said earlier, it’s that open, honest communication that is huge. It just makes life so much easier. It’s also obviously up to yourself to be super clear on your expectations so that when it goes wrong, it’s often, as it always is in human life, about different levels of expectation and people not being clear on either side. Which when we’re dealing with different cultures, different time zones, that can be super difficult. Especially when you are at the beginning of a relationship with somebody it’s a bit like dating and it takes a while to get to know each other, but then hopefully after a while, you’re in a situation where you can be truly honest. Even when you’re having to deliver bad news, which happens all the time, the partner feels that they can do that and it’s also going to be okay. It might not be the news that you want to hear, but they feel that they can actually explain the situation and give possible solutions and that you can work together to solve that. Right? So, I think another thing that really good textile partners do is they do their research. They really understand their customer’s business and they’ve done their research. I’ve, throughout my career, sat through and, oh gosh, I don’t even want to think about how many times I’ve sat through it must be thousands of presentations and people sharing their range and you just know that they haven’t even looked at the store, they haven’t looked at the product. They’re just trying to hit all bases. I get that. I get that there’s also the stuff in the store that was maybe things that were developed two, three years ago. They don’t necessarily know what’s in the pipeline or where businesses is changing. But really good ones do help the brands, help the retailers, make that connection of, oh, this is how I can use this product in my collection. This is the potential.
Nancy: Right. Help come up with solutions to your problem.
Ruth: Yeah. Yeah.
Nancy: Exactly.
Ruth: So they might have this like amazing new fabric or new technology, and they’re saying to the brand, oh, we’ve been in the store, they might reference a particular garment that they’ve got, and they’re saying like, “This could be your next wild in the wind jacket.” Right? This could be, I don’t know what that is.
Nancy: It’s very good. I like it.
Ruth: I know! Wild in the wind. But yeah, they might have even made a comment or done some sketches. Again, it’s just planting that seed and helping them make that connection. Because I often say to people who are presenting to the big brands, you forget, these people that go in from meeting to meeting, they might’ve been in meetings for 90% of their day. They might not even have had a chance to go to the bathroom or eat anything. It’s hard to change gears sometimes and suddenly get into that space, you know? So, you’ve almost got to do their job for them and make it easier as to how they can see the runway. You’re laying the runway out for them.
Nancy: What textile brands and mills do you think are doing a good job with innovation right now? Am I putting you on the spot?
Ruth: Yeah. I don’t know. Obviously, we’re at a confidentiality point in time a bit, right? That’s always a difficult one. So, there’s lots I could say there, but, yeah, I’m a bit loathe. I can give a little taste of what we’re doing at SSACHS is I put a curated list of my favorite fabrics for spring and summer ’20, and we’re just in the process of getting those photographed. We took into account the ISPO color trends and things like that. So, yeah, it’s my favorite fabrics that I think I’m really excited for sportswear from in there.
Nancy: Well, we’ll have to just wait and look at the magazine or online. We’ll have all that information in the show notes, as well.
Ruth: Awesome.
Nancy: So how do you think the pandemic has influenced design trends in technology?
Ruth: Oh, massively. You know, obviously, stay at home has really influenced my field of expertise in technical sportswear. Look at fashion, right? People don’t need a nice new dress to go to a wedding, maybe, or they don’t need that prom dress, unfortunately, or whatever. So that’s a real obvious one. I think it’s accelerated and amplified what we were already seeing. We were already seeing this extension of comfort. So using all of that expertise that has been around in the world of intimate apparel, swimwear, sportswear, for many years, understanding what comfort, what movement of the body is, and the interaction between fabrics, the interaction between the body when it sweats, all of that, we’re just seeing that further being amplified in terms of if you’re nonactive. I was saying inactive. We’re always active. We’re always moving. But in terms of non-true high level sportswear, so that comfort, you know? But also, not losing anything in terms of aesthetics. So yes, back in the day, we always had our big baggy sweats or whatever that you would never be seen dead in, but there is so much more of this fusion of function and fashion and comfort now, and I just see more and more of that. It’s interesting, from what I observe the industry has become very polarized. People are either doing really well, especially if they’ve got this kind of model and if they are doing e-commerce, and then you’ve got others that are maybe struggling so much. It’s going to be really interesting. As you said earlier, the innovation has been in how people work and processes, how they are using digital tools to develop. It’s going to be an interesting journey to see how it goes on. Of course, I don’t think we’ll really know until the beginning of 2021, because a lot of the collections were all in the pipeline, so some were canceled, as we know, some were rearranged, so we won’t actually know the true fallout of what’s happening until the beginning of 2021, as well.
Nancy: Right. Right. What digital marketing techniques will remain, do you think, to help suppliers connect with mills, brands, post-pandemic?
Ruth: I think it’s been interesting. You look at the virtual trade shows, I think, that’s happened, it’s not been completely easy. There’s been limited success. I know I felt bombarded as an attendee, and a lot of the pure joy is about the networking, is about the touch and feel of the fabrics. Yes, there’s been some great talks and webinars, but again, we all start to feel bombarded from that. I’m not so sure how that’s going to carry on, I’ll be really honest. There is an amazing company down in LA called Preface who operate in the fashion space. They took a very novel approach and decided… Sorry, to back up, they’d just started to do some what they call boutique trade shows out of LA and New York. When the virus hit, they decided to have a different approach and to actually present the season, or present the show, in a box to their customers. So, they didn’t even try and do a virtual show. They didn’t even do a webinar series. They did a series of talks, of panels, of workshops if people wanted it, and they delivered in a box to their customers a pre-curated collection of fabrics, of colors, of some of the smells and things to influence over the season all with a sustainability aspect of it. I thought that was super smart and really worked for that segment. That was a different way to approach things.
Nancy: It’s almost a bespoke effort, like they were customizing.
Ruth: Absolutely, yeah.
Nancy: I wonder if that’s going to happen more.  It’ll be interesting to see. I’m hearing the same, that trade shows, I don’t think these virtual shows, as hard as organizers are trying to make them happen and I give them so much credit, they are just not quite the same. They’ve had to work so quickly to try to develop these platforms, so it must be very hard on them. Ruth: Yes. Nancy: You kind of touched on this a little bit, but where do you think performance apparel trends are heading? You know, you mentioned you think that fashion as we know it might be dead, but if you had your crystal ball, where do you think performance apparel trends are heading?
Ruth: Well, I think from everyone I speak to, whether it be men’s, women’s, whatever, comfort is still a thing. That’s not going away anytime, just more and more of it. I think there’s going to be, again, more on the sustainability side. There will be more things that are actually coming to commercialization. Again, all these amazing things that are happening – take natural dyes for example. Because they are available, right? You can do that, but how can you really ensure that you take the variability out of them? So, there are people working on that and there are people working on bio-plastics. I mean, we all know about mushroom leather and all those sorts of things. I see that there’s going to be more and more of that. I think it’s going to be interesting when we look at when people start to think about microplastics and what’s happening there. We have already seen fabrics being engineered that claim to have less microfiber shedding into the waterways. I think that’s a huge area that people will start to really see some solutions there. So, I think it’s going to be super interesting. Everybody, from what I’ve… not everybody, but a lot of people, what they are wanting to do is to have, their ideal textile would be something that has the true performance, a full performance of a polyester or a nylon. Well, actually the performance of a polyester, the handling of a nylon, and look of a natural. Right? And completely sustainable and biodegradable. So, if you could do that, you’re on the way.
Nancy: Okay, get at it, Ruth.
Ruth: Yeah, okay. Right?
Nancy: Well, I know you’re not only a material developer, you’re a writer, a yoga teacher, lecturer. I mean, I was going to ask you if you weren’t doing any of those things, what would you be doing?
Ruth: If I wasn’t in any of those things, what would I be doing? That is a great question. I think I would be either an archeologist, because I’m just a bit of a history geek. I love anything like that. Maybe, though, I don’t know if I could sit for hours and hours in the dirt. My other choice, to go from dirt to water, would be a Marine biologist.
Nancy: Interesting. Interesting.
Ruth: Yeah. Yeah. I used to teach scuba diving for many years, and I just love being in the ocean, so I think that would be the opposite.
Nancy: Oh, well, there’s still lots of years left, Ruth. So, what have you indulged in during COVID-19? Anything?
Ruth: Well, apart from the odd glass of wine and the odd chocolate, which I think we all have, what have I indulged in? I’ve indulged in my garden, my yard. That’s been awesome, just being able to spend time out there and getting a bit of fresh air. Working with the family, playing with the dog, and lots of reading. I’ve had lots of time to do lots and lots more reading, as well, which has been great.
Nancy: That’s great. Yeah. Well, it’s been difficult, but there are some silver linings for sure.
Ruth: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Nancy: Well, Ruth, I can’t thank you enough. I really enjoyed our talk. We’ll put information on SSACHS on our show notes. I hope that we can meet in person sometime soon.
Ruth: I hope so, too. Thanks.
Nancy: Thanks, and have a really great vacation. Okay? Ruth: Thank you so much. You take care. Bye, now. Nancy: You, too. Bye.

Links to organizations mentioned in podcast:

  • For more information on SSACHS design agency and magazine, please visit https://www.ssachsagency.com/

Episode 16: Wayne Fan | Frontier.cool

Wayne Fan on bringing textiles to life in a digital world

Wayne shares how the Frontier Textile Collaboration Program and other digital tools help bring fabrics to life while also building community between suppliers and brands with respect to fabric samples, inventory, price quotes, and more. He also shares a few lessons he’s learned from the pandemic.

Portrait of Wayne Fan, the Chief Strategy Officer of Frontier.cool
Wayne Fan, CSO, Frontier.cool

Wayne’s Interview Transcript

Nancy: Hello, I’m Nancy Fendler, and you’re listening to Material Wise, your podcast on material matters. It’s my chance to talk to designers, product developers and other guests about what inspires them to create. Why and how they select the materials they choose, and the relationships they’ve built with their customers and industry. 

This is the first podcast we produced since the pandemic, and it seems like forever. I hope you’re all staying well, safe, and sane. Our guest for this episode is fitting, given how much the apparel industry and supply chain have had to turn to boosting their digital technology platforms and skills to conduct business.

Wayne Fan is the chief strategy officer of Frontier, a co-working software as a service designed to digitize fabrics, enhance supply chain management, and elevate 3D design capabilities. The company has seen a big jump in the adoption of its platform during the coronavirus, as more mills and brands have moved their businesses to the cloud to cut costs and work as efficiently as possible from home. Wayne shares how Frontier and other digital tools can help bring fabrics to life, while also building community between suppliers and brands with respect to fabric samples, inventory, price quotes, and more. He also shares a few lessons he’s learned from the pandemic. I hope you enjoy.

 

Nancy: Hi, Wayne, how are you doing?

Wayne: I’m great. Happy to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

Nancy: Thank you for being here. Can you give us just a little bit of background about how you got involved with Frontier?

Wayne: Frontier grew out of a previous business my partner Victor and I founded 11 years ago. I was happy to be part of the team. We delved right into the textile business. It was an OEM business model, and we’ve evolved a lot since then.

Nancy: Did you guys go to school together or anything like that? How did you-

Wayne: We did. We did. We graduated from University of Rochester, and we majored in different fields and then decided to take on this journey.

Nancy: Tell us about Frontier and how you feel it fits the need in the market.

Wayne: Over the last several months, we experienced surging demand, and primarily coming from manufacturers wanting to gain exposure because the traditional route fabric trade shows were all canceled for the entire year. So they felt the need to establish with digital tools to be able to showcase their new collections with their existing customers. That’s one angle.

And another need is that over the past several months, also due to COVID-19, many of the brands that we’ve observed really doubled down taking everything into the cloud, taking a lot of their assets into the cloud, digitized not only their assets, but also their workflow and processes. And I feel like that’s more important for organizations, such as brands, because they need to manage their image in front of consumers. But then at the same time, they need to manage the supply chain, which involves a lot of manufacturers. To have everyone working on the same page, whether that be merchandising, or quality assurance, or compliance, or material development, it’s a pretty big problem to tackle. Then a lot of brands became a lot more aware of that, so we got a lot of interest from them, as well.

Nancy: Frontier launched about a year and a half ago. How has the acceptance been since you’ve launched?

Wayne: From idea to product, it took a long time. Now, I really understand how to build products and having it accepted by the market. We’re fortunate that we’ve established couple kinds of business models that work with software providers or other cloud-based companies in the textile space, as well as directly working with many ventures in the supply chain. I believe these kinds of product market fits will only grow even in the short/medium run. So we want to really have our product more solid, and then discover new needs and perhaps fulfill some of those needs. Then in the long run we really want to build to where the digital textile supply chain model that we’ve all been waiting for, that the entire industry has been talking about for, I would say, at least a decade or, if anything, more than that.

Nancy: Yeah, and nothing like the pause that we’ve had with COVID-19 to make the supply chain think about that, right? And how digital tools are so important right now, and getting everyone connected when we can’t be together in person.

Wayne: Yeah. Just to give another example, let’s disregard the virus situation. As new designers coming out of the school, they’re learning how to design with software, different 3D software. So basically, a new generation of designers, they’re already used to the digital space, so it only makes more sense that in organizations you have technologies or workflows that can support these kinds of skill sets because you see the entire industry really transitioning more rapidly to a digital process.

Nancy: Right. Yeah. It is. You’re educating the older group, but also the younger group that’s coming on are embracing this, and you’re helping to give them access to even better tools, which will help the whole supply chain evolve and not do things as status quo. I was talking to actually a designer today, and she was talking about some of the same old ways that designers work, where you build a design, you go to the supplier for fabric, and they send you swatches, and then you look through the books and you think of that. And with COVID, or even not with the pandemic, but things need to change to expedite the process and knowing you a little bit, and we’ll talk about this, but the expense of sending swatches back and forth is very costly and not so sustainable.

Wayne Fan: I like to use the auto and the aerospace industry as an example. They adopted CAD design, 3D process into their workflow decades ago. And the reason they were able to do that, I think they’re two-fold. One is that there are so few companies in those industries if you look at the auto brands out there. But then when you compare those with the (vast) textile industry, you start to recognize even the largest brand in the world, let’s not that name names for now, that may only take up less than 1% of the global textile economy. So, it’s a vast industry and changes just doesn’t happen as quickly as an industry just have so few players. That’s one.

Secondly, for hard materials, such as steel or wood, they are much easier to render the 3D engines. That’s why these industries took on so quickly for them. For fabric soft materials there’s a lot of physical properties that you need to capture in the software. That’s why it took much longer to develop different types of software tools that can reflect the different properties of a material properly. And then you need to be able to get to that point to really promote a product that’s… Essentially, so designers can actually see 3D rendering and actually make informed decisions. Otherwise, they always going to go back to making an actual sample because the computer-rendered the sample looks nothing like the actual good. So I feel like the technology is more mature in their past two years. That allowed us to push through more rapidly.

Nancy: Yeah. Well, that’s great. The touch and feel is really important when it comes to selecting fabrics. However, you can touch and feel a million fabrics, and you can’t order a million fabrics. So your platform allows designers or product developers to edit what they’re looking at online, and you’re giving all these great notes, hand-feel notes, and then they can order the swatches that they need, based on what you’re giving them. And you’ve done a lot to help refine all those material notes so that designers can help make those decisions, or product developers can make those decisions a little bit easier before they start ordering swatches.

Wayne: We know that in the market there is a need for digital fabric material. So we set out to build a product that has almost no entry barrier for any individual user or companies to digitize their material. We don’t require any hardware, and then we keep a lot of the work in the cloud. Therefore, the entire supply chain or one manufacturer, one manufacturing partner, can at least start migrating their physical good to a cloud space and make them digital fabric materials. That’s one thing we provide, the cloud space for that, the environment for that. Because we have such a low entry point, so we start accumulating a lot of materials very fast.

The next logical step is to have a great searchability, searchability that we tackle from two ends. One is really embrace hashtags and really let the crowd, let users define what they want to be seen as. We give our users the power to define their products. That’s from one side. And then in the process we also try to organize the language tree around textile terminologies because from the designer, they speak of an item very differently from what a manufacturer may speak of an item. So it’s an ongoing process to really accumulate that language tree. So when you type in denim, I will have some indigo twills that may come up because essentially these are the same things. So then that’s the searching capability.

Lastly, I would say it is collaboration, which we find massively important is that with digital materials, we want these files, so to speak, be transferable, we want these files be able to be shared, collections can be shared among different groups working on different projects. So I would say we really build our product around these three pillars. One is digitalization, and then secondly is great search capability. And then it’s the collaboration aspect.

Nancy: I would think that the platform would be perfect for trade show organizers during this pandemic where a lot of trade shows are turning to virtual. And I’ve taken a few, both at Kingpins and Outdoor Retailer and Performance Days where some of the images that are portrayed online are a little bit static. I just think that this would be a perfect outlet for Frontier, and I’d love your feedback.

Wayne: Virtual trade shows is something that we did not anticipate in the beginning. Based on the trade shows that we’ve attended in the past, a lot of the interactions basically brand… It’s a marketplace where brands, different stakeholders come in to discuss, whether that be materials or many other things, really. But then we find our platform is already, it’s basically ready, like I mentioned. There’s the interactive feature, and then there’s the showroom for different types of textiles and all the information well-organized on one page. So it becomes a suitable, I definitely wouldn’t say perfect, but it becomes a suitable place for buyers and sellers to interact in terms of, not just on price negotiation, it’s also material development, different questions about different types of fabric. 

So we are very happy to support that aspect of a trade show. And then we’re working with Taiwan Textile Federation to bring the TITAS. It’s a trade show set in October. There’s going to be a physical one. Although, there’s going to be almost… Not many brands will be attending due to the flight restriction situation. So we will definitely take that online and then support this government agency to replicate the physical trade show as much as possible. That’s what we’re working on now.

Nancy: Yeah. I know. That’s a hot topic among many right now, in terms of trade shows are such a big part of the supply chain, as we mentioned, and we’re all kind of sitting on the edge of our seats to see what’s going to happen with trade shows. But tools like yours could really help bring some assemblance to the touch and feel, even though you can’t really touch and feel. But like you were saying, you have the tools to try to bring all that hand-feel to life would be great.

So we’ve been in this pandemic for quite a few months. What have you learned? Have there been some learning lessons?

Wayne: I was surprised at how things can change so quickly and drastically in a couple weeks. I feel like no one really saw that coming. No one was really prepared. But then, of course, for those business models, that are already well-protected, well-hedged, such as businesses already in the cloud, perhaps Netflix or Amazon, businesses like them probably prospered. I don’t mean it in a bad way, but their business model is well-hedged from these kind of situations.

In Taiwan, I always say we’re pretty lucky. We’re not much affected for that long. A lot of businesses were impacted big time, but then for overall, I think we were doing okay. Business went on as usual for us. We already supported remote work, so we could get things done. And then we got a lot of interest over this time, and then so everyone’s very excited about it.

Nancy: Yeah. That’s great. You work with mills and brands all over the globe. How do you feel that they’re coping with COVID-19?

Wayne: I think almost everyone is just scrambling to find solutions, and then there’s no clean solution or product or software or platform that fills the entire need. So it’s kind of a learning curve, I think. And I think it will be helpful to give stakeholders, brands, or suppliers a step one, two, three guide, or a successful case study in terms of how business can transition themselves during this time. Or maybe not even during this time. They should really better equip themselves for what’s coming, such as physical retail locations may not be as powerful as back in the day. I’m not saying stores won’t exist, but they may become more of a brand awareness point of sale, rather than where sales activity actually happened. So yeah, back to your question, I think too many things on the table. No one really know what steps to take in an organization. So a successful case study would help a lot of people out.

Nancy: Yeah. Absolutely, Wayne. I think that if anything has taught us during this time is that we need to have a very powerful digital presence, or not we, but the whole entire supply chain brands because of social distancing, we don’t know how long it’s going to happen, and this pause could be a time for us to really rebuild our tools or embrace tools that are already developed and learn from them. You can say, “Okay, we’re going to take this time to really build up our digital presence and work on our supply chain flow, digital flow.” Or if you don’t, then who knows what will happen.

Wayne: There are so many tools out there on the market, and then I wouldn’t say any of them is particularly brand new. And these tools exist probably, some for maybe decades, some for a couple of years now. But then I would say if everyone in the industry is always too busy working, too busy to look at other tools that can achieve the same thing with even less time spent on it, you’ll never discover these new tools. So it’s really people opening their eyes, really. And these things kind of exist already. So again, for one person to do that, it’s pretty easy, but then for an organization to really dedicate themselves to really changing their processes or re-examine how to perform one task with a more efficient tool or method is something I think it’s important. Because the last thing that we want to see is that, okay, the COVID-19 is over, everyone back to the same way they were working previously. So nothing really changed, then that would be a slightly, unfortunately, I think.

Nancy: Me too. I agree. I agree. I hope that we all learn from this and grow from it. So anything else you want to share? You’ve got this new seminar or-

Wayne: It’s a local seminar that we are hosting. It’s a physical event that we’re hosting next week in Taiwan. It’s put together by the Taiwan Textile Federation, and then we are one of the primary sponsors. The message that we want to send together with some of our partners is to build the awareness, and then give people clear guidelines on what kind of actions they can take and what kind of tools can achieve what kind of results. And we will bring together some of our users, some of potential users, professionals at the brand level, professionals in AWs, Amazon, because they really provide the web infrastructure for a lot of our products. So we bring together these people and have a discussion on how we can help textile manufacturers transform digitally or adapt digital strategies into their workflow, or it could be as simple as how to use a digital product. And then we want to include everything in this event. So we want the takeaway to be very clear and precise. So back to what I was saying, so we give people steps on what you can do. And then at the end of those three steps, what you’re going to see, by providing a case study. So hopefully the message gets delivered better that way.

Nancy: Wayne, thanks so much for joining us on Material Wise and good luck with the conference. Good luck with Frontier. This is the perfect time to be in the space that you are, and I hope we can connect again soon.

Wayne: Thank you, Nancy. Thank you very much for this opportunity. And let’s talk soon.

Nancy: Thank you for listening to Material Wise. I’d like to thank the incredibly talented Woods Creative for their help in producing this podcast. Jake Nevrla mixes our episodes and composes our theme music. For more information and transcripts of each episode, please visit materialwise.co and please subscribe, rate, and review wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you, again, and until next time, take care.

Links to organizations mentioned in podcast:

  • Frontier: https://frontier.cool/
  • Taiwan Textile Federation: https://www.textiles.org.tw/TTF/english/home/ContentMore.aspx?kind=COREITEM&menu_id=244

Episode 15: Best of 2019

The Best of 2019 –
Highlights from our guests

Happy New Year! While in production with our new 2020 line-up of episodes, we wanted to share some highlights taken from my conversations with last year’s smart and talented guests whom I was honored to have spent time with. We discovered that sustainability is still a huge topic. While it means many things to different people, sustainability is no longer a trend, but a business approach that’s here to stay. We also learned how collaboration throughout the entire supply chain lifts individual businesses and the industry as a whole. We catch a glimpse into the future with digital manufacturing, robotic tailoring and smart textiles. The thread that ties my guests together, is that they all believe it is an exciting time to be involved with materials. I hope you enjoy!

Jay Adams, Co-Founder of Brass Clothing
Louisa Smith, international textile trend consultant
Portrait of Gihan Amarasiriwardena of Ministry of Supply
Gihan Amarasiriwardena, co-founder and president of Ministry of Supply
Emily Walzer, editor and co-publisher of Textile Insights
Elizabeth Whelan, Founder and Principal at Elizabeth Whelan Design
James Morin, COO, President of Sales at Flowfold

Episode 13: Gihan Amarasiriwardena | Ministry of Supply

Gihan Amarasiriwardena on inventing apparel that drives the industry forward

Gihan Amarasiriwardena is the co-founder/president of Boston-based Ministry of Supply, a sleek and modern brand of performance professional apparel that launched in 2012. Gihan shares how he and his colleague, co-founder/CEO, Aman Advani, both MIT students at the time, shared a desire to create professional apparel that had the same performance benefits as their favorite athletic pieces. We learn how the brand got its start, the significance of its name and the role materials, attention to design and fit play into each and every piece to make the apparel scientifically better. www.ministryofsupply.com

Portrait of Gihan Amarasiriwardena of Ministry of Supply
Gihan Amarasiriwardena, co-founder/president of Ministry of Supply

Transcript: Gihan Amarasiriwardena Interview

Nancy: My guest today is Gihan Amarasiriwardena, co-founder and president of Ministry of Supply, a sleek, modern brand of what Gihan calls – performance professional apparel.

Gihan and colleague, Aman Advani, who is CEO and co-founder of Ministry of Supply, created the brand out of their mutual desire to invent professional apparel that was scientifically better than anything on the market. They wanted the apparel to have the same performance benefits of their favorite athletic pieces – moisture/odor management, temperature regulation, stretch and durability – while looking suitable and stylish for the workplace.

All this began when Gihan and Aman, both students at MIT at the time, were hacking their own apparel prototypes independently of one another. Gihan was cutting up running shirts and making dress shirts out of them and Aman was taking the bottom out of his Dri-FIT socks and sewing them to his Gold Toe socks. A MIT professor recognized that they were both working on the same problem and introduced them to each other.

In 2012, Boston-based Ministry of Supply launched with a wildly successful Kick-Starter campaign introducing its Apollo shirt that features the same phase- changing or temperature-regulating materials used by NASA astronauts in their apparel. 

With sustainable performance and a contemporary aesthetic in mind, the brand has expanded into a full collection of professional apparel for men and women designed to comfortably fit and move with your body.

To attest to that, Gihan and his fiancé have set the Guinness World Record for fastest man and woman to run a half marathon in a suit (a Ministry of Supply Suit, of course).

Today, Ministry of Supply has six stores located in major cities across the U.S. in addition to is online site. The stores play a critical role in educating consumers about performance materials and apparel – encouraging them to try on a product and learn about it. The company also publishes a blog called ScientificallyBetter.com that helps explain materials so people can be better educated when buying apparel. 

In our conversation, Gihan shares more about his background, how Ministry of Supply got its name, the brand’s sustainability views and the community it has built. He also gives us a glimpse into the future of the brand’s design development – specifically the use of active textile tailoring where garments can be robotically tailored after the fact. 

I want to apologize in advance for the sound quality of this episode. We had some technical difficulties with the equipment when recording in the Ministry of Supply store and you will hear some interference. The full transcript of our conversation are in the episode notes on the Material Wise website along with links to several of the organizations and blog Gihan calls out.

Thank you so much for listening! I hope you enjoy!


Nancy:
Gihan, thank you so much for inviting me to your beautiful store on Newbury Street, and for being a guest on Material Wise.

Gihan: Thanks for having me.

Nancy: I’d like to start by asking you a little bit about your background and how you got started in design.

Gihan: Yeah, I grew up as a Boy Scout here in New England, and I was going camping pretty much every month. One of my favorite things was to go to EMS or REI and kind of peruse the performance gear racks. I fell in love with Polartec and with GORE-TEX and used this gear on my kind of monthly camp out. Over time I started thinking, it would be interesting to start making my own. With a couple of my friends in my troop, we started taking Tyvek actually, and laminating that to fleece and making our own windproof breathable fleeces.

Actually, our very first ones , we were actually taking trash bags and laminating them to fleece, and we quickly realized the value of waterproof breathable membranes instead. It was kind of that first introduction to performance materials.

I just kind of fell in love with the idea of using materials to unlock performance. When I went to college, I studied chemical and biological engineering at MIT and I thought I wanted to startup – kind of like an outdoor gear company or performance materials company, and with most things, there’s a kind of a point of inspiration and a pivot. Living in the city – moving from rural, Amherst, Mass, to Boston – I realized that there was this opportunity to bring that performance to what you could wear in the city, what you could wear to work, and I wanted to bring that performance to what I could wear every day.

Nancy: Wow, that’s great. Yes. I’m sure you did. Plastic isn’t that waterproof, or isn’t that breathable, excuse me. Was there a defining moment that made you feel as though there was a need for performance and casual apparel or actually call it work apparel?

Gihan: Work apparel, yeah, so we focused on creating a category we called performance professional. Having run cross country and track from middle school all the way through college, I witnessed the transition from cotton running shirts from Dri-FIT to Under Armour, and seeing how big a difference that made. It was night and day. In the same realm, that was kind of as we were going into our professional lives, realizing that technology hadn’t ported over. People were still having sweat stains, lack of stretch, and  they selected to dry clean and iron their clothes every day. These are things that had been solved before in other sectors, but it hadn’t been ported over (to professional work apparel).

My co-founder was actually challenged with the same problem. Aman was a consultant and he had been going to client sites every week and fly out every Monday morning.  For him, his challenge was socks. He would actually take Nike Dri-FIT socks, cut the bottoms off of them, sew them to Gold Toe dress socks. So ,we were finding, we were both kind of hacking apparel. I was cutting up running shirts, making dress shirts out of them, and we were both at MIT, and he was at the business school, I was in engineering school, and one of our professors said, “You two are both kind of peddling your prototypes, working on the same exact problem,” and he introduced us. So yeah, that’s kind of how it started.

Nancy: Oh my God, that’s so serendipitous.

Gihan: Yeah, yeah. We’re very lucky. That’s where that kind of experiences of materials development and then also kind of use case kind of came together and that was the impetus for brand.

Nancy: Oh, that’s amazing. Speaking of the brand, how did you come up with the name Ministry of Supply?

Gihan: Yeah, it’s a really good question. Our company name, Ministry of Supply, is actually inspired by, if you’ve watched James Bond movies, Bond always goes and sees Q before his mission starts and Q gives him his gear. It turns out that Q is based on a real person named Charles Fraser-Smith and his cover was the British Ministry of Supply, and he designed gadgetry and clothing for the British Special Ops. We kind of see ourselves as Q’s labs designing gear for people on a mission.

Nancy: I can just see it. I did not know that. That’s really interesting. You started with men’s and now you have women’s, as I’m seeing in the store, who is your customer do you find?

Gihan: Yeah. Our core customer is really we never really a single demographic, but rather it’s a lifestyle, often times, of a person in their career who’s at that point where they’re looking to connect the different parts of their day, whether it’s staying fit, it’s their personal pursuits, and also their family – and then that they’re really passionate about their work as well. Previously we would have different outfits for each of those different spheres. Kind of the goal of MOS, is that our clothing can become a tool to connect those different parts of the day.

I mean, there’s this constant story that we hear over and over again, and it sounds like it’s not, but it’s actually, it’s a true one that we hear all the time, which is, I get home from work at 6:30, and my kid goes to bed at 7:30, and there’s 60 minutes there. If I’m spending, 10 to 15 of those just changing into a T-shirt and jeans, that’s 25% of my time lost. It’s those moments that the product really stands out. We think that as you go from a red-eye straight to the work day and it feels like you’ve been wearing sweat pants on the flight, and then you feel fresh and you look sharp when you get to the office and stuff. Those are the types of things, those moments, where the product really makes a difference.

Nancy: I’m seeing it more and more where, we can talk about this a little bit later, but wearing more, packing less, having things that have multiple applications, and the whole athleisure side, but then there’s probably a word for professional apparel that can … I don’t know if it’s commuter apparel, whatever. Ministry of Supply got its  start online – and now you have how many stores?

Gihan: We have six stores across the US, plus our online store.

Nancy: Wow, congratulations.

Gihan: Thank you.

Nancy: How do they benefit or complement one another?

Gihan: Yeah, we started online, but one of the things that we realized was we’d always had these popups, and that there was this incredible interaction that happens when you only have the little store that customers can looking to see the product, they can feel it, they can try it on. For a lot of our customers it’s about dissuading any doubts they had about what does this feel like? These are materials that are not cotton, it’s not always just traditional wool suiting. These are materials that have great four-way stretch. A lot of times people are wondering, is this going to look as sharp as my suit that I have in my wardrobe? These are amazing moments to see firsthand.

We also think an important part of our role as a company is to educate people about performance materials and performance apparel. That’s what our stores are really meant to do. It’s really about being able to try a product on, but also learn about it. Our stores play a critical role in that. That being said, our stores all stand on their own two feet and that’s something that we think is important. That in a time where there’s a lot of questions around what’s the role of retail, we want to make sure our stores have a purpose, and in our six locations they are really driving the market there. That’s something that we thought is real important.

Nancy: That’s great. It’s like coming in for an experience that they might know about the product but then actually, with the brand, but to come in and to feel it and touch it because fashion can be more emotional or the shopping can, but there is a real technical story to it, which needs some explanation, but not get so bogged down with it. Speaking of materials, which we have a mutual love for, before we get into sort of the materials per se, I’d like to talk a little bit about the design. Are there any important design principles that you and your team follow for the collection?

Gihan: Yeah, I mean, when we think about our process and our development, one of the key things is we believe in what we call quantified empathy. It’s this process that we’ve developed, which is really about starting our design process rooted in customer challenges or opportunities. We have these eight tools, ranging from customer interviews to the fact that every single interaction with a customer through email or through Facebook and others, what we’re doing is we’re basically categorizing those comments and understanding, was this a fit issue with our product? Was this an issue with regard to durability? We can basically understand which of our products have opportunities for improvement. We think of ourselves a little bit more like a car company where we have a few key models that we iterate each year, and that we improve rather than trying to kind of redevelop everything from scratch each time.

The reason that’s important is that when you’re doing a completely new style, sometimes you’re not necessarily building off of the knowledge of the previous version. You can see here in our store, we have mostly blues and grays, kind of traditional selects, but with these tweaks that kind of reinvent them. What we want to do is kind of create the foundation of your wardrobe, the pieces that you can rely on that you can build your outfit on. That’s kind of the mantra of the design.

Jarlath Mellet, he’s our Design Director. He was formerly Design Director for Brooks Brothers, Theory, and so you can see it in the style of our products. They have really clean, modern, contemporary, but at the same time, our fit is really one that’s really meant to kind of move with your body. That’s a different element of our garments. We don’t look at fit just from a, what does that look like on a mannequin when you’re standing straight, but look at fit in terms of how does it feel and how does it look as you’re moving and we think that’s really important.

Nancy: Absolutely. I know – you can ride your bike in your suit on the way to work if you want and still look fresh when you go into the office. It also gives you opportunity to accessorize as a woman. You can wear these lovely, rich colors but accessorize with something that will make you personalize it.

Gihan: Yeah.

Nancy: How do materials come into play? I mean, obviously you’ve done a lot of studying and work on your materials.

Gihan: There’s kind of a couple of pillars of challenges that we’ve looked at. It’s moisture management, it’s mobility and stretch, it’s ease of care, so does it look good throughout the course of the day? Does it cause wrinkles? Then also, what does it look like when it comes to out of the wash, out of the dryer? We’re really trying to minimize care. We look at these lenses as ways of improving the materials. I’ll kind of use a couple examples. One of our more key products is our Apollo dress shirt. It’s the one that we started the brand with. It is a dress shirt that is a knit material and then it’s basically a polyester yarn with a paraffin wax core. That paraffin wax can actually, it’s a different type of paraffin that melt and freeze right around your skin temperature, and through a process called phase-change.

It’s called phase-change material. Basically, if you’re walking outside and you’re going to grab coffee, it’s hot out, it’ll actually melt and through a melting process absorb your excess body heat. Then when you come into kind of like an over A/C’d office, it actually freezes and releases that heat back to you. It’s kind of like a rechargeable battery for heat and it works automatically, and it’s built into the core of all of our Apollo shirts.

Nancy: That’s what you started with your Kickstarter, which should actually win a Guinness World Book of Records for successful Kickstarter launches. Oh, my goodness. It feels great, so you don’t even feel the technology really in the shirt.

Gihan: That’s something, you’ll see when you kind of walk into the store, we’ve got a NASA moon picture right here over our changing rooms. We also have a lot of NASA signage, and actually, in the front of our store, is  a NASA spacesuit, and that is a nod to the fact that the phase-change materials were actually designed for the use of glove liners. NASA uses it for astronauts because the extremes of space, it’s 240 degrees in the sunlight and it’s simultaneously -140 degrees in the shadows, and so they were using this material. We look for material inspiration from all sorts of ideas. In this case we’re looking at one of the labs we work with is the Human Systems Laboratory at MIT. We were kind of exposed to this material through our work with them. It’s now a core part of our product line, so that’s one of our materials.

Nancy: Great. Thus, the name of Apollo.

Gihan: That’s Apollo.

Nancy: Yeah, yeah. That’s amazing.

Gihan: Then another material is our Kinetics. I’m actually wearing our kinetic pants right here. It’s available in our pants and our blazers, as well as some dresses for women as well. But in this case, it’s actually a bi-component yarn. It’s part polyethylene, part PET, another type of polyester, but what’s really interesting is as you extrude it, it creates a spiral effect into the yarn fulfillment. That creates natural elasticity. We use that kind of natural, elastic yarn, it’s actually made out of 17% bio-based PET.

Nancy: That’s good.

Gihan: Yeah, and at the same time we’re also using warp knitting, which is it’s kind of like a knitting machine, but it’s also kind of like a weaving machine, same time weaving them in so you get this great structure you expect out of woven, but incredible four-way stretch.

Nancy: Yeah, it looks almost like a softshell type of stretch. It’s so cool.

Gihan: It’s something that we’ve kind of used as kind of a foundation of our product line. We’re starting to see, we have these platforms, these platform materials that once we understand how to use it, we use it many times. It allows the customer to understand I love this material. I’m also going to understand how it feels in a different application.

Nancy: Amazing. With regards to materials, where do you turn to for material trend sourcing? It seems like you create your own or borrow from NASA, but are there any specific trade shows or conferences or do you seek out certain mills that you can work with that provide you with new inspiration?

Gihan: Yeah, in terms of inspiration, we look at a variety of different places. We kind of look at as a funnel, as a hopper, where we try to take in inspiration from the lab – with what are the far-out developments. Right now we are working with the Advanced Functional Fabrics Association of America. AFFOA is a research arm of our facility, based out of MIT, that’s doing a lot of development around the next generation fibers and wearables. We have a research grant through AFFOA to work on shape-change materials with the self-assembly lab at MIT. That’s where we’re looking at kind of next generation fibers.

Then as we become a little bit closer, one of the big challenges with material development is scale – it’s one thing to have something in small scale, but how do you develop it in volume? We think it’s just so critical to have really great industry partners. We work with Singtex, Toray –  these are all kind of fiber mills and largely in Japan and Taiwan and we’re pushing the forefront of the materials development all the way from the yarn filament down to the knitting and weaving of it.

It’s a co-development. I think that’s the key part is it’s about finding what’s possible with manufacturer and what are the needs that we have from a consumer standpoint, and developing that with our factories.

In terms of conferences, despite the fact that we make a lot of professional wear, work clothing, our favorite conference is going to Outdoor Retailer. That’s kind of where that intersection happens where you’re taking inspiration from the outdoor athletic market but then bring it to kind of wear-to-work clothing/casual clothing.

Nancy: That’s great to hear. That’s my favorite trade show, too. It’s fabulous. Yeah, they’ve done a really good job with having suppliers in a really good area. There’s a new trade show that you may have heard of called the Functional Fabric Fair Performance Days that’s in New York, and now in Portland, Oregon. That’s later this month. I’m headed back there actually in a couple weeks. Do you think that consumers have caught on with savvier materials and are willing to be open to … I don’t want to say spending more money, but just adopting them for more professional apparel? Obviously, here we are in your store, that might be asking…

Gihan: No, I mean, I think one of the things that we can truly impart is that care labels can be misleading or fiber competence. We look at a material label, and it may say 100% cotton, maybe says 100% polyester, but there’s so many different variants of all of these different materials. It’s more than just what the polymer is, it’s how the fiber’s extruded, it’s how it’s knit, it’s how it’s processed. What we try to do, especially in our stores and online, is go that layer deeper. In this case, for example, our Apollo shirt, we were talking about the phase-change materials, they’re embedded in the yarn. It’s about talking about what does working fabric bring, explaining how the film and geometry, the fact that it’s bi-component, the fact that it’s extruded in this spiral shape, the fact that it’s using morph knit construction, these are all layers that kind of get lost when you just look at it from a composition standpoint.

We think it’s really important to explain that we do that through our store experience. Then we actually started a blog. It started as a kind of an internal conversation to kind of at first all to learn about materials. We started publishing it publicly actually this year. It’s called ScientificallyBetter.com, and we basically every week put up a post around different material technologies and explaining terms like what is a waterproof/breathable membrane? How does waterless dyeing work? The reason we think that’s important is because the more people understand the differences, they can maybe be more educated in the choices that they make.

Nancy: Exactly. Also, in the sustainability arena where that’s such a big part of the conversation right now -when you say waterless dye, that’s a big component in sustainability. Speaking of that, I’ve done some research ,and I know that you have a donation process, which is part of your sustainability platform. Do you want to talk a little bit about that and maybe some other sustainable practices?

Gihan: Yeah, so we’ve been a big part of having the minimalist wardrobe, really having to have those core elements that you can trust and can rely on. It’s about taking that decision fatigue away. At some point you’ll have, we call it “1 in; 1 outs.” It was kind of – my co-founder had 10 hangers and he just wanted to have 10 hangers in his closet and no more than that. If you got a new piece of clothing, you would take one out and you would donate it. What we’ve tried to do is we’ve just tried to facilitate that process. Really, there’s a lot of pieces where sometimes we move locations or we change jobs and it’s great clothing, it’s just a different work environment, different location. It’s a great piece of clothing but it can be reused.

What we’re trying to do is facilitate taking that clothing, actually creating outfits, and working with different organizations. Really here at Boston International Institute where we’re working with different groups where people are kind of going into the professional field and helping outfit them. That’s kind of one way we really focused on the use side of our garment program.

We’re also looking at recycling and so that’s something where a big focus of a lot of our materials recently has been about going to, in some cases, mono-materials. Like our Apollo dress shirt is 100% recyclable and that’s something that we’re excited about.

Nancy: Yeah, that’s fabulous. I was just at this functional fabric fair in July, and the whole term sustainability means so much to different people. There’s recyclable, post-consumer, pre-consumer, pre-industrial? I think that educating consumers with your blog is helpful. We’ll put that on the show notes – the website for that.

I was actually introduced to Ministry of Supply at the Museum of Modern Art store in New York City, when I was visiting my daughter and it was the Mercury Intelligent Jacket (that caught my eye). I’m like, oh my God, this is so cool. That’s a real smart parka or jacket. Can you tell me a little bit about that? Because that was your next Kickstarter campaign, right?

Gihan: Yeah, so the Mercury Intelligent Heated Jacket is a winter parka. It looks like kind of like you get a really cool skiwear, outerwear, designed for the city. But on the inside we’ve got three carbon fiber heating elements that are completely flexible. They run off of a USB battery, kind of any battery that charges your cell phone off of. But one of the things that makes it really unique is we’ve been so aware of the fact that it’s not about staying warm or cold, it’s about staying at the right temperature at the right time. That’s what we learned through our years of development of shirts and sweaters. We wanted to take that a step further and in this garment we actually have two temperature sensors, one on the inside, one on the outside, to monitor your body temperature and external temperature.

But we also have an accelerometer in the jacket. The reason that’s important is the best predictor that you will be hot is how much you’ve been doing. If you’re standing at a cold bus stop, we’ll turn the heat up all the way. If you’re walking for a couple minutes, we know that you’re going to be hot in maybe 10 minutes from now, and so we’ll actually turn the heat down. Actually it’s interesting, when you’re standing still our core, kind of our waist up, produces about 50 watts of heat. If we’re walking, we’re creating about 100 watts of heat, same as a light bulb, and it’s twice as much heat just when we’re walking. So that ability for garments to have that fluctuation is something that we think is really important. That’s an Intelligent Heated Jacket.

We’ve even taken the layer further, which is it has Bluetooth communication built into it, so it’ll allows the jacket through our smartphone app … some people run hot, some people run cold, much like a smart thermostat, you can actually train the jacket and say, I’m too hot right now, or I’m too cold. It takes into account kind of how much you’ve been walking, what the temperature is in that location, or that kind of environment, and it changes the model so that it becomes more and more personalized for you. That’s where we think wearables should go. We think it’s more than just about health monitoring. We think that there’s a great component there, but we want to see it be involved in clothes that we’re in every day, and a big part of it is we buy garments, in many cases, for functionality, and a winter jacket, you’re buying it for waterproofness, you’re buying it for warmth, and so we think wearables should do a better job at keeping you dry or keeping you warm.

Nancy: That’s great. It sounds so intuitive, and I’ve been studying a little bit about smart technology and I have a client that makes sensors for athletic apparel, and the fact that it allows you not to wear other devices to regulate your biometric readings. How’s the jacket doing?

Gihan: It’s do really well. We sold over 4,000 units last year through our Kickstarter campaign. The reason we’ve launched a couple of products on Kickstarter, our Apollo shirt and then our Mercury jacket, and we also have the socks. It’s an amazing example of a community that really values technology and design. The community’s so involved in helping us develop the product, validate our problem statements, giving us feedback with the challenges, and one of the cool things is because it’s a wearable, actually, we can do over-the-air updates. Based on feedback that people were giving us, we’re actually, after they bought the jacket, we were able to push updates so that they have increased functionality. It’s doing really well – it’s carried in the Museum of Modern Art stores.

Nancy: There must be such satisfaction to see that.

Gihan: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Nancy: Oh my goodness. I’m not sure. I would assume that they’re pretty picky about what they choose to put in their store. I do have a question about it though. When you launder it, do you have to take out any of the devices or the hardware or anything?

Gihan: Yeah, that’s the challenge of wearables is laundering in particular. The only thing you have to do is you just pull out the battery, everything else is machine washable, the heating pads, the sensors, the microcontroller that’s in there. We’ve worked with manufacturers that specialize in this kind of thing. They really think everything out to the last detail, and helped us really create a garment that is tested through 65 washes.

Nancy: Wow, that’s amazing. You’ve taken technology very far, both with developing fabrics and the garments. You mentioned a little bit about working with MIT on fabrics in the future, can you give us an indication of what you might see in the next so many years?

Gihan: One of the things we’ve been really looking at is the ways in which you can use digital manufacturing to kind of improve the manufacturing supply chain, so material loss, but also functionality of materials. We’ve been doing a lot of what we call 3D Print-Knit. It’s similar to whole garment knitting. We’re working with Shima Seiki a lot. These are all materials that are made on a computerized knitting machine and allows us to control the composition, the structure, and allows us to create functionality based on how we knit the garment computationally.

When we’re looking at data we ask if have we improved it? We launched this project about nine months ago, it’s called active textile tailoring and we’re looking at how can we mix this material that can be post-tailored, that can be robotically tailored. We did a demo of this on a mannequin on this sweater. We could fit into the mannequin using the robot. It’s kind of these are the visions of the future that we have. Tailoring right now is actually quite difficult, particularly for knit garments, things like that. But if you can produce something in bulk, let’s say in one size, but then tailored to anyone’s body after the fact, that suddenly reduces obsolescence, it creates a better fit for the consumer, so it’s something we’re real excited about

Nancy: Potentially eliminating material waste. That’s amazing. I’m wondering if I could ask you a few questions that are a bit more personal, not too, too personal, but just to get to know you a little bit better. What are your favorite materials?

Gihan: Some of my favorite materials, I’ve been in love waterproof/breathable membranes. I think they’re one of the coolest concepts out there, and just the evolution that’s happened, the evolution of PTFE, PU, I’ve always been interested in those. At the same time, I’m increasingly interested in how we can use bio-based feedstocks to create functional yarns. Much like polyester has kind of come into its own recently, it’s evolved quite a lot from the Dacron in the 50s, right? Now, it’s becomes high performance fiber that looks and feels like cotton. In the same realm we’re interested in how we can use cellulosic materials to have similar functionality as these performance materials. I’m spending a lot of time with viscose and cellulose materials.

Nancy: Yeah, and they’re also sustainable, right?

Gihan: Exactly.

Nancy: And feel amazing. What’s your favorite Ministry of Supply piece?

Gihan: Probably my favorite piece that I probably wear at least (one a day) is one garment from our kinetic line. It’s got amazing structure and it looks really sharp. I bike to work every day and so I wear it every day with that. My fiancé and I, we both actually ran half marathons in suits made out of it, and so we’ve set the Guinness World Records for Fastest Half Marathon in a suit for men and women.

Nancy: Oh, cool.

Gihan: You can actually see the photo over there in the store, yeah.

Nancy: Oh, my goodness, yes. Wow, that’s great.

Gihan: That’s one of my favorite pieces, yeah.

Nancy: We’ll have to feature that on the show notes too. Beside your own brand, do you have another favorite?

Gihan: Yeah, I’m a big fan of Arc’teryx, I think just in terms of how they’ve really pushed forward manufacturing and materials and kind of thinking of the garments holistically that way, kind of pushing forward lamination bonding, but doing it a way that is really thoughtful and that’s not superfluous. That’s something that we think is really important.

We also take a lot of inspiration from Patagonia. I mean, I think, a lot of brands do, and I think the reason is that they are pushing the industry forward in terms of sustainability, but not the compromise of performance. That has been something that we’ve been really kind of focused on recently about, especially in an arena where there is a lot more turnover in clothing, so we’re hoping to kind of bring that mentality to this industry.

Nancy: Yeah, both amazing brands. They’ve done so much. Do you have any trends that you absolutely love right now and despise?

Gihan: The trends that … We try to look at what are the macro trends, what are the timeless truths that in the computer space there’s this idea of Moore’s Law, which is basically the computers will get twice as fast every 18 months. Those are the trends that we want to focus on. One of the ones that we’re seeing now is obviously kind of casualization of the office wardrobe, so what we’re trying to do is figure out how can we make things seem increasingly comfortable that fit to the aesthetic of the office, but at the same time allow people to look and feel polished and sharp? That’s where our brand has strength – the juxtaposition of the two.

Nancy: Yeah, that’s a good trend. I think that, and it just, again, it allows you to buy less, wear more.

Gihan: Exactly.

Nancy: That’s a big trend right now. I know you’re an entrepreneur and entrepreneurs often have things that keep them up at night. If you are not, then I want to know your secret, but are there any things that are keeping you up at night?

Gihan: The thing that we’re kind of super conscious of is how do we be responsible as a brand in terms of in fashion in particular, we’re often at the whim of style trends, their changes in production markets. Those are two things. On the demand side, it’s ‘what is of the moment’? And then on the supply side it’s there’s a changing supply base right now, and we want to make sure that we’re thoughtful in both of those, that ultimately, we’re making our garments in an efficient manner to lower our footprint. But at the same time that we’re also creating styles and products that people want. Because what we’re trying to minimize here is obsolescence. We’re trying to minimize how much waste is created from our system. That’s the thing that we’re trying to answer now.

We don’t really say we’re in the fast-fashion space. That being said, we know that it effects our product line and that’s something that we’re really focused on.

Nancy: Great, yeah. What are you most proud of?

Gihan: I mean, I would say it’s probably our team. I think it’s something where we have built ourselves as a brand that, it’s like our namesake, it’s kind of this invention laboratory, and a team that is able to kind of bring it to life and explain to the customers. I think that’s something that we take a lot of pride in of moving the entire industry forward in terms of inventing apparel. That’s kind of the mission of our brand. Our hope is that clothing, if we’re still wearing the same clothes that our grandparents wore, that it’s almost like what have we done right? Have we moved the industry forward? Have we made people more comfortable? Have we made their days easier? That’s what we’re really trying to do is make sure that clothing continues to evolve at the same rate that our laptops do, that our phones do, our cars do. That’s kind of our mission and I think we’ve created a team system that allows that to happen.

Nancy: Yeah. That’s great. I love that. Inventing apparel. That’s great. Is there anything else you’d like to add or mention that we didn’t discuss? Anything like what’s next? 

Gihan: Yeah, I’d say that intersection of sustainable performance is what we’re really excited about.

Nancy: Yeah. Well, thank you so much. I hope to see you at Outdoor Retailer, maybe this winter, but until then, I will continue to explore your stores, and we’ll see you around.

Gihan: Thanks so much.

Nancy: Okay.

Gihan: I appreciate it.

Nancy: Bye-bye.

Links to organizations mentioned in podcast:

  • Human Systems Laboratory: https://hsl.mit.edu/
  • Advanced Functional Fabrics Association of America: http://go.affoa.org/
  • Scientifically Better blog: https://www.scientificallybetter.com

Episode 05: Rob Naughter | Patagonia

Rob Naughter with Patagonia On the Company’s Commitment to Sustainable/Traceable Textiles

With the desire of working on material development with finished goods brands, Rob Naughter came knocking on Patagonia’s door after spending six years as a development engineer with PrimaLoft, a premium insulation for outdoor and home furnishings products. While it took the reputable three interviews, Rob finally landed at Patagonia’s Ventura headquarters as Materials R&D Manager 11 years ago and has moved up the ranks to Patagonia’s Director of Material Innovation and Impact. Rob has pioneered several of the company’ most notable sustainable/traceable material developments such as its 100% Traceable Down Standard and the recent launch of its down-like PlumaFill, which took ten years to come to market. Given that Patagonia fails nearly all materials tested in its labs, we talk about Patagonia’s increased bandwidth on material development and what makes a good material partner. We also discuss the evolution of the Patagonia customer and the company’s love hate relationship with polyester.

Rob Naughter, Director of Material Innovation and Impact at Patagonia

Rob’s Interview Transcript

Nancy: Hello. I’m Nancy Fendler and you’re listening to Material Wise, your podcast on material matters. It’s my chance to talk to designers, product developers, and other guests in the outdoor, fashion, home furnishings, among other industries about what influences them to create, how and why they select the materials they choose, and the relationships they built with their customers and industry.

I’m excited to share this episode, featuring Rob Naughter, the director of material innovation and impact at Patagonia. I met Rob years ago when he was a development engineer with PrimaLoft, a former client of mine. Rob spoke to me from his office in Ventura, California to chat about his role at Patagonia, what makes a good material partner, and a few developments he’s most proud of.

Nancy: Rob, thanks so much for joining me on Material Wise.

Rob: Thank you. Thanks, Nancy.

Nancy: Can you tell us how you got into material research and development and how you landed at Patagonia?

Rob: Sure. I started just looking to get into the industry. I was a very passionate outdoor user and started working for a small non-wovens company doing lab testing and learning as much as I could about the non-wovens part of the industry and how it’s used in clothing. And I did that for a number of years at a company called PrimaLoft in Albany, New York.

Nancy: I remember that.

Rob: Yeah. Yeah so I did that for a number of years. I started in the lab just trying to learn as much as I could about the process about how things pass and fail, about what is a good non-woven textile, and what needs improvement on it. And, the more I learned, the more I wanted to definitely go deeper into this. But I got very interested in the textiles that get used in combination with these, which I had a very limited exposure to in that role there. I did spend about six years with that company growing from different roles from basically working in the lab and doing quality assurance to doing product development from the non-woven side and it was great. I got to interact more with the plans. What I found interesting is what and why they were leaning towards certain products versus other products, and it just gave a better glimpse of what was going on in the entire industry.

So after a couple of years with that, I started really wanting to work with finished products so I applied to a few companies – Patagonia actually. When I applied to Patagonia, I think when I got hired it was the third time I’d applied to the organization! And it’s not an uncommon story a lot of folks apply here several times, maybe the first time you apply it’s for a different role, you’re not completely clear on what that role is until you meet with human resources, you meet with one of the hiring managers and you learn a little bit more about what they do here. So, I was hired a little over a decade ago, and now as a material developer. Basically the position was created specifically around my expertise not only in insulation but also about insulation in synthetic wovens, which is the category that insulation was mostly used in. That was great because I’d had some experience with textiles and the testing that was done on that. I was able to work with the mills and broaden my understanding about those textiles in that role.

Nancy: That’s great. So the third time was a charm?

Rob: Yeah.

Nancy: And you moved all the way out to Ventura, California from Albany, New York.

Rob: From Albany, New York. Yep it was a big move so it was a big change in my life and I figured I’d give it a shot and see how everything worked out and you know if you don’t like it you can always try something else. But found that it was a really good fit and people here were really accommodating, really nice, really passionate, very driven company inspired by our fearless leader, Yvon Chouinard. He’s been doing this for a long time and making really high-quality product that lasts for a very long time in the industry. So it was great. I felt lucky to be a part of that team.

I spent six years working in material development before I started managing that category. Our company had seen probably almost double in growth and we needed a much larger group of people to manage the textile developments for the different categories and so I spent about four years managing that category of insulation and wovens as it grew. We have down products, we have synthetic products, we have products with down-proof wovens, we have windbreakers, we have a lot of different items that fall into that category. So, it wasn’t just a single piece material used to go into a garment, it could be a lot of different things that has to be put together to build a product’s performance.

Nancy: I understand. So, how do you think or why do you think that it has grown and evolved so much? That department?

Rob: I think Patagonia’s put a lot of bandwidth behind material expertise, a lot of Patagonia’s initiatives going back to recycled polyester and organic cotton, traceable down, all of these go back to the raw material source and better understanding what’s actually in the product, and so a lot of companies may just buy whoever has the closest relationship to their garment factory and they actually don’t know all of the materials that are in their brands. But for Patagonia, they’ve taken a big stance in not only knowing where it’s coming from, but understanding what goes into those textiles.

Nancy: Right. You know obviously, unless you’re living under a rock, people must know that corporate social environmental responsibility are ingrained in Patagonia’s DNA so I would assume that the materials that you choose and as well as their practices are also very important.

Rob: Yeah. I mean we also have a huge sustainability team and corporate responsibility team now that tries to instill our values into our supply chain just so that we can have a larger impact moreover than even what we buy. So if we buy ten t-shirts worth of stuff, that’s great, we can impact that change. But if we impact the supplier that’s providing those ten t-shirts then we can impact hundreds, thousands, millions of t-shirts and so that’s ultimately our goal. Like we want to have the best product and we want to have the most traceable supply chain, but we are also trying to bring the whole industry along with that change.

Nancy: This might be kind of a silly question based on what you said, but since you’ve been at Patagonia, do you feel that material sourcing has changed over the years?

Rob: The biggest change I think is that years and years ago they (material sourcing managers) took a lot of what the factories were saying at face value. So they didn’t know where their nylon was coming from or where their polyester was coming from, they just knew that it was recycled or not recycled. And that was pretty standard back in the seventies and eighties in the industry. As we’ve gone forward I’d say traceability has become a front factor of that and going as deep as you can into the product. Some levels we’re going all the way back to the chemical that’s making the compound or the chemicals that are used in the dye stuff that’s in the blue jacket that you bought. And that’s something that I think a lot of companies don’t do and haven’t been doing for very long. It’s something that Patagonia’s very passionate about and I think we kind of led the way with that when we took a big stance with organic cotton. I believe it was 1996, that they we decided we were not longer going sell any conventional cotton. There wasn’t necessarily a performance reason behind that. It was because our founders had seen some of the things that they didn’t like within that supply chain and decided that they don’t want to be associated with that anymore.

So they actually dropped hundreds if not thousands of units to accommodate this new structure and they felt so passionately about it and moving forward we only sourced organic cotton.

Nancy: I understand that Patagonia has a new program called Worn Wear where people can drop off used products – I don’t know if they’re Patagonia products, but I would assume Patagonia products either to be resold or recycled. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Rob: Sure, yes I think over the past probably decade, maybe a little bit less, Worn has definitely grown as a huge part of our business as we try to build this market basically for high value second use items, as opposed to things just being sold in the thrift shop. So, we’ve built one of the largest repair centers in the country, in our Reno facility and we’ve worked with a lot of independent contractors to reduce our lead times and turnaround times on repairing garments, whether they’re down jackets, or whether they’re wool sweaters or cotton t-shirts for that matter. Some of them are easier to repair than others, but it’s a huge part of our business and as we go forward, we’re dedicating space in a lot of our stores to have Worn Wear sections where people can bring in their old garments.

We’re finding out that people are really attached to their old garments too and they find value, so people don’t necessarily want to give them up if you can repair them first and reuse them great. If you’re not using them anymore, somebody else may very well want to. Some of those vintage pieces, vintage old Patagonia pieces, actually sell for thousands of dollars on Ebay and it’s amazing because they’re twenty, thirty years old in some cases.

Nancy: Yeah. I know. When I was at OR (Outdoor Retailer Show), an NPD seminar was saying how vintage is so the big thing now. So, I can only imagine that some of those pieces would go for high prices. Do you think that today’s consumer has changed at all? Or that Patagonia’s consumer has changed?

Rob: I do. I think they’ve evolved over time. I think the consumers today want to know more about where just like the consumer in the food industry wants to know more about where they’re food is coming, they want to know more about where their jackets are coming from, where they’re made, how they’re made, sometimes even who’s making their jacket. We have our footprint chronicles on the website that talks more about where the jackets are manufactured, where they move around the world. They talk sometimes about the good and the bad. We try to shed light. I mean we make product, it’s not a perfect system. We’re definitely contributing. What we’re trying to do though is set a precedent to demonstrate that you can do it in a way that’s much better than the way a lot of other companies operate. So, I think the consumer nowadays is asking questions like that. They have their fingers on websites, they can search, they can do research on their phones in a store, you can go to websites where a lot more information can be found than on a hangtag. And people are following some of these brands on social media to find out what are they interested in, what are their values, our values.

I think that those are some of the folks that are really aligning with the Patagonia brand moving forward. And what really leads me to believe that that’s happening is when we run these big campaigns, like when we donate all of Black Friday’s profits (from the purchase of Patagonia gear) to the non-profits that we work with, or our 1% for the Planet program or our Don’t Buy This Jacket program where we tell people, “Hey, you might be able to buy three of these (lower quality/priced) jackets somewhere else, but you really only need one good one. This one Patagonia jacket will last you ten years or twenty years or thirty years. You need to buy something once and love it and give money on it instead of buying something that’s subpar multiple times over and never being quite satisfied.” When we run this program, we can’t sell enough of them (jackets) it’s because people understand what we’re trying to tell them. And I see this happening more and more in our industry.

Nancy: Well Patagonia’s super transparent and has done a really great job with communicating those values and I’ve heard that again and again – buy quality, not quantity and I think that’s kind of, hopefully it’s seeping into people’s brains, there’s a trickle down. So in a previous email that you and I communicated a few years ago, you had mentioned that Patagonia fails over ninety percent of the materials tested in your labs, so what do you think makes a good material supplier? Or maybe a good material?

Rob: If they still want work with us if we’ve failed ninety percent of their product, wow. Honestly, it takes a patient supplier to work with Patagonia, we can be a very high maintenance customer in a lot of cases because we ask a lot of hard questions. We want to know a lot of details and we need somebody who’s willing to walk that walk with us and spend the time with us on that. It’s really easy to be like, “No, you know what, you’re not going buy enough (material).” In some cases we won’t. In some cases, we buy plenty, but a lot of companies will say that you only make up ten percent of our business, why am I going change my entire ethos to revolve around you? But a good supplier understands the value in putting your best foot forward and being the first to market and doing these things that we’re asking them to do whether it’s aligning with their core values and giving us the transparency and the scalability of these new fibers and the new tech or whether it’s recycled or bio-based or more environmentally friendly chemistries or reducing water or reducing energy. They’re working with us to do that because they know that it matters to us and if they do it for us and we’re talking about it, it’s going to matter to a lot of other people down the road.

Nancy: Do you think that a branded name material or a consumer recognized textile makes a difference?

Rob: I think in some cases it does. You hear a lot of instances that people walk in to big brand box shops like Target or Walmart and they ask for specific textiles that they know of. Gore-Tex probably being one of the most famous ones, but in a lot of cases if they’re associating with a brand specifically around Patagonia, I think a lot of the consumers are looking at Patagonia first and those ingredient textiles second. So they’re kind of playing a supporting role as opposed to the leading role. I think that in a lot of cases they can bring a lot to the partnership, but they have to be willing to do a lot of those things that we ask them to do to make a difference and that’s to be sustainable, that’s the traceability part of it, that’s all the things that we talked about earlier that make a good partner. And some are willing to do that and some aren’t and I think that in general though, if they can do all that and your brand has value, then I think it only helps the brand but it depends on where you’re buying these things at.

The more educated the consumer is, the more educated the retailer and wholesaler are, I think. They’re doing a lot of research from the brand’s perspective and at least with Patagonia, they definitely rely on the Patagonia brand first.

Nancy: I understand. A question on my mind is if consumers are becoming more savvy or savvier about the materials that go into products? I mean you and I kind of work and love materials, so we like to think that, but I’m wondering if the average consumer is a little bit more educated about what goes into their products?

Rob: That’s a good question. You know I would say the average Patagonia consumer has definitely become savvier, but I don’t know if the Patagonia consumer’s your average consumer. If that makes any sense to you. There are definitely folks that are willing to spend a little bit more of their money on a product that’s going to last them a long time. I don’t know if that’s the same person everywhere across the entire globe, across all different age brackets and income brackets. I think we have a unique customer regardless of their age. They’re definitely interested in supporting the brand. They definitely want to be a part of the company’s image whether it’s with a t-shirt or with a hat or with a waterproof jacket that costs six or seven hundred dollars.

So, I think our consumer is definitely getting savvier. I think that is going to be the trend regardless of whether everybody’s there or not. I think in general, a lot of general consumers – I mean it’s easy to get swayed by the hype, by the big signs and without a lot of substance because nobody asks them to go deeper than the initial catch phrase . So that’s the part that I’m always hoping that the consumers becoming savvier on that, they’re looking a little deeper than just the catch phrase.

Nancy: Where do you turn to find the latest news on materials and material trends?

Rob: Good question. There’s a decent amount of industry publications, however we work very closely with our suppliers honestly, in general our supply chain provides us a lot of textile trends and it’s amazing the number of things that we pass along that end up in the industry. And the number of things that we get on board with and we end up working with that show up in the industry later on. And sometimes we’re not the first to buy a material from a supplier, we’ll see it and we’ll pass because we don’t think it’s ready yet. Somebody else works the kinks out of it and then we jump on because having high quality product is really important and doing our due diligence is really important. We also have a dedicated material innovation team we house in our material team here at Patagonia and those innovation engineers are working on projects that take anywhere from two to five or even longer years. Things that they are trying to determine like what’s the next best synthetic fiber or how do we work better with blends or how do we deal with end of life of polyester or what’s the deal with micro plastics? Something like that.

Nancy: I was just going to ask you, are there any new cool materials that you’re working on? You probably can’t talk about or that you’ve seen in the market?

Rob: Yeah. That’s a good question. The coolest ones I can’t really talk about just yet.

Nancy: I bet. That’s okay. We’ll wait. We can wait. Three to five years maybe.

Rob: Maybe just two. Who knows?

Nancy: So, what are some of the favorite trade shows that you like to go to for catching new materials? I’m sure Outdoor Retailer, but are there any others that you?

Rob: Yeah. Outdoor Retailer’s kind of a staple. One of the reasons that I like going there is just because you can see what the brands are doing, catch a glimpse as to what everybody’s been looking at and meet with almost your entire supply chain, whether they’re actually displaying booths there or whether they’re just walking the show. So for us, we realized that show was developed as a buying show. People wanted to buy product for their wholesale or retail accounts, but for me and my team, I feel like that’s become a really important part of the show that supplier side of it. ISPO’s a fantastic show as well. That’s basically our European counterparts to Outdoor Retailer and that happens I believe they’re doing that twice a year now. The summer show moved to Munich as well. It’s a great show and it’s huge. If you think Outdoor Retailer is huge, then this show is even bigger.

Nancy: I haven’t been to ISPO in a while, but I think I will this year. And do you go to any of the Asian trade shows like I know that there’s the Intertextile Shanghai show is coming up.


Rob: I have not been to Intertextile, but it’s on my radar. I’ve heard from some of my suppliers that it is a behemoth of a show. It’s just huge and you kind of need to go into a show like that with a plan or a strategy or you just get lost like a deer in headlights. That’s what I’ve heard, but I’ve heard great things about it. Obviously, things like Titus in Taiwan are really popular and there’s a few other ones that are going on but honestly, I like to get a glimpse of the market. I still feel like on true innovation projects it’s better to spend some time with those actual suppliers, meet the people that are more than just the sales rep they send to the convention, and understand how they work, where they work, and what’s important to them. And so visiting these people and building a relationship with them is super important. You just can’t meet with five or six of them a day. You have to be very candid about that and pick the ones that are most important to you.

Nancy: Right and particularly where materials are so important to Patagonia, it’s important to build those relationships.

Rob: Absolutely.

Nancy: So I just have a few other questions here. What’s your favorite Patagonia piece? If you have one?

Rob: Yeah. I’ve got a lot of Patagonia pieces that I feel super passionate about, but one of the ones that I love having year round is my Nano Air Jacket just because it’s got kind of the warmth that you would get out of a traditional Nano garment, but I’ve used this walking around town, to go get coffee or go to a bar and have a beer, I’ve also used it hiking and biking and skinning in the mountains when I’m backcountrying in the middle of winter. So you can use it below freezing, you can use it in the summer in June in California, it’s a really popular piece and second only to probably the down sweater that you see everywhere.

Nancy: Yeah. Everywhere is right. Is there any material that you just love? And one that you just can’t stand?

Rob: Oh gosh. Honestly, I don’t really have one that I love or can’t stand. I think that one of the biggest challenges, it’s the love-hate relationship that everybody has with polyester is you know it changes our lives in so many ways but it’s one of those things that we need to figure out how to, the end of life, beginning of life, it does great things for us. It’s a technical fiber. But, it’s hard, it’s used so much in so many places and it’s tied to oil and we’re always trying to figure out how to make it better.

Nancy: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, what are you most proud of, Rob?

Rob: I’d probably say, out of the products that I’ve worked on at Patagonia, the Nano Puff and the Micro Puff have been true testaments to building versatile styles that solve a problem, keep people warm, are last a long time, and are versatile in a lot of different types of situations. Whether it’s layering or stand-alone pieces. And I think I really like the way they look. I think they’re great. I think, as an industry, things like Synchilla has been a staple product for what thirty or forty years? I mean it’s insane that that product has been around for so long. It’s truly withstood the test of time so I’m blown away that it still is one of the most beloved, I mean fleece, people still buy it. They buy it whether it’s from us or somebody else. I think ours is great and I own several of them. But I try not to buy them anymore because I want to wear the ones that I have out.


Nancy: Alright. So what are you looking forward to? What’s coming up?

Rob: Good question. I think we’re trying to. We’re looking at the future and we’re trying to find out what’s next, what is going to be the next performance fiber of the next fifty to a hundred years, how do we continue to build technical performance pieces as sustainable as possible? I think that’s the big question that we’re trying to get to the bottom of and I think that we’re looking at it through all sorts of different lenses. We’re not trying to get stuck on buzz words, just like recycled, I think it’s important but what’s really important is to understand why that’s important. What is it saving you from carbon emissions? What is it saving you in CO2? What’s it saving you in water or energy? How is this making an impact on the world and how can we make that impact bigger than us alone as a brand?

I think that’s kind of our big message. Whatever we’re trying to do, sure we’d love to get exclusivity on it, but we want to drop that pretty quickly just so we can talk about it and blow it out to the whole market. Hopefully the whole clothing market can have a piece of it and change the industry for better.

Nancy: Are you looking at smart fabrics at all? Is that part of, maybe you can’t share, but something that Patagonia’s looking towards?

Rob: I think that we’re always looking. I think it would have to be the right story for us to get behind the smart fabric. It has to be true to the authenticity of the brand and the ethos here. And a lot of the ways that it’s being done today are kind of clunky and don’t really feel authentic to the brand. So that doesn’t mean that we’re not looking at it and we’re not considering it and that in the future we might not find a way to do it, but we need to, if we’re going do it, we need to find a way to do it in a way that’s very Patagonia.

Nancy: Okay. Last question, can you leave us with a memorable fabric story? Have you got any good ones?

Rob: It’s hard to pick one. I think we could easily pick a super fresh one that’s probably out there right now being marketed with the Micro Puff and the fact that that started off as a project to change the way insulation is made. I believe those projects always kind of start off as a way to mimic natural fibers. Everybody wants to mimic down. And some reason down is very beloved, and I get it, it lasts a long time and it has a great feeling to it and it’s extremely warm so those are a lot of the benefits. But with our product, the goal was to say – can we make a product that’s just as light only maybe it’s more versatile? We spent ten years tweaking the product on and off before it was valid for being commercially viable.

Nancy: Wow. Well, it had an incredible launch didn’t it? It really did.

Rob: It did. I mean we can’t make enough of them right now which I guess is a good problem to have, but it’s another challenge.

Nancy: Well Rob, thank you so much for your time and I hope to see you in November.

Rob: Yes.

Nancy: Take care. Thank you.

Rob: Thanks, Nancy.

Nancy: You can find more information on Patagonia’s amazing apparel and gear and it’s outstanding corporate, social, and environmental initiatives at Patagonia.com. Thanks so much for listening to Material Wise. I’d like to thank the incredibly talented Woods Creative for their help in producing this podcast. Jake Nevrla mixes our episodes and our theme music is by Activity Club. For more information on Material Wise, please visit materialwise.co and please subscribe, rate, and review wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you again and until next time take care.

Episode 00: Welcome to Material Wise

Your Podcast on Material Matters

Material Wise is a new podcast created for those involved with or interested in the textiles and materials market hosted by Nancy Fendler, principal of Fendler PR, a communications firm specializing in materials and ingredient marketing. Driven by her deep curiosity, Nancy sets out to speak with designers, product developers and guests in the outdoor, fashion, home furnishings and other industries about what inspires and influences them to create, why and how they select the materials they choose and the relationships they’ve built with their customers and industry.