Nancy Fendler

Episode 14: James Morin | Flowfold

James Morin on how a small Maine-based company turned into an international brand

James Morin, COO and president of sales for Flowfold – a brand of minimalist gear made with some of the strongest and lightest of weight materials – gives us insight on how he’s helped build a small Maine-based company into an international brand. In this episode of Material Wise, James shares how he and his team have formed collaborative partnerships with suppliers, retailers, ambassadors, and non-profits to make Flowfold the thriving company it is today.

James Morin, COO, President of Sales at Flowfold

James’ 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 James Morin, Chief Operating Officer and President of Sales, at Flowfold – a brand of minimalist gear made of some of the world’s strongest and lightest materials entirely made in the USA. James joined college friends and Flowfold co-founders, Charley Friedman and Devin McNeill in 2016 to help propel the then Maine-based craft-style company into a full-blown commercial operation. Flowfold got its start in 2010 when Charley, who was working in a sail loft at the time, stole scraps of racing sail cloth out of the trash to make wallets and bags that could keep up with his daily commutes by boat, bike and on foot.

After making a number of well-received products for friends and family, enough word was spread that he knew he had a good thing going. Today Flowfold’s distinctive line of wallets, backpacks, and totes – designed for everyday adventures – can be found at leading retailers across the country, and its fastest growing market, Japan. They are also sold online direct to consumer via its eCommerce site at flowfold.com. 

Sustainability is built into Flowfold’s DNA and it does its part to keep materials out of landfill. Over one third of its materials are recycled and Flowfold works to cut down on material waste through smart manufacturing. The company strives to secure the most sustainable fabrics they can that are made in the USA. 

James shares how Flowfold got its start and how the company has grown through successful collaborations with key partners such as L.L Bean, Japan, Maine International Trade Commission, and a slew of brand ambassadors, which all demonstrate how a small Maine-based company can become an international brand.

Nancy: James, thank you so much for being a guest on Material Wise and inviting me into your new headquarters.

James: Thanks. Excited to be on.

Nancy: Well thank you. So I’d like to start by just getting to know a little bit about you, and about how you got started. So how did you join Flowfold?

James: So, I actually met Devin and Charley who are the two co -founders of Flowfold in college at the University of Maine. And we, like a lot of your quintessential entrepreneurial stories, it was kind of broken stope type of start. Where we did it part-time and we would take time off from work and go to trade shows. And we did that for about five years, where we sold things on Amazon and then went to a couple of trade shows. And it wasn’t until 2016 that we went full time. We raised a little bit of money and went full time and that’s when I joined them, and we haven’t looked back since.

Nancy: Wow, that’s great. So, when did you say that was 10 years ago?

James: Well, gosh the LLC was officially started in 2010. So we just have our nine year anniversary in May. So May of 2020 we’ll be 10 years. But, we were a quarter million in revenue in 2016 right. It was very much a hobby. And we went … we are now, and we may talk about this kind of transforming from that craft style company to a full blown commercial company. And that’s where we are now.

Nancy: So what’s your role within the company?

James: I’m well, I mean head cook and bottle cleaner, right? I think my official title is COO and President of Sales. And Devin, Charley and I have three principles. We are all very siloed. And so, Devin kind of handles our HR, handles our books. He’s our CEO and indeed a Commander in Chief. Charley’s our Chief Innovation Officer. He handles our manufacturing and sort of procurement and resources development. And then I handle sales and operations, and really manage the key relationships, and project management around some of our initiatives that we have here.

Nancy: I see. Did you ever think that you’d be in the position you are now? I know you’re an outdoor guy.

James: No, I never did. I went to school for… I was pre-med. I was going to medical school and thank God I failed the M cats. Because I don’t think I would have been that… At 18 years old you sort of don’t know what you want to be. I mean, at 30 years old, I don’t think I know exactly what I want to be to the long-term. But, I’ve always known that I want to be a leader of people. I want to be involved in a company that really gives me a sense of fulfillment. So I didn’t know it would be here, but I feel like I’m exactly where I belong.

Nancy: That’s great to find that your hobby has become your passion, and your passion has become your business. So Flowfold’s platform is designing minimalist gear with function and durability in mind. It’s also very lightweight. Do you think this is still the trend going forward?

James: Yeah, I think minimalism is actually … probably, if you look at sort of the SEO, it’s probably trending now more than it was when we originally started the company. You look back to when Charley really kind of first started. I’m not going to say stealing, but it probably was stealing actual scrap sail cloth out of the trash can at the sail loft. He had a very simple idea. I mean, he lived on an Island in Maine and had to commute from that Island to the Maine shore every single day. And he needed gear that could kind of keep up with that. With the bike, the boat, the car, all sorts of the four seasons of weather that Maine presented.

James: And so he found a problem that he saw. Which was that the quality of products wasn’t there. And you look at a lot of the legacy brands out there right now even. But especially 10 years ago, it was this go for the summit ethos, right? You need to make the most technical gear in order to be relevant. And our audience, we saw they weren’t going to climb Everest. But they were going to go on a day hike, take a selfie on top. And then the next week, they were going to go for a picnic or go to a music festival. And they didn’t have a brand or a product line that they felt they could use for all of those different adventures. And that’s kind of where we stumbled on this idea of minimalist gear for everyday adventure. Right? An everyday adventure can be walking your dog, or it can be finding a local trail somewhere. So, that’s kind of where we are. And I don’t think that trend is going to go away anytime soon.

Nancy: No, I agree. I think that everything I’m hearing as well is buy better, buy less, buy a piece of equipment that you can take on many different activities. And I was just listening to a … Oh something On-Point. Yeah. It was On-Point where this fellow had just written a book about buying second hand. That’s not the name of it, but it was going about how we need to continue on the path of just buying better and wearing it and using it more.

James: Well, yeah. I mean, sustainability obviously right now is a buzzword. And it’s important for brands, Flowfold included to be thinking about how they can be more sustainable in their everyday business practices. But it’s interesting United By Blue is a leader in the space, in the outdoor industry. But even then they came out and they, they had a huge push of big initiative around a new product line that was recycled plastic.

James: And you have to be careful as an advocate. Even if you try and do something right, there’s always going to be people out there that say you’re not doing it right enough. And there are consumers who were quick to remind United By Blue and everybody that, recycled plastic is still plastic. And one of the biggest issues around the garment industry is this idea of single use, right? People are buying clothes and not wearing them and the creation and making of clothes is a very wasteful product, when it comes to using of water. And so, to your point about secondhand reusing and figuring out that is probably the single best path towards sustainability that we can get to. And I’m anxious to kind of see how the industry adapts to that.

Nancy: Yeah, I know. Well I think everyone’s just thinking about it and that’s a big start.

James: You’re right.

Nancy: Telling stories is a big part of your brand platform. And I’m just wondering how important it is, or I’m wondering how materials fall into your brand’s story.

James: Yes. Storytelling in general is important because that’s how you’re going to get people’s attention. And I think, when it comes to material, it’s funny you say that because I’ve never really thought of it this way. But that’s probably our first story, or if nothing else it’s the first chapter of the story. Material is how we start, I don’t believe that we are a materials company. But at that being said, the essence of Flowfold was the recycled sailcloth wallet, that’s how we started. Before we took a pack to Kilimanjaro, before we came up with recycled cotton, organic cotton, recycled polyester. Before that, it was recycled sailcloth. It was the sailcloth that was reserved for the ultra-elite sailboat, kite surfers and sail boaters. And we were repurposing it for a very simple product, the wallet.

James: And, there are plenty of people that said that the world doesn’t need another wallet company. But we were passionate about what we were doing, and I knew it right away. Actually your listeners can’t see it, but this wallet right here that I’m holding my hand is 12 years old. It’s the first wallet that Charlie ever made for me. And it’s not even Flowfold brand. It’s our first company name, which from a marketing perspective made no sense. No one knew how to spell it, or say it, or all those things. So it doesn’t even have Flowfold on it. But this wallet, I keep it, I continued to use it because it’s a reminder of sort of how we started, where we started from. And that kind of keeps us grounded in remembering our roots because I think it’s, you have to be authentic. Your stories have to be authentic. And so remembering where that first chapter was, that’s our foundation. And now we continue to build off that.

Nancy: That’s great. I did not know about that little tidbit about the name of the company. Or how did you come up with the name Flowfold? I digress here a little.

James: No, it’s okay. It’s sort of a … if you asked Charley, he’s going to tell you he came up with it in a dream…But Flowfold is actually a geological term. And it’s over time, when you have layers of rock under extreme heat pressure, it creates what’s called a Flowfold. Which is basically rock flow and what it means to us. And what it meant to Charley at that time was this idea of something as strong, and as rigid as rock can have some innate sources of flexibility, right? It can bend, it can wave, it can flow and that’s sort of how our materials are. I mean the sailcloth material that we started with … Again, you’re talking about that first story, it’s an extremely rigid material. It’s very challenging to use. In fact, you can’t make large products out of it. You can’t make bags out of recycled sailcloth but you can make a wallet. And so this idea of the strength, the flexibility. That sort of I don’t know, dichotomy or playing with words. That strength the flexibilities is what that word means to us and even though it’s a geologic term.

Nancy: It’s a great name.

James: Thank you.

Nancy: It is. Even though, I like-

James: It’s a little hard to say sometimes.

Nancy: You mentioned the recycled sailcloth – where you find those materials are at sail lofts or how do you procure them?

James: Yeah, it used to be out of the trash can, but as we’ve scaled obviously. We work with mills at sail lofts to at times get hundreds of yards of this material that may have the slightest bit of a discrepancy in the material. That we then will up cycle or recycle because it’s not fit for those quarter million dollar sails. And the best way for your listeners who aren’t familiar with the material, it’s a laminate. And so, it takes several individually not strong materials, right? A very thin layer of polyester, a very thin layer of nylon or Mylar depending on the material that you’re using. And some inner fibers that might maybe be very strong, but they’re just fibers of carbon fiber, Kevlar and it’s laminated together. And it’s the perfect example of the, the strength is in the sum of the parts, right? So you take these three individually, relatively weak fibers, you laminate them together and you have a very strong and durable fabric.

The issue is if one of those fibers is even a millimeter out of place and the whole kind of lot can be thrown away. And that’s when we will come and we’ll buy the material for 50 cents on the dollar, we’ll keep it out of a landfill. And to this day, our sailcloth line is still … we never, we don’t buy virgin material. It’s 100% recycled or up cycled material. And when there’s plenty of it to go around, but there are situations where a color, will be a small batch or a limited run because we won’t get it back again.

Nancy: That’s interesting. These are racing sails, right?

James: Correct.

Nancy: It’s not just your typical basic sail-

James: It’s not your typical day sail kind of sail. Correct.

Nancy: And I understand that you use some other materials for your bigger pieces in your packs. Can just talk a little bit about this.

James: Correct. So we actually have worked … at this point, we worked with the mill quite a bit and the actual makers of this. And that own the technology around creating these patterns with the inner fibers. So it’s a patented process, it’s actually off patent now. But it’s, we’ve worked with them and, the issue with the sailcloth is that the outer face of that is Mylar. So it’s very … for your listeners, it’s almost like shiny. It’s plasticky it looks like, and completely waterproof and it’s fantastic to resist, the UV radiation that would degrade a material over time. So it’s great for sailboats, not great for backpacks.

So we’ve worked with the mill and we’ve kind of uncovered some changes that you can make if you replace that outer Mylar finish. For example, with a small thin layer outer nylon. Now all of a sudden you have a fabric that has a much softer touch and it’s a fabric that you can create bags out of. And that fabric is no longer called sailcloth anymore. It’s called an outdoor fabric VX 42 or VX 21 for people that are familiar with the space. And that outdoor fabric is not just used exclusively by Flowfold, but it’s used by other brands. And it’s got the same sort of strength and tear resistance, and abrasion resistant materials as the original sailcloth. But it’s got a much softer feel, and it’s much better for backpack. So we use that and of course we’re exploring some other adaptations of this technology as well.

Nancy: When you mention exploring, leads me to thinking or asking where you do source materials? Or if where … I don’t want you to really reveal your sources, but where do you turn to, to learn more about new fabrics and trends and trade shows or?

James: Yeah, trade shows you could. I mean you, right? I mean I have an Excel spreadsheet, which is a … and I call it my pool of champions. And you’ve always been on there from a textile perspective. I don’t know if you know that, but it’s important to stay on top of these trends. And the textile industry is certainly a place where there is knowledge to be found. And we don’t consider ourselves to be experts in textiles, but we want to stay up to date with certain trends. The issue, and I know you didn’t ask this, but we may get into some of the challenges that we face. We’re 100% made in the USA company. We’re proud of that, and there are advantages of that, but there are disadvantages. A lot of the technology, a lot of the information, a lot of that knowledge that we just spoke of actually isn’t domestic.

And so some of your most sustainable fabrics, some of your highest technology fabrics aren’t originating in the United States anymore. So it can be challenging because of the FTC guidelines. You need to source your materials domestically even if you’re taking the raw material. The raw materials also have to come from United States. So we source all of our materials from the United States now. That continues to be the plan, but we’re putting more pressure on our vendors, and our textile manufacturers to push the limit and find ways to get more sustainable fabrics made in the United States.

Nancy: That is a tall order, it’s hard. So I know you’ve recently, not brand new, but recently formed a collaboration with distribution in Japan, and I just loved looking at all the videos on your website. They’re really well done. So what prompted you – what you call a small company in Maine but becoming much bigger – decide to go to Japan?

James: So in some regards it was a convenient accident, right? We didn’t necessarily approach Japan first. The Japanese distributors are very active, very progressive in their sourcing. And so they come to the United States, they go to a lot of trade shows, and we first met them at Outdoor Retailer. And that was step one, meeting them and having those conversations. Step two was evaluating the market in general. And what we found is I think that the Japanese market, I forget the name, and shame on me because I just went there – but there they have a term specifically that’s very similar to minimalism and it’s a term in Japan. They taught me, but I forget it now. But it basically means waste not, don’t be wasteful. And it’s even a stronger lifestyle principle there in Japan than it is in United States.

So I think this idea of minimalism is very important to them, small lightweight products. And then I didn’t truly realize how good it would fit. It wasn’t till I actually stood in the streets of Tokyo, and realize that the commuter in Tokyo doesn’t have room for big packs. It’s just so busy. There’s so many people within such a small square footage of space that you need these small sling bags, or fanny packs, or everyday day packs, mini backpacks. That the consumer in Tokyo uses because there’s just simply not enough room for the big backpacks. And so it was incredible to see the products being used, not just our products being used, but other products in the space being used. And it’s great to see a culture embrace minimalism, embrace not being wasteful. But also Japan more than any of my other international markets still embraces many United States products. They value our quality and so as a result of those three things, we’ve done well in that marketplace.

Nancy: I can see the minimalistic values between the two cultures. So I know that you also … L.L Bean is one of your big collaborators and L.L Bean has a store in Japan. Are your products in the L.L Bean Tokyo stores?

James: They are actually, there’s I believe 27 stores in Japan, which a lot people don’t know about. Japan and L.L Bean is probably, I believe a six to seven figure, no nine figure, thinking about a hundred million dollar business for L.L.Bean. They’re very big and they’re growing fast and I was able to meet with their team in Japan and learned a tremendous amount. They’re extremely firm. Actually I got to drive in the bootmobile in Tokyo, which is a bucket list item I never thought I would be able to do. But we actually have some exclusive products that are only found in L.L.Bean Japan that aren’t found in L.L.Bean domestic stores, which is because of the market, right? The mini backpack, the large fanny pack. Those things are actually in Japan, not US marketplace because the markets are different.

Nancy: I was just going to ask you if you saw market differences in consumers.

James: Absolutely. Our wallets in Japan have zipper pockets as an example because they still use coins for currency. Our wallets in Japan are a little bigger than our wallets in United States because the yen is a taller bill note than our bank note rather, than then the United States. So we have to make some changes. But it’s a worthwhile sort of change to our product line because it’s probably our fastest growing. I will say in 2020 when we’ve just started to do and finalize our forecast, I think that our Japanese market is going to be the fastest growing market for Flowfold in 2020.

Nancy: Wow. That’s something.

James: It’s exciting.

Nancy: Yeah. Very exciting. Are there other international locations you’re looking towards? I would think Scandinavia has kind of a minimalist?

James: Yeah. Europe in general is a miss for us so far, it’s been overlooked. I think Canada has some challenges with packaging and bilingual constraints. There are certainly some opportunities, but at the same time, when you’re a growing company, you really have to kind of double down on what you’re doing well. And for us right now, we have law of diminishing returns, if we try to spread ourselves too thin. So, our focus at least for 2020 is going to be obviously the United States and then Japan. And then if we have other distributors within other countries that want to partner with us, we’ll explore that. But it’s going to have to be a very good reason to do so.

Nancy: Yeah, that’s great. Focus on what you do well and make it better.

James: Exactly.

Nancy: I really … there was another quote that I saw in a place. I don’t know where I read it, but an article you mentioned that it’s possible to be a small Maine company and become an international brand. You’ve done that.

James: Well, the world is smaller now in many ways than it was 15, 20 years ago. And I have full conversations with my partners in Japan. Granted it’s at 12 o’clock for me and it’s at 6:00 AM for them or whatever or what have you, whatever the time changes. But I have that ability to have these conversations immediately and be able to react. And it’s shocking how fast I can ship prototypes and samples to Japan. We’re talking days, right? It’s no longer months anymore and awkward conversations. So it’s a small place and there are also individuals in our organizations in Maine. If you’re fortunate enough to know about Maine International Trade Center, the fact that my friends and folks at MITC. There are grants out there that help small companies go in to introduce their products and brand into new marketplaces. And we have leveraged that quite a bit.

Nancy: That’s been a great asset for many. Thanks, we’ll put that … the organization of the show notes for those that want to know. So you also had done such a great job with telling your story across many different platforms, on social media, your brand ambassadors. So can you tell me a little bit about that? Is it helped because Flowfold is not just direct to consumer, but wholesale too. So, maybe that’s two different questions. How does your marketing speak to each of your channels of distribution?

James: Well, okay, so I’ll break it down. I think to, we’ll kind of go over those channels, right? So we have I would say three main channels, but I’m actually going to introduce a fourth for the first time. But the first channel that we have that we’ve already talked about is that international distribution. Which in many ways is actually one of the simpler models because they order annually, right? So twice a year, large orders, you ship it and you kind of forget it and then you let them as the distributor, because of course you give up some margin. But they will then control the brand effectively in their space, in their country. We have domestic wholesale, which we’ve also discussed, which is the partnerships with L.L.Bean and Urban Outfitters, REI, et cetera. All the way down to your small mom and pop shops on the corner, local markets which we still really enjoy supporting.

The third is obviously the direct to consumer play, which is flowfold.com or Amazon depending on where you want to list your products. Theoretically it could be brick and mortar if that was part of your strategy. It’s not part of Flowfold’s strategy to have brick and mortar. The fourth, which we may or may not get into, is sort of a B2B model. Which is putting a local businesses’ brand on your product. There’s sort of a promotional market and it’s a very large industry in and of itself. But what’s exciting for us is that we are seeing a trend of companies wanting to use mainly United States products for promotional items, willing to spend more. So it was no longer giving their employees or events the cheapest product available with like swag, but it’s about giving away really high quality product. So there was an opportunity for us to expand.

James: But back to marketing, I think that the key there is how does it differ per market and excluding the international play because we don’t honestly control that marketing as much. But the other channels, the marketing is nearly the same and it has to be because the omnichannel that we’re dealing with right now. The consumer is extremely educated and they don’t care where they see about your brand. It may be on Instagram, maybe L.L.Bean’s catalog. It may be at a trade show or at a fair, they need to immediately see who Flowfold is and know what they’re about. And they don’t want to necessarily be confused depending on where they see it. So your marketing and your branding has to be consistent again around idea of authenticity. So, the branding is fairly consistent and no matter what channel we’re talking about and the key points that we list on our website, you’re going to see on our packaging as in the wholesale marketplace, right? So it’s very consistent across the Omnichannel.

Nancy: It makes it easier.

James: It does make it easier.

Nancy: The lines have certainly blurred. So everyone’s a consumer these days. You have a number of ambassadors around that I noticed on your website. And they’re great for telling stories as well.

James: Right. And I think, you look at sort of who’s in the driving seat from a consumer perspective right now? And millennial, again another buzzword, right? But millennials now, Gen Z coming up behind them, they’re going to be the future buyers. And as millennials get older, myself included. But as they get older, they’re starting to get more situated within their lives, within their jobs, with their having … if they’re having a home, they’re getting their mortgages now and under control. And they’re going to be the ones that are determining what’s purchased and what’s not purchased. And this generation, millennials and Gen Z has been advertised to you more than any other living generation, right? Every single day you will look at your phone, you may have 200, 300 notifications of people pings, vibrations, things trying to get your attention.

A lot of this is advertising and so in order to cut through that, you need … UGC, right? User Generated Content, the modern day consumer right now does not want to hear from me as a brand. They want to hear from their peers and so that is what’s so important around this idea of, I’m going to use the word ambassador. Because I think influencers has been a bit inflated. And I think that we’re going to see that bubble burst. Then maybe even very soon as Instagram and Facebook as they create new social platforms or alter their social platforms to become less pressurized places. Instagram is already talking about removing the number of likes that a photo gets. This is going to impact the influencer marketplace and we have seen that where you want to be is in what’s the micro influencer area. These individuals that have one to 10,000 followers that those followers respect what they have to say. You get enough of them talking positively about your brand and that’s going to be how you can become relevant in the mass scale.

Nancy: Yeah. Thanks for clarifying that.

James: Sure.

Nancy: I think it’s important. Again, authenticity is so important for your brand ethos, right?

James: Correct.

Nancy: So, there’s another organization that you’ve told me about that I’d like you to talk a little bit more about because I think it’s so important and it’s called Women United Around the World. Can you share a little bit about that?

James: Sure. It’s another example of collaboration in many ways with different goals, right? I mean the collaboration with L.L.Bean is a joint collaboration to learn from each other or to come up with new products. And of course there’s some revenue aspect behind it, and we both want to see growth in our product lines. The collaboration of Women United Around the World was very different, and it was more of a … we talk about story, talk about authenticity. And it’s a great question because everything gets wrapped into one. And we believe strongly in this idea of manufacturing, allowing people to make products in the United States. And what Women United Around the World does, it’s a local organization here in Portland, Maine. Which trains female refugees how to sew so they can go on find gainful employment. And what we decided to do was originally going to be a very small project.

We were just going to give them a very simple template, a simple product design, and we were going to donate all of the raw materials, the zippers, the fabrics, the liner material, everything and have them sew us some bags. And then what we’re going to do is we’re going to take those bags and we were going to sell them on our website, because it’s very challenging. And this organization is not designed to market and to sell. And to get products in front of people. And so you make it, we’ll sell it and we’ll donate 100% of the proceeds, 100% of the revenue right back to the organization. What we found was quite astonishing because it was extremely well received. It was important to us. We didn’t realize how important it would be to our audience.

We sold out of the bags. They made 50 bags. We sold out of them in a weekend before the press release came out. When the press release came out. Then all of a sudden people came in on our website and were donating money. Well, there’s no bags, but I’d still love to buy one anyway. I just want to be able to donate money. So they believed enough in the cause. And so that was sort of really imprinted, this idea of being authentic, being true to what your ethos is as a brand. And your customers were either going to agree with you or disagree with you, but if you’re authentic about it, then they won’t be upset. Even if they don’t agree necessarily, they’re not going to be upset. But if you stay authentic, that’s going to be how you maintain customers for a life really.

Nancy: Yes. So I thought I’d ask just a few personal questions-

James: Sure.

Nancy: Not too personal-

James: It’s okay.

Nancy: So we can know a little bit more about you James. But, so I know these are all your favorite children, these special pieces, and it’s hard to name your favorite child, but what would you say your favorite Flowfold piece is?

James: It’s hard not to say the wallet just because of … I’ll say the wallet. And it may sound like a pop up, but I’m going to give you an extinct very simple example as to why the wallet is so important to me. I have the opportunity as a result of my position for the company to travel all over the world. And when I … it doesn’t matter what airport I’m in, what state I’m in or what country I’m in. If I’m in line and I pull out my wallet to pay for a coffee, or a movie ticket, or a bus ticket, or train ticket, or what have you, and there’s somebody, anybody within a 10-15 foot radius that also has a Flowfold wallet, it’s the most remarkable thing that happens. They’ll take their wallet out of their pocket and they’ll hold it above their head.

And I know your listeners can’t see right now. They’ll hold it above their head like, there’s this kismet relationship. They don’t know who I am. They don’t know that I’m one of the owners. They don’t know that I went to college with the two founders, they know nothing of that. They just saw me with the Flowfold wallet.

And what’s so beautiful to me about that is a couple of things. One, the mark of a good brand is that you know who the brand is without seeing the title, right? So no one … for the logo of Flowfold wallet is on the inside of the wall. No one can see that or read it. When I take my wallet out immediately, people know it’s a Flowfold wallet. And so that sort of kismet relationship that I have with every other person in the world that has a Flowfold wallet is really important to me. It is our equivalent of the Jeep Wave or the holiday simulate where they take their hand off of the handlebars. That’s the Flowfold wallet wave. And that’s why the wallet is so important to me. So it’s by far my favorite child, but I love them all.

Nancy: Oh, that’s so cool. It’s like you’re part of the family or club, sorority, fraternity, whatever. So, and I know that Flowfold is your true love, but are there some brands that you just think are killing it right now or doing really good job?

James: Yeah, I mentioned United By Blue. I think that they’re doing a really good job with an eye towards sustainability. I thought Smartwool is doing a really nice job Allbirds with wool sneakers, right? They’re just some innovators out there that I find extremely interesting. And it’s in the outdoor space in particular. I really think that you’re finding more and more companies have an eye towards this sustainability and future generations, and the impact that they have and getting people outdoors. And I think that’s really main outdoor brands. If you want to call that a brand in itself it’s obviously something that I’m very passionate about. So anyone that’s doing their best to get people outdoors, they’re going to get a big old hat tip from me.

Nancy: That’s great. Nice shout out to Maine Outdoor Brands. So you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve got a lot of things going on. What keeps you up at night?

James: Gosh well, I mentioned one of the challenges from Flowfold. One of the challenges is I want, or I hope that we can get some of that technology back in the United States as far around material innovation, fabric, innovation, manufacturing. And outside of that I just think that the political landscape right now in 2020. I think 2020 granted I’m 32 years old and I haven’t seen that many cycles. It’s probably just going to be one of the more interesting political years of our lives to see what happens with the presidential election. And I keep in politics society, I want to make sure that what happens at Flowfold is in the direct interest of the Flowfold employees. I just really hope that there’s not some sort of governmental shift that will impact our business model.

I don’t believe there is. And in the sense that we’re being very cognizant of that. We aren’t going to be impacted necessarily by tariffs. In fact, right now tariffs are probably helping us because it’s driving the cost of outsourced products up and keeping them more in line with domestic made products. But that’s I guess it’s a really high level, big answer. But just politically, I think 2020 it’s going to be really interesting year. And I just care so deeply about the Flowfold employees. I don’t want something existential, something that has absolutely nothing to do with our brand, really impact their livelihood. So knock on wood, don’t think it’s going to happen. We aren’t dependent on government policy necessarily, but I certainly hope things just stay even keel.

Nancy: Yeah. Amen. And again, you’re someone who pushes yourself. So it’s hard for me to even think what you’re going to come up with this answer. But how do you get out of your comfort zone?

James: Well, I think … I’m not sure if you’ve heard me, but I’ve been an advocate for mental health for several years now. I think if you look at entrepreneurs, the suicide rate among entrepreneurs is very high. Higher than obviously the general population. And so, I still go to therapy every month. Doesn’t matter. It was really interesting. We had just launched the L.L.Bean Boot Collab. Just launched it. The Outside magazine came out and wrote … as I’m walking into therapy, Outside magazine article pops up on my phone, which called the Bean Boot collaboration perfect. Right? I think of the title of the article was The First Collab in 107 years and it’s perfect.

I remember that because I went on Instagram and I said, look, this is probably arguably the best business moment of my life. I haven’t had kids yet, haven’t gotten married. This might be the single best moment in my life. And I’m walking into therapy and I took that moment. It’s probably one of the most well received sort of Instagram stories or posts I’ve ever had. Because it was important to remind people that therapy necessarily isn’t for people that are sad or in a sad moment it’s about sort of, I don’t know, it’s like brushing your teeth, right? It’s emotional hygiene and that’s out of my comfort zone. When I first announced publicly that I had sort of battles of the anxiety, and had been on medication for having anxiety that was way outside of my comfort zone and it still is even talking about it now, it’s still because of pride, right?

I’m a Franco American, I was raised to be prideful, talk about these things. You rub dirt on it. Don’t cry. But it’s important for people to know when they see me and they see me go on to Kilimanjaro, testing bags, and they hear me talking about the success of Flowfold, and I look like I always have it together. It’s important for people understand that, that’s not always the case. And so you asked a question about what keeps me up at night. One thing that does bother me or what I wish would change around this idea of mental health is that we all kind of stop sensationalizing this idea of lack of sleep as an example, and you’re going to have a lot of entrepreneurs telling you the Elon Musk thing, right? If you work 16 hours a day for everyone that works eight hours a day, then you’re going to be dealt with the amount of work.

It’s simply not sustainable. If you … the reason why Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and these guys are able to work 16 hours a day is because they love what they do. And the reason why I don’t have a problem staying in Flowfold for 12 hours a day is because I love what I do. And if you’re working 16 hours a day and you hate what you do, you’re not going to get anywhere ahead of somebody working eight hours a day and love what they do. And that’s an absolute promise. But the messaging around it right now is flawed and it’s driving a lot of people to overwork, not finding fulfillment in their lives, not diversify their happiness. So, whenever I have a chance I try to encourage that.

Nancy: Thanks so much for being transparent about that James. That’s so important, I agree. That’s another personal hygiene, mental health, and also sleep it’s very important. So thanks so much. Is there anything else you’d like to add or talk about that we haven’t covered?

James: No, I’ll end with this. It’s, we are coming down to a Black Fridays, Cyber Monday, the holidays and this is not a pitch for me directly, but it is I learned this yesterday, it’s called black Friday because it’s a time of year where a lot of small businesses go from red to black, right? And I wasn’t aware of this but it’s important. If you have the ability, try to get out to your local shops, support your local makers if you can. And it doesn’t necessarily even have to be a purchase. Go online, write a review, say that the customer service was well done, or say I owned a product and it’s been a really good product. Those reviews, when we talked about user generated content, pure reviews, those can be a really big impact on small business. So go out there and support your local makers. It’s going to make a big deal for them.

Nancy: We’ll do. Okay. Well again, thanks so much and I enjoyed speaking with you.

James: Thanks.

Nancy: 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.com 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:

  • United by Blue: https://unitedbyblue.com/
  • Maine International Trade Council: https://www.mitc.com/
  • Women United Around the World: http://www.womenunitedaroundtheworld.org/home.htm
  • Maine Outdoor Brands: https://maineoutdoorbrands.com/

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 07: Myranda Caputo | Bespoke Branded Fit

Myranda Caputo of Bespoke Branded Fit on demystifying brand sizing and the future of fit standard

With her 20 plus years of technical pattern making and product development experience with brands such as Hanes, Dick’s Sporting Goods and L.L. Bean, Myranda Caputo knows a thing or two about how a garment should fit. Upon seeing the recent shift among brands focusing more on developing customized fit standards tailored to their target markets and customers, Myranda realized the growing need for her technical skills and founded Bespoke Branded Fit. In this episode, we talk about how brands go about developing their own fit standards and why there can be such a discrepancy. Myranda shares how function and aesthetic, not to mention materials, are key factors when it comes to fit. She also shares how brands are helping consumers purchase the right size online via interactive fit charts, 3D body scans and more. For more information on Bespoke Branded Fit, visit www.bespokebrandedfit.com.

Myranda Caputo, Owner of Bespoke Branded Fit

Myranda’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 inspires and influences them to create, why and how they select the materials they choose and the relationships they built with their customers and industry.

On this episode, we’re going to talk about fit. Some say that fit is the most important aspect of any garment. Once you find that special item that fits you oh so perfectly, you’ll become a loyal fan of the brand who made it. My guest today is Myranda Caputo, an apparel development consultant and fit specialist with Bespoke Branded Fit. Myranda has 20 plus years of apparel industry experience and has worked with leading brands such as Hanes, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and L.L Bean, to name a few. Her extensive background includes product development, pattern making, process evaluation, and developing standards for technical design. Myranda is going to share with us what she believes goes into developing the perfect fit.

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

Myranda: Thanks, Nancy. I’m so glad to be here today.

Nancy: Oh, good. How did you get interested in fit pattern making?

Myranda: Nancy, when I was a young kid, I got involved with 4H and learned how to sew. After that, I decided I wanted to go to college to learn about developing apparel. I had initially gone as a design major, but then ended up in apparel management degree with a design concentration. It guided me to all the technical aspects of apparel, pattern making, grading, draping, tech packs, all the aspects on the back end in order to make the garment happen so you can actually cut it out of the fabric. You can take a design sketch and develop an actual garment.

Nancy: Wow. I know it’s so technical. I’ve seen it … I remember being at the Bobbin Show. It was a trade show eons ago-

Myranda: Yes.

Nancy: And all that equipment that had to plot these patterns and make sure that you’re using as much of the fabric that you can.

Myranda: The Bobbin Show was a great show. I went several times as a college student as well and enjoyed going and seeing the new technology and where it was going. Some of the fun aspects, even back then, were just the initial steps to scanning, at that point, a mold of a foot in order to help develop shoes three-dimensionally.

Nancy: Yeah.

Myranda: In a Gerber system.

Nancy: Wow. Yeah.

Myranda: Times have changed.

Nancy: Yes. Yes. Right off the bat, I have a question that maybe some of our listeners have as well and hoping that you can demystify it. Why am I sometimes a size four in one brand and then a size eight in another?

Myranda: Nancy, this is one of the fun aspects of apparel – that every brand is able to develop sizing the way that they view their brand should be developed and based on their target market. Over the years, though, vanity sizing has really come into play. Some companies have put the numeric size so that even though it fits a larger dimension, the size is smaller numerically on the tag. That way, you’re perceived as buying a smaller size. Some brands, though, over the years, focus on different body types – the body type that they’ve defined for their customer based on such as age, gender clearly, activities the person may be participating in. These all effect our body shape. If you’re more athletic, you’re going to have a different shape than somebody who’s potentially more sedentary. Also, it plays into the brand dynamic and brands wanting to create customer loyalty. They’re looking to stick to their body shape, which is why you may not fit into that brand because you may not be their defined body shape.

Nancy: That’s really interesting. Yeah. That makes sense. Also, what you mentioned about an athletic brand might be a bit different in sizing than a sportswear brand because of the activity that they’re doing. Is that-

Myranda: Exactly, Nancy. That’s exactly true. When you look at athletic body shape, shoulders are squarer, people are more muscular through the thigh area. They’re trimmer through the waistline. We can think of the men’s traditional suit where it’s a little fuller fit, but then you’ve … we’ve all heard of the athletic cut suit for men’s-

Nancy: Yeah.

Myranda: Which is trimmer through the waist and the hips. That holds true to the body shape in general when you’re looking at more athletic brand. Then, on the flip side, when you’re in more sportswear oriented, you … the waist might not be quite as trim as what you would see in athletic brands.

Nancy: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Interesting, because I do have my go-to brands. Sometimes they’re the smaller sizes because it just makes me feel so good. In a previous conversation we had, you mentioned that fit needs to be defined in two ways: function and aesthetic. Can you explain?

Myranda: Nancy, as we were talking about how there are different brands for sportswear and athletic wear, so fit has your designer drafting for the design. When the designer’s drafting the design, they have to think of what is the end use of that garment. Are you using it to go fishing, running, biking, hiking, sitting in a desk all day? In general, just comfort wear throughout the day? Or, every day basic activities, whether you’re a mom running after kids or doing a triathlon, they’re thinking about what that garment is going to be worn for. They want it to be designed so that it’s aesthetically appealing to the customer and up with market trends, whether it’s color, the fabric type. They’re keeping in mind the fabric type and what’s available in the market and who they’re directing that to be based on the end-use.

Then, they will work with their technical designer or pattern maker to make sure that that fit is functional for the garment. The pattern maker needs to think about, “Is it a running activity? What kind of movement does this person need to be able to do in this garment so that it is functional?” It’s really difficult to think of putting on a suit jacket to maybe even clean your house or to go out for a walk because it really wasn’t intended for that function. You may not have the movement that you need in the sleeves to be able to lift your arms up over your head or to reach for something as easily.

Nancy: It’s really important for brands to communicate their fit standards, do you think?

Myranda: Absolutely it is. This is one of the biggest challenges brands are having is we’re going to this virtual market where people can’t try on clothing virtually (even though it’s in the works so to speak), to know that that fit is going to work for their body shape or for the activity they are going to be participating in. Frequently, in the past, we’ve gone to a retail establishment and gone to the fitting room and tried on that garment to make sure it works for our body shape and for the activity we’re doing. Going forward, we’re looking at a virtual market where we’re viewing a garment online, potentially either on a person or a form or just sometimes even flat where it’s not even viewed on a person, to gain an understanding of what that garment is. We can read about what the fabric is, but the same time the size chart that’s frequently provided gives measurement, but really not what that body shape is.

To help clarify that, if I tell you to draw an eight-inch line, you can draw it straight. You can draw it in a squiggle with as many curves as you want. You can draw it into a circle. Measurements can be distributed in different ways. You could look at the woman’s chest, for example, and maybe she has a 36 inch circumference on her bust, but it doesn’t tell us what her cup size is. It doesn’t tell us she’s well-endowed or not. If that sports bra is going to fit her properly, she’s guesstimating based on that circumference measurement, but not knowing really where her … the body shape was distributed when they developed the garment.

Nancy: I’ve read that there are companies that are using body scanning. Is that correct? Can they send a picture of your body or scan and send it into the manufacturer and there could be something more custom fit?

Myranda: They can do that. There are manufacturers that are and have done scanning in the past to develop custom fit. I know Levi’s did it for a while out of their New York office. I’m not sure if they’re still doing it or where else. The other big development in the apparel industry is they’re starting to use the 3D scanning to develop avatars within their system to develop a preliminary fit without even fitting a garment. Then, on top of that, they can modify that avatar if they needed to in order to meet a custom body shape potentially so that they can do custom fits virtually on the computer and then also send out an actual garment that should fit more true based on the avatar.

The other interesting thing that I’ve seen recently is people are making smart apparel, where it’s able read your body. I would say it’s a different type of scanning where you put on, most likely in a pair of pants is what I’ve seen, and it understands your body shape and you can download the information and it can suggest to you what jeans may fit you best, what brands may fit you best, and based on also the style details that you might be looking for. If you’re looking for the perfect skinny jean, we’re getting the impression that some of these technologies are coming about that will be able to help you find that jean.

Nancy: That’s great. The tools that make it easier to buy something and not order multiple-

Myranda: Absolutely.

Nancy: Or have … or having to go to the tailor or to …

Myranda: That’s the biggest problem, Nancy, is there is no standard size.

Nancy: Yeah.

Myranda: I know that I’ve seen on some brands, who really work hard to define their shape and how the customer can relate to their product, have worked on that through their interactive size chart. What’s really interesting is one of the companies out there has tailored their size chart online so that you can click through and say, “What type of clothing do I like? Do I like it more relaxed? Do I like it tighter?” Then you can ask what brands you currently use and what sizes you’re currently buying in those brands. Then it can tell you what size they suggest for their brand.

Nancy: Do you know what the name of that company is?

Myranda: It’s The North Face. I’m not trying to-

Nancy: Yeah.

Myranda: Plug anybody, but it’s really … it’s an interesting interactive tool so that you can create a guide versus just based on those measurements.

Nancy: Yeah. That’s fascinating. This podcast is about materials, so how do materials come into play when you’re pattern making or fit or customizing fit?

Myranda: With what I do with materials and pattern making, you really need to keep in mind, “Is it a woven? Is it rigid? What sort of movement is needed in this garment and how do I accomplish that in the shape of my pattern with the body shape I’m trying to fit so that there’s an appropriate amount of ease in order to give somebody that movement?” On the flip side, if I’m doing a high stretch garment for swim or active apparel, I need to think about how compressive does that fabric need to be against the body? Is it true compression? Is it just meant to skim the body? Because it’s so close to the body, have I taken out enough and have I given that person, still, the movement that they need? Because even though something may be next to skin and really form fitting on the body, if you still don’t have the fabric in the right places, you’re not goning to get the movement that you need. It’s important to work with your design team, your fit model, and understand the expectations for that garment so that we’re not tailoring something that you cannot move in.

Nancy: Right. You’re constricted.

Myranda: Exactly.

Nancy: Yeah.

Myranda: We don’t want your clothes wearing you, where you feel like you’re stuck in a a garment.

Nancy: Ugh. No. No. Over time, do you think … have you seen body shapes change, do you think? You’ve been doing this for, what, 20 some odd years?

Myranda: In the time that I’ve been working in pattern making and apparel development, the thing that’s become really apparent and amazing to me is that, initially, the standard for new body measurements was based on a government study where they strictly measured people. It was the challenge of – “Where is the fullness distributed on the body, because you just have a measurement?

Those numbers were crunched and kind of folded into a data table to look at the differences between the sizes. Today, up … I don’t know how long ago it started, but Alvanon has worked with a company in order to scan people and to gain an understanding of where the body fullness is distributed. They’ve compiled measurements, but also compiled shapes so that they were able to gain that understanding. With those differences, I think that we’re seeing an evolution of the body shape because virtually we can now view it, versus prior it was just a measurement that we were viewing on paper.

The other thing is that I know that there’s a more recent study coming out as well where they’re … I believe it’s ….Size North America is doing additional scanning. The thing that’s also interesting with these body scans is they also take into account nationality, activity level, age range, all this data so that you could tailor to your market. If you’re a company that wants to tailor to somebody who is 15 to 25 (years old) and is athletic, you could pull that data and really tailor to that body shape, so that if you’re developing an athletic line, you can really truly focus on that customer. If you’re choosing to go after the 40 to 55 year-old woman who is working in an office and you want to develop sportswear for her everyday life in the office, you can tailor that body shape as well. You can note that you want to mix of athletic and every day. They’re capable to blend that. It’s interesting to see how that evolves.

Nancy: That’s a great tool.

Myranda: It’s a great tool.

Nancy: It really is. It can segment. Brands can really segment their market and tailor to their customer.

Myranda: They can understand their body shape-

Nancy: Yeah.

Myranda: Typically, from my perspective, I think brands are looking at what the design elements are that are out there. They’re chasing after the market and the design aspect. It’s also important, and we are seeing a shift in the market and companies really trying to focus on their fit. I’m interacting with people more on LinkedIn and as I’m working with more and more companies, I’m gaining an understanding that these companies are focusing more on their fit and how they’re tailoring to their market. One of the ways that I’m receiving that information is through block patterns. A company can identify their body shape and they can identify it for men’s, women’s, boys, girls, women’s plus size, so they know their shape. On top of that, they’re capable of developing a block pattern which will give them their base size fit, so that they can have a standard when they’re working with a range of manufacturers.

Because as a retail establishment, when you’re developing, you’re looking for factories that can manufacture based on the fabric you want to use, based on duties, depending on the region that that product is coming from, and cost. We are all clearly chasing after the lowest possible cost. In order to do that, block patterns are a great way for companies to hone their fit, use the block, send it to their vendors. Then they can also, on top of that, put their grading on their block pattern so that they’re able to define all their sizes so that the vendor can understand the visual of what the expectation is in the grading, which is the development of all the sizes.

Nancy: Where do you see the trends in pattern making and fit going?

Myranda: I think that the trend for pattern making is that we’re going to see an influx of a need for people who understand pattern making and fit because we have shifted to more of a technical design role, which kind of builds garment initially off of measurements and the design details and sending that to factories. We’ve lost some of that trade here in the US. There are still pattern makers here, but at the same time, for, I would say, at least 10 years, it’s kind of become one of the dying arts. People have filtered out and we’re starting to see an influx of that needing to come back.

I’ve been, through my research and looking at people’s titles and job descriptions, I’ve seen there’s a greater request for pattern making skills and a true understanding of grading and questions from employers about, “Can you really draft a pattern? How would you do it?” I’ve actually even received pattern tests sometimes when I’ve interviewed where they’ve sent a pattern and then wanted you to develop the design off of the pattern to really test your pattern making skills and then also create it. They want you to see that you can develop all the sizes. It’s one thing to look at numbers on a page. It’s another thing to be able to draw the shapes that work to fit the body.

Nancy: Right. It’s such an integral part in the working in collaboration with a designer. You’re basically taking their sketch and making it happen and then working, obviously, with the fabrics and the factories and all that.

Myranda: I think that’s the fun part – because the designer is worried about fit and wanting to see the product get to market on time, but the job of a pattern maker and a technical designer, you’re really collaborating with all those teams along the way, whether it’s your product manager, even merchandising to an extent to understand what they’re looking for, your designer. Then, to work with the factory to make it happen and understand their capabilities in sewing, what is their equipment? Is this something that they can do that I’m requesting? Can I give them a couple different options in order to achieve the desired garment?

Nancy: It must be interesting being in your head. You must look at … People are wearing clothes every day and you’re like, “Uhmm..that fit isn’t right,” or, “It’s …”

Myranda: Well, Nancy, as you know when you’re passionate about something, it doesn’t escape your mind. I do find myself kind of people watching and trying to understand, “What’s special about that garment or why does it fit so well?” Or, on the opposite, “I know what I would change on that pattern to improve that just a little bit.” Then, sometimes, I start wondering, “Would that consumer even notice those changes? Are they so used to it being that way that it’s okay with them?” Or, would they enjoy the changes that I’d be thinking of to make it fit better? Just think about those things, whether it’s children’s wear, swim, men’s wear – all the time I feel like I’m thinking about it – no matter where I am, whether we’re out skiing or running or at the pool.

Nancy: I can’t escape. There’s nowhere. I was thinking about, as you were talking, when I was a little girl. I lived in a rural place. It was very normal for my mom to pick up patterns and go to the fabric store. We had a seamstress that made my clothes. That was not what I wanted. Of course, I wanted to buy clothes off the rack like other girls that lived in cities or whatever. I was in a museum. The Museum of Modern Art had the costume display. I was following a woman from Europe. She was European. She was saying, “They call this Couture.” I had Couture. I had a seamstress make all my clothes when I was little.

Myranda: I did, too.

Nancy: You just don’t do that as much anymore. I think that you’re right. The fit that we get, we tend to just accept based on what fits us the best. Those who take the time to go to have them tailored, it’s great.

Myranda: I am noticing that there is an influx in custom now, that companies are viewing this as a tool to gain market shares where they can offer a custom product. Sometimes it’s custom to fit the body. Sometimes it’s custom based on the customer wanting a different color or a different fabric, if they’re able to offer that. It is interesting to think about and perceive that, “Is this really where we’re going back to, where people really do want their clothes to fit? They’re interested in maybe paying a higher price for something that is going to provide them longer and fit them better.”

Nancy: Yeah. I think so. Buy things that fit and last and can withstand the test of time and(consumers can) buy fewer (products).

Myranda: Absolutely. I think that’s also noted in fabric and fiber. We want things that are renewable fibers or recycled so that they’re more earth friendly. It’s interesting to think about not just the recycled aspect, but what garments are potentially compostable because they’re out of natural fiber. Are we thinking about that as users?

Nancy: Exactly. I know it’s nice to see the industry really thinking along those lines and I am in touch with a lot of fiber materials companies knowing sustainability is all on their top of mind, you know, “How can we be better stewards to the environment?” My last question for you, which I like to ask everyone, is where do you find your passion?

Myranda: I follow up on my passion for fit and apparel development – and in talking to just-like minded people. I really enjoy reaching out to people who are in the industry and are in a similar aspect of industry where they’re working on honing a fit. I also do enjoy just some market research, whether it’s looking at size charts on The North Face or whatever websites are doing to see what they’re doing and how they’re changing fit. I have also … I do pick up some books periodically or some trade magazines just to see … most of that, I would say, is digitally, whether it’s the Sourcing Journal or Rivet or any of the other trade magazines to see what are coming up.

Nancy: Well, thank you. This has been a real learning/educational process for me. I will now make sure that I pay attention to fit and that I have no gaps in my clothes! Thank you very much, Myranda.

Myranda: Thanks, Nancy. It was great talking to you today.

Nancy: Okay. Take care.

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 06: Justin Seale | ArchiTec

Justin Seale on combining his love of design, sourcing and travel to build ArchiTec

After 20 plus years working in retail, product management and design for notable outdoor-related companies, Justin Seale decided that the time was right to create his own brand – but it had to be different. Combining his sage years of experience with his love of travel, design and textiles, Justin founded ArchiTec – a streamlined collection of men’s adventure apparel based on sustainable materials and inspirational places around the world – designed and built in California. Justin talks about how each collection leads with a particular textile and location in mind to create an experience around a product. He also shares how his trip to New Zealand to meet the growers who produce ArchiTec’s merino wool inspired his new fall’18 ‘Farm to Wear’ New Zealand collection. For more information on ArchiTec, please visit www.architecsf.com.

Justin Seale, Founder of ArchiTec

Justin’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.
Nancy Fendler: My guest today is Justin Seale, founder and principal of ArchiTec, an adventure and travel-inspired apparel company based in the San Francisco Bay area. ArchiTec offers a streamlined collection of sustainable, fashionable, and durable pieces based on inspirational locales. Speaking from his Bay Area headquarters, Justin gives us a glimpse into how and why he founded ArchiTec, the significant role materials play in each collection, and the forthcoming Fall ’18 New Zealand collection that will be launched this September.

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

Justin: Yes, thank you very much for having me.

Nancy: Yeah… So I’m, I’m so intrigued with ArchiTec after reviewing a little bit of research on the internet and what I know from Shannon. So, can you share a little bit about your background and how you got into design?

Justin: My path was in the outdoor industry, and the design part of it was not, certainly not traditional or straightforward. I actually started out in retail sales of outdoor products and gear back when I was in school at The University of Colorado Boulder, and then went on to live in Hawaii and work on a dive boat. Then worked in … or actually ran an outdoor gear store in Honolulu of all places. And then, lo and behold I found myself back in Colorado attempting to start graduate school in Computer Science. This was the early, late ’90s, early 2000s and everybody was making money in the first dot com industry. Somewhere along that process, I spotted a Chrome messenger bag on the back of a bike. It was Denver bike messengers, and I was like I gotta have one of these things, because I was a total gear head.

I finally was able to track the guys down after, it took me probably a month or two. Rang the bell on their warehouse and it was like, “What do you want?” and I said, “I want a bag”. They said, “Oh great, come on in”. I started talking to them, and they just had this amazing kind of eclectic warehouse space, a half pipe in the back and just a bunch of designs like driven pattern tables and what not. Anyhow I was like, “Do you guys need any help?” And they were like, “What?” I’m like, “Yeah I’ll just like come and help you guys sell some stuff and what not”, and next thing I knew I had a full time job working for Chrome Industries back when they were based in Colorado, and we later moved the company to San Francisco in 2002. I made the move of course and then somewhere, a year or so later. You know, I’ve always been a very product driven sales person. It was kind of for me just embedded in why we create a product, why we sell a product. We create the product itself, like we led with that experience.

I asked Mark Falvai who was the founder of Chrome, I was like “Chrome at one point had done apparel” and I said, “What’s up with all these old apparel sales you guys aren’t running anymore?” And he’s like, “Well, you know, we just don’t have the time, we’re just focusing on the bags.” And I was like, “Can I go ahead and resurrect this”? He was like, “Sure, be my guest.” So, anyhow I basically took a headlong plunge and just started working in kind of my free time on resuscitating some of their older designs and one thing led to another and I basically morphed over from being in a sales driven role into a product line management role and through that and through mentoring under Mark, I just learned a ton about design and development, sourcing, which in turn carried over to our next company, which was Mission Workshop. I was the apparel director there and kind of responsible for handling all things apparel related.

Nancy: Wow. You know when you’re mentioning Chrome, I used to have a Chrome bag. Don’t they have like the car seat buckle?

Justin: Yep. The reason was that those were actually cut out of old cars at the Denver Salvage Yard.

Nancy: Wow. Tell us a little bit about the positioning of ArchiTec and why you feel there’s a need and who you’re designing for?

Justin: It’s interesting because actually the concept behind ArchiTec was actually, born from my wife and really, by that I mean this, I had been over the course of the last like four years I’ve been working as an independent consultant with a lot of start-up style brands, helping them understand the industry and the design components, managing their whole process and, it was great and it was somewhat rewarding, but of course you’re working on other people’s stuff. I had come to a point where I was like, “Okay, maybe I’m just kind of done with this industry, I’ve been doing it for 20 years now. It’s been a good run. I think maybe I’ll just be a sail boat captain or something.” Well my wife was like, “Why don’t you do a brand?” And I was like, “Really, it’s so much work…”

And, as I began to think about it, I was like, “What can we do differently that I haven’t done in the past or that other people haven’t done?” To me it was about understanding, what do we love to do? My wife and I love to travel, we spend three to four months out of the year out of the country. We’re always looking to hop on a flight somewhere. And, at the same time I love textiles. I love sourcing, like you can get textiles all around the world. So, combining the elements of design, sourcing, and travel together, so that we’re building seasonal collections that are based around particular textiles from different parts of the world. Like in this case, for fall, we were in New Zealand for a month working in conjunction with Global Merino, staying on their sheep station, understanding the whole ‘we’re in the wool farming process’. We built the entire collection based around their fabrics. So first, to me, it’s about giving the people the experience behind the product and not just making more stuff.

Nancy: Wow, that’s really interesting. What a lifestyle! I’m envious!

Justin: Yeah, I mean it’s like, it’s sort of like a brand that has a bad travel habit.

Nancy: So, in looking at your website, you have a work bench. I’m just curious about the sales platform. If I understand it correctly, do you launch a collection and then have certain folks preview it first before sale?
Justin Seale: Right, basically the concept behind Workbench is this: we give people an opportunity to purchase products prior to launch at a 25% discount. So first, for New Zealand, we’re launching our New Zealand collection on September 25th, and there’ll be a 30 day period within that where all the items will be available for pre-sale. So as a result of buying in early, you’re able to actuate a discount. After that 30 day period then everything is moved back up to MSRP and it allows us some visibility, both in terms of obviously what styles are getting traction, and maybe modifying our production based on that, and it also mentalizes that the consumer has to act now.

Right, that’s smart. With regards to materials, like you say you love textiles, so we have something mutual in common. Does a particular textile inspire design, or do you have a product in mind and then find the textile for it?

Justin: Well, I would say that I, from a design standpoint, I usually lead with textiles, in the sense of like if I see something that’s new or something that’s inline, and I’ll just look at it and think to myself “Oh that would make an interesting x.” Where we do redesign items we in turn try to look at appropriate textile.

Nancy: Okay. Does a brand name fabric or a consumer recognized material make a difference, do you think?

Justin: The answer to that is, I think is, is really dependent of the clothes of the consumer. There is certainly a subset of consumers, myself included, that are going to recognize and appreciate branded fabric technologies. Now, how large that customer base is, nobody really knows and obviously some goals of them have done an excellent job of positioning themselves as the gold standard in the respective I mean Gore-Tex of course comes to mind. But, now if you’re talking about the wider customer base at large, I would say “no” because the majority of people are just simply purchasing commodity goods based on what they’ll look and feel.

Nancy: Do you think consumers have become savvier about the materials that go in the products they buy though?

Justin: I mean I would like to think that. Again, I mean that we’re talking about a subset of people who actually follow these types of things, then the answer is yes. I think that the greater population as a whole, the answer is still probably no because you need to look at the Zara’s and H&M’s of the world and that’s not a textile play per se and certainly not a branded fabric technology.

Nancy: You know, maybe one day we can be hopeful. I also noticed on your website that sustainable practices are important to you. Do you require sustainable practices in your supply chain?

Justin: We do not really require sustainable practices as a part of our own internal best practices. With that said however, the departments that we’re fortunate enough to work with, they in themselves work through a sustainable model. For instances, in the New Zealand collection we just launched for fall, we worked closely with the good folks who work down at Merino who are based here in California, but source all of their wool from south island of New Zealand. We were very fortunate to actually travel to New Zealand and actually stay on one of the Merino wool sheep stations, so we were actually able to trace the fiber back to the farm level. My wife definitely refers to the collection as “farm to wear”.

So in that regard, yes. I mean sustainability is extremely important to us in terms of understanding our supply chain. I don’t necessarily believe that sustainability will result in a product that has less overall longevity. That is, you can develop a quote-unquote sustainable product that’s just going to fall apart in a shorter period of time as something that’s not quite as environmentally friendly. So yeah, and I think that from an organic fiber standpoint i.e. wool, sustainability is huge. If you’re talking about sourcing a stretch nylon type fabric, in that case buy with air towards whoever wanted to produce a fabric that’s going to last long and perform the best.

Nancy: Right. I see that, I think that’s so important. It’s a common theme among the folks that I’ve spoken to is to try to manufacture or produce garments with longevity in mind. What do you think makes a good textile partner?

Justin: I think a good textile partner would need, obviously, the innovation and to be driven from the mill level. Now, I’ve been fortunate in my career to work with Schoeller Textiles, Global Merino, you know, premium mills who produce premium fabrics and understand their position within the marketplace. With that said, it’s also a personal relationship with the mill. I can’t speak highly enough of Global Merino and their whole team over there and how supportive they’ve been with ArchiTec. We just got this fall product launched and whatnot, and at the end of the day we’re, from a textiles partner standpoint, you’re going to the people that you feel like you actually have a relationship with, and they get what you’re doing. I mean there are a lot of people out there that you could source materials from obviously and the personal relationship goes a really long way.

Nancy: Yeah, it does. So where do you turn for the latest news on design in textile trends? Do you have any favorite sources?

Justin: Textile Insight Magazine is great. You know for me, I tend to obviously go to major industry trade shows like Outdoor Retailer, ISPO, Première Vision in Paris. I’m kind of like, constantly surrounded by mills and textile innovation, so while I’m looking, it’s never like I need to look on a weekly basis. It’s more to the point where I know that probably six times a year, I’m going to be in front of the mills looking at what’s new.

Nancy: So is ArchiTec made in California?

Justin: It is actually, we’re producing everything in downtown Los Angeles.

Nancy: Wow, that’s great. Have you found that consumers are more conscious of where and how their apparel is made?

Justin: No, and again this speaks back to customers’ reputation and core values and whatnot. I do think “Made in the U.S.A” certainly has a certain panache to it. Really what it is, is it requires, again there’s that subject of customer basis to look at that and say “Oh, I will pay more for that as it’s something that’s made in the U.S.A. [inaudible 00:13:20] made in Southeast Asia. Again, we start styling out to a larger commodity goods based brand, of course the country of origin is of little consequence to the consumer.

Nancy: So you have an interesting e-commerce platform which I mentioned. Where do you think retail’s going in the future?

Justin: Everyone has been predicting the demise of brick and mortar retails in the last ten years, and of course that hasn’t happened. I would say that within out competitive space, obviously brands want to be involved and in control as much as possible their B2C experience. It’s good because I just really like apparel, particularly like premium technical apparel where margins are often times tight. The ability to sell direct allows you a lot more latitude in terms of what you’re designing and how you’re not subject to having to build in wholesale margins, or operating a wholesale calendar and all the other things that come out of that.

With that said I still, this is quite an experience as I’m getting older, actually feel the tactile product in person, so our plan right will probably be opening up about four to six shops, not our own brand shops, but placing product with select retailers for fall and maybe in the spring, just to give people the opportunity to see stuff in person. To answer your question, I think B2C will continue to grow and increase in market share, but I still think there’s a place out there for traditional work that knows what they’re doing and is able to present product in a public context.

Nancy: So, do you have a favorite ArchiTec piece and, if so, why?

Justin: They’re all kind of like my children right. The Merino wool hoodie. It’s just a classic wearable hooded piece, it actually has an asymmetrical cowl-neck style. It has a double-lined hood and a good stash pocket on it. I just don’t ever take it off, so to me that design, meaning utility and hitting that perfect middle of the Venn diagram.

Nancy: That’s the one. Do you think that you will be designing for women in the future?

Justin: Given the pressure of my wife, yes, we have an eye on some womenswear, but I myself will probably not be the one designing it.

Nancy: What professional challenges keep you up at night?

Justin: God, there’s a lot, but it’s mainly, the thing about operating a small brand is the fact that you really do wear a myriad of hats. There are times when it’s incredibly rewarding, when you see how much you get done with a small team, but there’s certainly times when you just simply feel overwhelmed by, “God, there’s just too much stuff to do.”

Nancy: In times of self-doubt, how do you pick yourself back up?

Justin: For me it’s all about getting outside. If I’m too focused on the computer, or just too focused on friend related items, and kind of spinning my focus circle, I need to go out and spend half a day on work, ride my bike or go sailing. Basically just remove myself from the context of “the now” and put myself in a different space.

Nancy: Definitely recharge. What can you say you’re most proud of? This can be within ArchiTec, or in life, whatever.

Justin: It’s an interesting question, and I mean I guess I’m proud of the fact that what was not intended to be a career ended up manifesting into a productive body of work that I’m proud of, and I’m proud of what we’ve launched across Chrome and Workshop, and what we’re currently doing here at ArchiTec. And also the people that I’ve been able to surround myself with, just really passionate designers, developers, factories, mills and whatnot who believe in what they’re doing. This is not an industry where we’re getting rich, or if it is and it’s your number one priority you’re probably in the wrong industry.

Nancy: What’s next for ArchiTec?

Justin: As I mentioned earlier, we are launching our fall winter New Zealand collection later next month, and then following up for Spring18 we’re going to Japan and the Philippines. We’re actually sourcing some Japanese textiles for the spring launch, and then we’re going to Philippines to product test and experience all that.

Nancy: Wow. That sounds so exciting. So, can you leave us with a memorable fabric story?

Justin: Memorable fabric story? You know, I guess my favorite textile style is Merino wool, not to overstate that, but it’s sheer versatility in terms of application and clothing styles, it’s amazing. So, unfortunately I don’t really have a specific kind of stand-out story in itself, it’s more the body of work, and for me that would be just all the things I’ve been able to create over the years using various manner of constructions – and to be able that still on the streets from ten, fifteen years ago is very rewarding.

Nancy: And actually, just even going to New Zealand, and perhaps seeing how it’s sourced and all that too, must be pretty remarkable.

Justin: Yeah, there was a lot of things working on the textiles kinda things, even operating at the mill level either you’re with the mills, it’s hard to adapt to the actual grower side of things in this case, you really get a full breath of insight. There’s a lot of things that I thought I knew that I just did not know.

Nancy: There’s nothing like it, experiencing it firsthand. So where can folks find your products?

Justin: Our website is ArchiTec.com

We currently have our fall collection product that is winding down, and the New Zealand collection will be launching next month and you can actually hop on the site and click on the look book posted up there for the New Zealand stuff.

Nancy: Great, well thanks so much Justin, I really appreciate your time and I look forward to seeing more of the product and meeting you in person, hopefully someday soon.

Justin: Thank you so much Nancy, and I will hopefully be seeing you soon.

Nancy: Okay, take care thank you.

Justin: Bye-bye.

Nancy: Bye-bye.

Thanks so much for listening to Material Wise. I’d like to thank the incredibly talented Woods Creative for their help in producing this broadcast. 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 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.