sustainability

Episode 17: Ruth Kelly | SAACHS

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

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

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

Ruth’s Interview Transcript

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

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

Links to organizations mentioned in podcast:

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

Episode 16: Wayne Fan | Frontier.cool

Wayne Fan on bringing textiles to life in a digital world

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

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

Wayne’s Interview Transcript

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

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

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

 

Nancy: Hi, Wayne, how are you doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links to organizations mentioned in podcast:

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

Episode 15: Best of 2019

The Best of 2019 –
Highlights from our guests

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

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

Episode 12: Elizabeth Whelan | Elizabeth Whelan Design

Elizabeth Whelan is a textile designer with over two decades of experience whose materials can be found…

Episode 11: Louisa Smith | Louisa Smith Textile Forcasting

With over 24 years international experience in the global fashion and textile industry, Louisa combines her creative know-how with market and product development intelligence…

Episode 10: Emily Walzer | Textile Insights

Emily Walzer on her publishing career, views on latest trade shows and Textile Insights

Those of you who follow performance textiles are most likely familiar with Emily Walzer, a savvy journalist who’s had direct access to leading active sports and lifestyle brands heads since the 80’s. Today, Emily is the editor and co-publisher of Textile Insight, a trade publication that focuses on the world of textile design, innovation and its exciting product applications. I’ve known Emily as long as she’s been covering the sports/textile markets. It was wonderful to sit down and have a conversation in her home office about her career path in publishing, her key take aways from the latest trade shows, current textile trends and growing industry concern over sustainability and social responsibility. Emily reveals how she fuels her creativity, which always seems to find its way to inspire us with her informative stories you can find at textileinsight.com. I hope you enjoy!

Emily Walzer, editor and co-publisher of Textile Insights

Emily’s Interview Transcript

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

The best part of being involved in the outdoor active lifestyle industry is meeting with so many great people and developing long-lasting relationships. One of those special people for me is my guest today, Emily Walzer, editor and co-publisher of Textile Insight Magazine. For those unfamiliar, Textile Insight is a trade publication that focuses on the world of textile design, innovation and its exciting product applications. I met with Emily in her home office in the beautiful seaside town of Guilford, Connecticut. We chatted about how she got her start in journalism and the changes she’s observed in the textile market since she began covering it in the late ’80s. Emily also shares some of her key takeaways from her coverage of the recent winter trade shows and markets and the overall concern with sustainability initiatives. She also lets us know what she does to escape, recharge and find her inspiration. Emily, thanks so much for joining me on Material Wise. As you know, or maybe you don’t know, I’ve been a huge fan of yours for a long time.

Emily: Thank you.

Nancy: And just admire your work so much.

Emily: Thank you, Nancy.

Nancy: You’re welcome. Did you always want to be a journalist and write about textiles or how did you get into this?

Emily: No, textiles were never on the radar for me. Publishing, I would say has been on the radar. My family has a publishing background, my family associated for years were very creative. They were writers, artists from that field. Publishing was sort of out there. I actually was an art history major, I first was looking for jobs either in an art gallery or as dealers, things like that for art and then kept going back to publishing, trying to get my foot in the door, and then I’d get a job at Conde Nast. I started there and I worked for House & Garden Magazine, which I loved in the kitchens department. And from there I went to Self Magazine, which was also another interest of mine, more in the field of sport and fitness.

And from there just went from there to take a break and I left my job and traveled and came back and was called by Fairchild Publications. They had started a new magazine called Sportstyle and we’re talking many, many years ago. And I got a job working there at Sportstyle Magazine and my first day was assigned to textiles because no one else in the staff wanted to do it. And since I was low woman on the totem pole, I said okay. And I thought it was very creative and artsy and people who are very interested in color and pattern. We drew on my art history background and I was off and running. I had publishing and I had Textiles. I was zigzagged into that. But from day one, I very much enjoyed it.

Nancy: I remember Sportstyle. Oh gosh, I know it was great and I know that with Textile Insight Jeff (Publisher) is bringing it back.

Emily: Yes. We’re trying to get that back and it was a fabulous time. I’m sure folks who are in the industry back in the ’80s would remember Sportstyle and we had a wonderful staff and it was right when everything was booming and this all the companies, it was exciting and fun and they were all small companies. You could call Nike, you could call Reebok and the founders would pick up the phone and it was a wonderful, wonderful time to be in the industry and Sportstyle was really, really the one to get that whole sort of market moving in terms of sport and style.

Nancy: It was/is a great name. I know you cover all the markets – between the markets in New York and Denver and more – and you just came back from the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show. How was it?

Emily: It was good. It says the second go round for the combination of ski and snow and Outdoor Retailer in Denver and last year’s was very, very high energy. I think anytime something is first time was really great show. This show was good and good for textiles we have a lot of innovation going on there and it was good energy in the room and I hope that will continue. It’s a very good show. I was impressed by the creativity in their textile department. They’re doing so much in terms of sustainability, which I guess we’ll talk about more in depth, but I think also just the textile community is really open now to new materials, to new types of materials, to new processes.

It’s a good time and really wanting to sort of push innovation in the marketplace right from the raw materials on through the entire supply chain. I think most textile folks had a really good show and I think what we saw in other areas, I don’t cover footwear as well, but I think there’s textile innovation going on in the footwear arena that’s really important to watch right now.

Nancy: Yeah. The 3D printing and a lot of knits are being used.

Emily: Yes. I think knit technology is something that people are really talking about and how it may have started in footwear, but now really segwaying into new developments. Smartwool did a big presentation at the show about their new intra-knit program, which is just elevating how great will can be in a knit for active outdoor and every day. Knit technology is definitely something that we’re watching in all segments of the industry.

Nancy: Interesting. Outdoor Retailer always has such great seminars. Did you catch any good ones?

Emily: I did. There were three actually that very thoughtful. I am a big fan of Haysun Hahn of Fast Forward Trending and I thought she did a superior presentation about fashion and function and the relationship going on there in our market and where we are in outdoor and just the complicated relationship we have between fashion and function and how to push that forward. She did a superb job on that. Kevin Maya, excuse me if I’m mispronouncing that, who’s with bluesign did a presentation just on sustainability and I thought he was really good just talking about how a sustainable supply chain is a robust supply chain or maybe he said a robust supply chain is a sustainable supply chain, but the point was how it is just has to be in business today.

This sustainability and innovation and how you make product has to all go hand in hand. He did a very good job talking about bluesign and the relationship between bluesign and partners in the industry. And then the posted NPD research, Matt Powell and Julia Clark Day do a great job of just really giving a big picture on growth categories and what’s hot and what’s not and social factors at play that are influencing what’s going on. Those are three good and there were great things going on at venture out also on small-batch sustainability and just a lot of good things there too that the show was really terrific for that.

Nancy: Yeah. Did Matt and Julia share anything that was surprising to you?

Emily: Not so much. Matt did say some things. Travel has been a really interesting category to watch. A lot more people are traveling and doing and I thought he was talking about the baby boomers and I think a statistic he gave is something like 50,000 baby boomers are retiring every day and that market is something, it’s really pushing the travel industry and I hadn’t really thought about that in a while. I keep thinking is younger people who are traveling and that’s big part of their culture right now, but that was interesting to hear about that market and what’s happening in the retiree market. And Haysun had said something interesting too about design that fanny packs or cross body, however you want to talk about that accessory is something that the youth have adopted now.

But she saw that as a way that designers were not giving people what they wanted in their clothing and we had to go back to finding a fanny pack to put our phone, our wallet, our keys in and that perhaps design needs to elevate in a new way to, to carry what we want to carry today. And I thought that was an interesting point.

Nancy: That is interesting. For those listening – a designer opportunity.

Emily: Yeah, definitely. She said, ‘who leaves without your phone and keys?’ And we shouldn’t have to put on an accessory perhaps to in order to have that – our clothing should be built with pocketing or adhesives or however you want to do that. And that that’s a design area to rethink perhaps.

Nancy: Yeah, I’ve been hearing that we’re in an experience economy, people are looking for more for experiences rather than buying more stuff or making multipurpose products.

Emily: Well, versatility is the big buzz word in the textile. You go talk to any of the suppliers and you ask them and they said, we really have to develop product that is versatile, and from that I think you’re seeing a lot of adaptive types of technologies. Clothing can be, you can be sitting on a subway or in an airplane and still be comfortable and get off that and wear the same coat. Then you are going to go outside and get your car or something like that. That versatility and exactly, people don’t want six different coats to do what they’re doing. They want one coat that will basically take them through their day.

Nancy: Yes, sustainability is a hot topic.

Emily: It is for sure.

Nancy: Can you share some of your insights as to how the textile industry’s doing to become more transparent and more sustainable?

Emily: Yes. Certainly, there’s a lot of talk these days on microplastics and the industry has really looked at that issue and it’s developing every day, new ways to combat the plastics pollution. We’re seeing things in biodegradability in terms of all different materials now are being investigated to do that. That’s been pushing things forward. Recycled is still of course important. I’m also looking at natural fibers that would decompose naturally. Cotton and hemp and all things are now opening up in maybe a bit of a reversal to look at wool and other natural fibers that don’t have a plastic association. The textile industry is really embracing this in many different ways and all the way through the supply chain, not looking at green chemistry, different processes, water conservation in terms of manufacturing, energy conservation, all kinds of things. And then other social ways, better social responsibility in the factory, in their workforce. In every which way, sustainability is a number one priority now.

Nancy: Yeah. I think just going back to what Matt Powell was saying in a previous seminar that I had taken is that the millennials are demanding it. They’re really purchasing things with not only sustainability in mind, but also the social responsibility of the company.

Emily: What’s this company values and what their ethics are. Was interesting at the trade show and we’ve been seeing this more and more. If you look at who is innovating with labeling now, there were jackets and different things at the show that would very much call out how much water had been saved making this jacket, was it animal friendly? The animal cruelty issue was also, and that was all called out in the lining of a coat very much right front and center and the company’s mission and whatever. Yeah, I think where things are made, how they’re made, who is making them, why they’re making them, it’s all things that consumers are more interested in and want transparency and traceability. Almost what sheep did my wool sweater come from and what that sheep ate and how she slept and her relationships with the farmer.

Nancy: Oh, I think you’re right.

Emily: And the community is responding to it. They’re not saying we don’t want to do it. They are really trying to be very responsive to what the consumer wants, which is a huge trend in itself.

Nancy: Speaking of Textile Insight, I really love reading print magazines. I have a millennial daughter who loves them too, I’m hoping that print stays in business for a long time and I think it will. But what do you think about your customers, would they, should I say customers or readers?

Emily: My readers.

Nancy: Are they a print audience?

Emily: Yes. I would say they are a print audience but now you have to be print and online. To address print first I think it’s interesting and again among the textile people, if you’ve ever noticed it as you are in textiles. Usually, someone comes up and starts feeling your shirt or asking if they can feel pants or something. It’s a very touchy tactile experience and that’s who we are. And I think print people tell me they still like to hold a magazine. They still like to have that physical experience with print. And the textile people also tell me that they travel often to Asia, and they gather all their magazines as their eight-hour reading. And for both those reasons we are unique, I think, in wanting that. I’d like to think that our magazine present nicely enough that people visually want to see it. We try really hard to have color and good layouts.

And we have a wonderful art director and a great team of people that put together something visually. Again, the textile people are very visually oriented that would appeal to them. We have that. We are obviously available online in that area, but online is important too. And we have Textile Insight Extra now that is a monthly online report. You have to, no matter what business you’re in you have to be I guess multi-platform, multichannel, but long live print.

Nancy: Yes, I agree. And as a creative person, where do you turn to for your inspiration?

Emily: I was thinking about that and I look many different areas and some somewhat unexpected areas. I have to say since I mentioned before, I don’t come from a textile background. I also don’t really come from a hardcore outdoor background. I look at things differently I think there’s some other folks in the industry. I look everywhere. I read a lot, I read multi newspapers and I look at other industries and what they’re doing. I was recently listened to a podcast, Corner Office podcast by Marketplace. And was interviewing the CEO of Boeing and that led to a story idea about manufacturing and just something he said. And looking at the style section of the New York Times and what was on the runway and I’m thinking, oh well, okay, how does that relate?

I’m seeing recycled on this or upcycled, how do I find a story from there? Or I’ll be watching out my quote unquote office window. And it’s on a beautiful road that a lot of cyclists bike on, and I’ll think, okay, well what do they have on? Or someone mentioned the climbing gym. Anything that kind of passes by me, I don’t really go looking for it. But it’s always trying to find something relevant from everything happening in the world that might be relevant for my readers.

Nancy: You do a really good job at it because you’re always coming up with great questions and stories. It’s like, wow, where’d she come up with that? And then you go into the city. To New York City.

Emily: I am in New York city a lot, and certainly you can’t help but be flooded with inspiration and retail stores or how they’re merchandising something in that. I do travel for work usually once a month for a trade show and often those are a little bit different. The Denim Show for example, and the Kingpins Show, am I coming away from the idea in that world. Or if I’m going to a textile machine show or something down at NC state and going into a lab there, I can draw from that world. Again, those things are different – while I am in in a factory the story might not even be about the factory. It might be someone who’s working in the factory. Getting out is certainly important and all those places can lend to ideas.

Nancy: Absolutely. I remember you gave me the tip – I’d never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the costume exhibit and you suggested I go.

Emily: Yes. Wow. That was something else.

Nancy: That was something, and I’ve said this story before on this podcast, but I ran into a woman who was talking about couture and she said that I had all my clothes made as a kid. I was wearing couture.

Emily: Well that’s so interesting. Yeah, I know. And I think when you’re out like that, you hear these snippets of people that view things. We get so myopic on how we think about things. But you’re right. So pure. Her idea of couture was, yeah her mom’s, tailoring to her, but you were not going to hear that if you’re just sitting in your office.

Nancy: No. Getting out and meeting people. How do you escape, because you’re super busy and you have many deadlines and pacing yourself.

Emily: I recently started ice skating, that’s a new escape. My daughter, a millennial age, had wanted to sharpen her skating skills. And we have been going to a rink this winter and it’s been fantastic. I grew up on this very small lake and used to skate as a young person and I hadn’t done that, laced up my skates and probably 20 plus years and it’s been fantastic. That has been a new, really enjoyable experience. I will say I do look what people are wearing on the rink and is there a story there for this. That has been a good escape. I also do some work at a local bookstore. I host author events sometimes once a week. And that’s a great escape to be around. Wonderful bookstore and just and different writer and different creative personality and to learn about their creative process. That’s a great escape for me.

Nancy: Oh yeah. Everything’s fabulous. And ice skating – is it figure or hockey?

Emily: Well I was wearing hockey skates to rink in the beginning and now I have upgraded to figure skate so, I cannot do any flips or that. But I was inspired the other day by a woman at the rink who was 64 years old, had not started skating until she turned 40 and she was doing twirls and jumps and whatever. Yeah, I’m not there yet.

Nancy: Watch out though.

Emily:That’s right. I almost tried something the other day!

Nancy: You mentioned working in the bookstore. I just finished a book called The Bookstore and I can’t remember the author, but it was fictitious, but it was about a bookstore in New York City nestled in between the Staples and a Gap, something like that. But it was very old and but so great. And the characters in this story were great. Yeah.

Emily: Now reading has been a long time pleasure of mine and grew up in a house where reading was highly valued. My daughter is a voracious reader and she’s home temporarily. And we have a large stack of books around the house and from the bookstore and now get privy to what’s coming down the pike and do a quite a bit of reading, which is great. And we also read the New Yorker and the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal-

Nancy: Oh my God.

Emily: And we’ve got a few others.

Nancy: You’ll never be bored.

Emily: No, never.

Nancy: My mother said, if you have a book, you’ll never be bored. What’s coming up for you next?

Emily: Well, one thing I wanted to mention that was very cool that I did recently. I was in Providence last week meeting, some work friends and then I went to an event at Slater Mill, which was the birthplace of American Textiles. They had a very cool event, a multimedia presentation on huge, huge screens that were actually made out of textiles showing any given day in a local factory. And it was really great presentation of this backdrop of this very, very old mill with a very, very forward thinking approach to manufacturing in the music with the video was jazz and it was just really well done. That was a great event and I’m writing something on manufacturing now and it was a very unique perspective and a good thing.

That’s on my brain at the moment. But I am going next week to Techtexil North America, which is down in Raleigh. The trade show is held every other year on the even years. It’s a very big show in Atlanta and on the off years it’s a little bit of a more condense shown. It will be down to Raleigh and there’ll be a lot of domestic manufacturers from different industries. Then I will actually be going to Performance Days in Munich in early May and maybe one trip in between. I’m hoping to perhaps go to California before that. We’ll see. Then the show schedule gets busy for the summertime. We have OR again and then Functional Fabric Fairs on the agenda, and then the Kingpin Show’s always going on. The calendar usually fills up pretty quickly.

Nancy: And then you have to write in between.

Emily: Yes. Then every six, eight weeks. Yes. We produce and now the Textile Insight will be every month.

Nancy: Yeah. Well safe travels to all your shows and I’m sure I’ll see you.

Emily: I’d like to give a shout out for Nancy since we’ve been longtime friends and longtime industry people. This is such a pleasure. It’s really fun.

Nancy: Well thanks Emily and it’s so fun to be in your home office in Guilford, Connecticut and now we can go have some lunch.

Emily: That’s right. We’ll drive down, thriving downtown in Guilford.

Nancy: Thanks again.

Emily: You’re welcome. Was wonderful. Bye.

Nancy: Bye bye.

Emily: Bye bye.

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.

Episode 09: Jay Adams | Brass Clothing

Jay Adams of Brass Clothing on building a curated apparel collection and a strong community around it

Jay Adams is co-founder of Brass Clothing, a collection of women’s foundation pieces designed with impeccable style, fit and easy-to-care-for materials. Jay launched Brass with partner, Katie Demo, in 2014 after both being fed up with fast fashion, and closets full of crap. Jay says Brass looks at a woman’s entire life, and how her wardrobe interacts with It, before designing pieces that simplify her wardrobe – so she can focus on things that really matter to her. According to Jay, Brass has built a strong community of smart, successful, strong, and passionate women who’ve been a big part of the brand’s success. Jay and chat about her background, how she, and her partner have built such a strong community – and Brass’ new inclusive sizing. And of course, we dive into the materials she selects and sources for this unique apparel collection. www.brassclothing.com.

Jay Adams, Co-Founder of Brass Clothing

Jay’s Interview Transcript

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

My guest today is Jay Adams, co-founder of Brass Clothing, a curated collection of high-quality foundation pieces for women designed with impeccable style, and fit I might add, that she launched with partner Katie Demo in 2014 after being fed up with fast fashion, and closets full of crap. Jay says each Brass item is designed with beauty, quality, versatility, ease, and purpose in mind.

The apparel brand, which is sold online at brasscothing.com, and seasonal popup stores around the Boston area, has built a strong community of smart, successful, strong, and passionate women who’ve been a big part of Brass Clothing success.

Jay invited me into her South Boston based studio to take a look at the line, and then chat about her background, how she, and her partner have built such a strong community around the brand, Brass’s new inclusive sizing, and the material she loves, and sources for this unique apparel collection.

Nancy: Hi, Jay.

Jay: Hi there.

Nancy: Thanks so much for having me to your studio today.

Jay: Thanks for inviting me to be on the podcast.

Nancy: And I look forward to our discussion. But before we get into a little bit about you, how did you come up with the name Brass for your apparel line?

Jay: When we were first starting out, my business partner Katie, and I, really our primary goal was to come up with a name that was going to be easily pronounceable and spellable. That was like, ‘Okay, number one’, having seen brands like Bonobos, and Glossier, or you know, these different brands people don’t know how to pass on the brand name.

So, we were like, ‘Let’s make it easy on ourselves’, that was the first thing, and then it’s not an eponymous line, that was never the point of us starting this business. It was really, you know, to be a service to women, and to their wardrobe. So, we really wanted to come up with a word that was going to sort of encapsulate some of the mission of the brand, and at the time we were really focused on the quality of the clothes, and the price point.

So on the one hand, brass looks like gold, but it doesn’t cost as much. So, that was one element of it, and then if you’re brassy, Katie and I like to consider ourselves brassy women, we’re outspoken, we have opinions, so we like to think that that’s also an element of what our customer is about, and it’s so much more about who she is, than it is about the clothes.

Nancy: That’s great, I love that. Brassy. Yeah. So, I have to also say that I just got back from a trip to Munich, or back from Munich last night, and I was fortunate enough to order a few pieces of Brass apparel before I left, and it does pack well, and travels well.

Jay: Yes!

Nancy: Yeah, it felt fun wearing it knowing that I was going to be interviewing you.

Jay: Yeah, that’s so great.

Nancy: So, just would like to ask a little bit about you, and how you got started in the apparel industry, and where you felt that there was a need for Brass?

Jay: Yeah, totally. So actually, I learned how to weave when I was in college. So, my background is really in textiles, and when I got out of college, I went, and worked as a weaver. I worked doing hand looming, high end textiles out in the Berkshire’s, and so that really kind of fed my passion, and my love for textiles.

And then decided that I wanted to get into doing more graphic design, surface design, so I freelanced, and did that work for a while, and then I got into sourcing, and I learned so much about what it takes to manufacture our product, to bring that product to life, and at the time when I was doing that work, I came across one of the factories that we work with today, and I was just so impressed by the work that they were doing, the other brands that they were working with, and I knew that they would be a fabulous partner to work with.

So, after I came across that factory, I came back from that trip, and I was telling Katie, my partner, I was like, ‘You know, I found this amazing factory’, and at the time, she was working in E-commerce, a footwear E-commerce company in marketing, and she was like, ‘Can’t you just make me a more affordable Theory?’, and that was like the nugget, you know

That was like the first, I was like, ‘Wait a second, we could do this’, because at the time, I was seeing brands like Everlane, and more of these direct to consumer brands coming up – and Bonobos, you know, really servicing more of a male customer, and a little bit more of the casual customer, and then also seeing brands like MM LaFleur really servicing a more professional woman, and we were like, we really feel like there’s room here in the market for something that’s business casual, and much more, you know, it takes like an entire woman’s life into consideration. So, that really was kind of the start to Brass.

Nancy: Which company did you work with where you got the experience for sourcing?

Jay: I was working for a very small sourcing company, so it was just me, and at the time, the owner of the company, we were in Waltham, and then we had two women who work for us over in Shenzhen, and one of those women, Abby, is our production manager today for Brass.

Nancy: Okay, great. So how would you describe the Brass customer?

Jay: So, what we like to say, we think so much in terms of psychographics, as opposed to like demographics. Because we really think about Brass as being a values driven brand. So, we like to think about our customer as being aligned with our values around style, substance, and community.

So, she’s a woman who definitely has a busy life, style is important to her, quality is important to her, but she’s also really focused on making an impact within her own community, at her job, with her family. So, that’s why we kind of say we like to help women simplify their wardrobe, so they can focus on things that really matter to them.

Nancy: Yeah, I’m hearing that over, and over again, and as I was in Munich for this big trade show called ISPO, and there are a number of halls where they’re just exhibitors of materials (suppliers to brands), and then they have these trend seminars, and one I attended shared that people want to save time, they want more simplicity, they want fewer choices, because they don’t want to take the time to make all these decisions.

So, I think simplifying apparel is, you know, key. It’s nice to be able to look in your closet, and say, ‘Okay, I have these pieces, and this is what I want to wear’, and Brass seems to do that.

Jay: Yeah. The trend of capsule wardrobing, I’m using quotations cause you know, it can feel a little constrictive for some people, but that trend, also Marie Kondo, I think that it’s become so popular in the last four years since we started Brass, if that was really something that was like starting to trend, and now it’s becoming much more mainstream.

But I think in general, we’re just all very overwhelmed by the plethora of choice that surrounds us at all times. I mean, our phone contains the entire world in it, and that’s great, but it’s also so overwhelming, right? So, that was for us at the time, it was like, I don’t want to spend two hours on Nordstrom’s scrolling through 1500 black dresses, I got better things to do with my time.

Nancy: Absolutely. So, just in doing a little bit of research, and I love this thing that I read about your line, it’s easy basics that are not basics, but we can get into that a little bit later. You mentioned that we’re living in an experience economy. Can you share a little bit more about that?

Jay: Yeah, it’s definitely something that we think about a lot internally, because you know, we are selling clothing, but we are also really promoting, and talking about things that are beyond just apparel, right

So, it’s like how is that clothing interacting with your life? How are you traveling with it? How is it performing in your workplace? We want to address all those other, everything that’s outside of just that piece of clothing.

I think that more, and more millennials in general, this generation is thinking about how it is that we’re spending our money, and there’s a lot of talk of experience economy, and people wanting to put their money towards you know, vacations, or health, and self-improvement, and things like that, and I think that brands, clothing brands need to be really thinking about how it is that they are incorporating their customer in a way that isn’t just about buying, and selling clothing, right?

So, we think about that a lot with Brass, and making opportunities for women to feel connected to the brand outside of just purchasing a piece of clothing. So for example, we have almost a thousand customers in a Facebook group, it’s a private Facebook group. They’re in there, they’re trading style ideas.

They’re showing like, ‘Here’s how I wore this dress, you know, four different ways’, sharing other brands that they really like, but that’s all being facilitated through a community that we’ve built, and so we’re building a lot of brand equity, and emotion on things that are outside of just our clothing.

And those things are actually what make people feel so connected to the brand, because at the end of the day, I mean, we’re selling black pants, right? But we’re selling so much more around that. It’s about a lifestyle, and it’s about values.

Nancy: That’s great. I think with so many options out there, it really helps for a woman, or man to feel that connection to a brand.

Jay: Absolutely.

Nancy: It makes a big difference when they want to purchase something. So, it’s like, ‘Okay, you know, they’re committed to something that I’m committed to, or a value that I align with.’

Jay: It’s interesting, because I think that in some ways, reflecting on what you just said, you know, I don’t connect to luxury brands, and I don’t connect to needing to have like a Chanel this, or a Gucci that, but for a lot of people that’s how they self-identify, right?

It’s like I’m bringing meaning into my life, and I’m saying something about who I am, because I’ve got this luxury bag, or this luxury jacket, or watch, or whatever, but I think that for millennials, maybe just the general population, it’s like you’re also looking to connect with a brand on your values that also says something about you, and in a lot of ways it makes you more proud to talk about that brand.

We see that with our own customer, with the word of mouth, it’s like they’re so excited to talk about Brass, because it’s owned by women, and it’s all about supporting other women, and definitely check out that Facebook group, because it’s like everyone in there is so nice, and you know, so you feel good about spreading the word. It’s less about like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got all this money, and I can afford a Chanel handbag.’

Nancy: Also, I would think that your customers are always looking forward, and anticipating what’s new from you as well.

Jay: Absolutely. It’s a fine line that we walk, because we’re still gaining new customers all the time, and we have certain heritage product like our Ponti Pants that just sell, and sell, and sell, and sell, and we’ve been selling those for three years now, and we will continue to sell them.

But yeah, we also need to keep people involved. We also feel like we still have so much more that we need to offer our customer in areas in her wardrobe that we still can improve her. We’re coming out with a really awesome suiting collection in April that’s really focused around the fabric, and the ability to travel, and the washability of it, and everything like that.

So yeah, there’s a fine line between knowing, bringing something in that’s new, but that has intention, and still keeping her excited.

Nancy: That’s great. Well, you mentioned fabrics, and I’d like to talk about that a little bit. So, where do you turn for your materials, and sourcing?

Jay: So yeah, over the last year, or two we’ve really been trying to control more of our supply chain, so that we can access better quality fabrics, and that so eventually we can be developing more of our own fabrics as well.

So, places that we usually turn to, I find that MAGIC, sourcing at MAGIC has been helpful in the past, and then just a couple of weeks ago, I was down at PV in New York, and I was really impressed by that show. I’d actually never been to it.

Nancy: Première Vision?

Jay: Yes, and you know, it’s a small show, but, it’s a really great place for smaller brands to go, because a lot of those mills actually have smaller minimum order quantities. The fabrics themselves are maybe a little bit on the higher price point, but I was really impressed by it, it was a good show.

Nancy: That’s great. I have not been to that show. So, do you think that a brand name fabric for your apparel line makes a difference to your consumer?

Jay: Hmm, that’s a good question. I mean, so we’ve never used any brand name fabrics really, but we are definitely trying to build up equity around the fabrics we do use, because there are certain fabrics we use that our customers know, and love, and what we’ve found, and had a lot of success with is when we work into that fabric, right?

So, it’s like we start doing more styles in it. Obviously, it makes a mix, and matching a capability of the pieces much easier, but also it’s something that she knows, and being an online company, that’s worth a lot, cause she already knows what that feels like, and how it fits her.

So, that’s definitely something we think about. The customer in general is learning more, and more about fibers. She knows what Tencel is, she knows what Modal is, she knows a lot more than I think, and cares a lot more than in the past.

Nancy: That’s just what I was going to ask you – if you think consumers have become savvier about how about maybe not just the fabrics, but the fibers that go into the fabrics.

Jay: Yes, I do think that she knows, or she at least it least likes to think she does, right? Because we have very smart customers, our women are, you know, reading all the time, they’re very well degreed, so, you know, they’ll come to us, and ask us questions, and sometimes we have to go, and do research in order to answer them.

But yeah, I think she’s learning more, and more. It’s really hard with the sustainability efforts. You know, so much of that is gray. It’s not black, and white, and a lot of customers want it to be black, and white, because they just were like, ‘Well, just tell me that this is a better option’, and you’re like, ‘Well, there are a lot of elements to it’.

You know, like, yes, Tencel is a regenerative fiber, but at the same time it takes a lot energy to produce. Cotton is natural, but it takes a lot of pesticides, and a ton of water. So, it can be really hard to kind of suss through all of that with the customer.

Nancy: Absolutely. You know, it’s just always evolving too. I think sustainability is, you know, we talked earlier, it’s become so important in the textile industry, and become transparent, and developing best practices, but without sacrificing the quality of the textile.

But it is critical, and I think obviously consumers are demanding it. Brands are demanding it from the textile manufacturers. So, it’s good. It’s all good.

Jay: Yeah, it is good. There’s still a lot more work to be done. I feel like for us, you know, we use a lot of polyesters, cause that’s what performs. Wrinkle resistant, and machine washability are huge for our customer. So, in a lot of ways that rules out natural fibers.

So, the wrinkle resistant factor of it in particular, but for us, yeah, it’s like any of the fabrics that we’re using that are 100 % polyester that are made with virgin polyester, there’s no reason why they can’t eventually be recycled polyester, and that’s something that we would like to be able to work towards as we have more money, and are able to invest into that type of work. Nobody’s really doing that in the business casual space. You see it a lot in performance, outdoor, athletic.

Nancy: That would be great.

Jay: Yeah.

Nancy: So, I know you have a great relationship with your factories, but do you have an idea, or can you give me an example of what a good textile partner might be like for you?

Jay: Yeah. We just actually found an amazing mill in Japan, we’re really excited to start working with them, and the reason why they’re great is number one, they have some more flexible minimum order quantity. So, that’s really helpful for us, but they’re also really pushing boundaries in terms of dyeing practices, trying to use less water, you know, trying to be more environmentally friendly around different dye processes, the way that they’re treating fabrics.

They’re also using a lot of Cupro Modal experimenting, and doing really nice applications of natural fibers like some polyesters, so that you still have some of those performance capabilities.

So that’s for us it’s like we’re really looking for real partner when it comes to our mills, or when it comes to cut, and sew, or it comes to our knits is somebody who’s excited about the work that we’re doing, and willing to kind of be flexible with us where we need it, and also are looking towards the future ways that they can improve, and excited to have a partner in us, for someone who’s also bringing to them like, ‘Here’s what our customer wants, here is like what we’re seeing in the marketplace’.

Nancy: So, Brass is sold directly to the consumer via online. Is there a reason why you chose to go this route?

Jay: Yeah, so I mean obviously at the time, that was the means that we had, and you know, it was just, that’s what everybody was doing, you know, that obviously is the way that all commerce is moving in general, and we wanted to be able to make the brand available to as many women as possible.

So, I think nowadays it’s like most brands are going to be digitally native brands at first, right? And then they’ll get into retail, which is what we’ve started to do as well, and it’s the opposite of the way it was before. You have an open air main street shop, and then, ‘I guess I should make a website.’

Nancy: Well, you get lots of feedback. Oh, you just had a pop up store for how many months was it?

Jay: We did, yeah, it was from July, to end of December. So, six months.

Nancy: Whoa.

Jay: Yeah.

Nancy: That’s almost like a retail store. I mean, six months is quite a long time.

Jay: Yes, it was such an amazing opportunity for us. It was with a really cool project here in Boston where it was all women owned businesses, and these little individual popups down in the Seaport, it’s called The Current, and it was such a great opportunity for us to see what retail would be like, and how Brass would do that, and we learned so much, and definitely confirmed that retail, and making sure that we have in person experiences available to our customer is really important to the future of the brand.

Also, we never considered wholesale, because we also just wanted to maintain that contact with the customer, and make sure that we had that connection with her, and was getting that feedback so that we could be constantly improving the product, and serving her better.

Nancy: Is there anything unusual that you found out from your customers, anything that it’s like, ‘Oh man, I’ve got to go back to the drawing board’, or, ‘Maybe we gotta keep doing this right’.

Jay: Yeah. I mean, man, we learned so much. Number one, machine washability. You know, you’re thinking ‘Oh, we’re going to have a store, and it’s going to be you’re going to have the opportunity to tell your brand story’, and you do, you have that, but you also just have like the very first impression from a woman walking in the store.

It was like, ‘You mean I can wash all of this at home?’ You’re like, ‘Uh-huh’, you know? You’re like, ‘Wow, that gets you that excited, okay.’ You know, like that’s something we need to talk about more. The quality of the fabrics were really able to stand out in the store. It’s so hard online, you have to really communicate that quality, so that was great for us to see.

Obviously, we were able to identify certain fit issues, or where we were not able, like silhouettes that we were not providing for certain women. You know, it was like, ‘Oh, maybe we need to be working on more styles. We need to be giving her blouses that don’t have buttons’. You know, you get to just see everything.

Nancy: Yeah, yeah. Great consumer research, that’s for sure.

Jay: Yeah.

Nancy: So, I follow you on Instagram, but I know that you’re on other social media, is there one platform that does better for you, or do you find them all necessary?

Jay: Yeah, I mean, Instagram is huge for us. Instagram, and Facebook are two of our main channels for advertising. They are our number one channels for advertising, but we also, you know, we obviously have our own Instagram that works as a place for us to engage a little bit more with our customer.

We’re trying to think about that a little bit more, and then our online Facebook group, that private Facebook group has been, I think it’s really a magical little place. You know, the internet can be kind of a nasty place, and so we’ve really managed to cultivate, and create this little place with nearly a thousand people in it where women are so supportive of each other.

They’re popping in there, sharing their bathroom selfies, and they’re just like, ‘You look great, you look fabulous’, they’re helping each other with sizing. So, that’s like really where our community shines, and we’re trying to think about ways that we can bring that onto Instagram, and some other social.

Nancy: Oh, that’s great, and speaking of sizing, I heard that you have extended your sizes to, I want to say, is it called inclusive sizing?

Jay: Yeah.

Nancy: Can you talk about that?

Jay: Yeah, yeah. We’re really excited about it. It’s definitely something that’s taken longer than we would’ve liked, but we really wanted to do it well. So we use a fit model, a size eight fit model for our straight, our missy sizes.

So, that’s like a double zero, up to a 14, and then when we added sizes 16, to 26, we went out, and we started working with a fit model, a size 18 20 fit model, and really wanted to make sure that these five of our bestselling styles were designed to fit that woman in particular really, really well.

So, we started on that process last year, and yeah, we just launched last week, and it’s so great, because really at the heart of Brass is like I said, to serve women, make her life easier, and make her wardrobe better, and we weren’t really fulfilling entirely on that mission by stopping our sizes at 14.

So, it has just been such a great feeling, and it’s just the beginning. We’ll be adding more styles in those sizes, and we’ve gotten so much feedback. Now, a lot of women say they want petites. So, it’s like, you open the door, and you hear from everyone. So, we have a lot of room for growth, and improvement, but yeah, we’re really excited to be able to welcome more women to the brand.

Nancy: That’s wonderful. It is, because I think, I don’t know about you, but once you find a brand that fits, you’ll have a loyal customer for a very long time.

Jay: Yeah, totally, and I think in doing this work, it’s been really interesting. The metrics are all out of whack, right? So, they say that the average American woman is a size 14 16, and yet the majority of the industry is manufacturing sizes zero, to 12, right?

So, you’re really leaving out the majority of women, and I think with social media, that’s going to change, because people have a platform through which they can tell brands like, you know, ‘Make my size, this is screwed up, why can’t I buy your stuff?’

And it really seems like within the quote, unquote plus sizing, we’ve heard a lot about the quality isn’t really there, and also there aren’t a lot of brands that are in manufacturing ethically, and responsibly in that space. So yeah, we’re just excited to provide that opportunity for women.

Nancy: Oh, so I’m going to go into a few questions that might be a little bit more personal, nothing too personal, but what are your favorite materials?

Jay: Gosh, I mean, we use a lot of them. I mean, we do use a fair number of synthetics just because, like I was saying, because of the performance quality of them, but I mean, I’m always so impressed. Lately I’ve just been so impressed by all the silkies that they had at PV, it’s unbelievable.

I mean, all the silk lookalikes are so beautiful. I do love the feel of Cupro. That’s a hard one to work with, but I just generally, I like them all.

Nancy: Hard to choose.

Jay: If it’s got a good texture, a good weight to it, a good hand feel, I’m into it, you know?

Nancy: What’s your favorite Brass piece?

Jay: Oh my God, that’s really hard. So, I will say that our scout pants, which is a pair of pants that we worked very, very long, and hard on, it’s a high waisted, wide leg pant that is made with this cotton Tencel spandex blend, and it’s got a sateen finish to it.

So, the fabric is really cool, it’s got a little bit of sueding to it. So, it really looks very different, feels great on, and I love the cut of those pants. So right now, that’s my current favorite.

Nancy: Oh, I’ll have to check those out. Besides your own brand, what apparel brand do you love?

Jay: Oh my God. It’s funny, cause I barely get out to shop that much.

Nancy: You don’t need to.

Jay: I don’t need to really, but I have to say I really love Rag & Bone, because to the point of like quality of materials. I mean, they do a great job, they use a lot of Schoeller fabrics, and you know, their price point isn’t always where I’d like it to be, but that’s a place that I love to go. I know that I can always get a really great quality piece of clothing there.

Nancy: Yeah. What trends do you love?

Jay: Oh my God. I mean, we’re so not trend focused. It’s like the antithesis of our brand really. So, I’m going to have to say, I think the trend right now that I’m really into is just seeing more, and more sustainable fabrics, and just measures within the fashion industry.

Nancy: If you were not a designer, I think you clarified you’re not really a designer, but source, or if you weren’t in the creative apparel industry, what would you be doing?

Jay: Oh, that’s funny. I’d probably still be doing something design related. I also love interiors, so maybe it’d be something like that, designing rugs, I love rugs.

Nancy: Do you remember Susan Sargent? Oh, she was a rug designer. Anyway, I have a couple of her rugs, but I hear you there.

Jay: Yeah, they’re like, can be beautiful paintings on your floor.

Nancy: Yeah. You’re a busy woman. So, what’s keeping you up at night these days?

Jay: I mean everything, and anything. Right now we’re at a place with a brand where it’s like, we know that we have a really strong customer base, and a really great foundation to grow on, and so we’re at a really exciting point where we can also start to think about like, what’s next?

And like I said, more stores, more in person experiences, which was, it’s so fulfilling. That’s the best part is getting to be with, and meet our customers, we love our women, but you know, just trying to think about what’s next for the brand I would say.

Nancy: Yeah, and what do you think that is? That was my last question.

Jay: Well, definitely it was a huge milestone for us to get to launching inclusive sizing, and then like I said, we’ve got some other really great collections that are coming, the suiting collection, which I think is going to be great. Women have been asking us for a blazer for forever, so we’re really excited for that.

And you know, generally building out the collection to a point where it’s even better, like the styling components, and the ability to mix, and match, and really working into her wardrobe is more, and more about what we’re thinking about – and like I said, the in person stuff is really huge for us.

Nancy: How do you get away?

Jay: You don’t. If you’re thinking about starting your own business, or if you have, you know you never get away. You know, it’s funny actually. I think this summer I’m going to try to take a course over at Central Saint Martins, that both is like, you know, in line with the business.

But I’m also just excited to do something once I’m back to being like really creative again, so that it would be like, it’s kind of funny. I’m like, ‘That would be getting away’ in a way where it’s like, oh, you get excited about like, ‘Oh yeah, that would be great’, and still yeah, get back to being creative outside of the business.

Nancy: Well, I really appreciate you spending so much time with me. I really enjoyed our chat, and getting to know more about you, and the company, and I look forward to big things happening for you.

Jay: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Nancy: 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 08: Best of 2018

The Best of 2018 – Highlights from our guests

As we are deep in production with our new Material Wise 2019 lineup, we wanted to review a few of last year’s episodes and recap some of the highlights. We had a great year speaking with Jill McGowan with Jill McGowan, Inc., Erin Bornstein with Timberland, Miles Spadone with Spadone Home, Nick Armentrout with Ramblers Way, Rob Naughter with Patagonia, Justin Seale with Architec and Myrand Caputo with Bespoke Branded Fit. We learned that transparency, social responsibility throughout the supply chain has become increasingly important as is designing products with longevity in mind. New body scanning techniques are trending as people are demanding a more custom fit. Among all my discussions, there is one common thread, and that is great products are inspired by great materials. I hope you enjoy!

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.