Planning to overhaul the entire way apparel is manufactured, Unspun brings consumers a new way to buy denim by fusing state of the art technology and customisable fashion.
Thanks to extreme overproduction, the fashion industry has now become one of the most wasteful industries in the world. Unspun, a new Hong Kong and U.S. based, venture-backed startup, is seeking to redress the balance by revolutionising manufacturing. Using 3D imaging technology and proprietary fit algorithms, they manufacture jeans that are customised to fit each customer precisely, and without the unnecessary waste. We sat down with the company’s three founders, Walden Lam, Kevin Martin and Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Esponnette to discuss how they think their magic blend of fashion and tech could pave the way for the future.
Founded in July 2015, Unspun considers itself both a robotics and apparel company, and one with the ambitious aim of changing the clothing industry. Central to this promise is their focus on customisation. Rather than mass producing items, many of which will end up as excess trash, Unspun makes each and every piece of clothing to order, thereby reducing returns, providing a bespoke product for their customers and reducing waste at the same time. “What we’re trying to do is solve the waste problem by starting with the consumers, to make custom clothing and no more,” explains Beth.
Hinging on this bespoke service, Unspun has invested heavily in the technology it uses to deliver this custom fit. Beginning each process with a 3D body scan of the customer that only takes 15-20 seconds, they create a model then used by algorithms to generate a pair of perfectly fitting jeans, which are then crafted in organic cotton sourced from green textile companies like Candiani Denim. In fact, the precision manufacturing capability of their machines essentially allows Unspun to weave clothes from the ground up in a way similar to a 3D printer – and this should happen, ideally, in-store and on demand.
This central application of tech to their fashion enterprise is not surprising, given Unspun’s co-founders. Hailing from Maine, Beth first pursued a career as a fashion designer, but soon found herself struck by the amount of waste traditional manufacturing left in its wake. Galvanised to do something about it, she focused her studies on sustainable practices, and the fledgling concept of Unspun took form during her Graduate Design program at Stanford.
Coincidentally, Walden, another Stanford alumni, met Beth during the tail end of their respective programs. With his previous experience in consulting, Walden had realised that inventory not only caused huge issues environmentally, but also weighed down both retail and commercial strategies. “When she told me about her idea, I thought this would be really huge on so many fronts,” he enthusiastically recalls. The missing piece was their tech expert. And so, after a trawl on Angelist, jokingly referred to by Walden as, “the Tinder of startups”, they found Kevin. A graduate of the University of Colorado with a self-professed background in “some very NASA-y like engineering”, he jumped at the challenge their concept presented. “I said, ‘wow, that sounds really hard, I think I’m in,’” he laughs. And the rest is history.
After quitting their full-time jobs, the trio planned to launch their new business in the states, starting with San Francisco. Just one month into their groove, however, they received an offer to join Hax, an accelerator investing in hardware startups based in ShenZhen. “Since the hardware is so technically difficult, we needed all the help we could find,” Walden explains. So, they made the bold decision and flew over. It wasn’t long before the three wanted to test the machines, which led them to open three pop-up stores in Hong Kong. “We wanted to make sure customers were willing to do body scans and pay a slight premium for custom products,” Walden says. In doing so, they realised, as both an apparel and a tech business, they had a lot to gain by being in Asia.
Now, they straddle both continents. Whilst the company has one location in the Core Building of Hong Kong’s Science Park, their scanning facilities are mainly in California. Despite this, Unspun has done five different pop-up stores in Hong Kong and has plans to do at least two more. One will most likely be at Iris, Hong Kong’s largest Yoga and Wellness festival, and another is planned to open in The Mills at Chai Wan Kok this autumn. With plenty of interest being shown in their product from Japan, that looks like their next most likely territory. “It’s one of the most premium denim markets,” says Walden. “So maybe we’ll explore that.”
When asked to explain the team’s interest in environmentalism, Beth states, “I would say this is deeply ingrained in what we do. It’s a good moral decision to take, but also from a business perspective, the way we set things up is more efficient.” In her eyes, creating a product that has a home to go to before it’s even made has got to make sense – from both a business and sustainability perspective. “Compare this to a recent news article about Burberry burning USD 32 million of finished goods last year,” furthers Kevin. “By starting with the body scan to build a product for a consumer that already desires it, we get rid of the inventory problem.”
On this track, Unspun is finding more and more allies as they become part of an increasingly active cadre of fashion brands seeking to solve the issues facing clothing production. “I think that’s a direct result of consumers caring more,” says Walden. And, as he sees it, the mainstream fashion sphere has yet to answer this question, leaving ample space for entrepreneurs to step into their shoes. Similarly, those on the production side have got to step up. “You’re going to be annoying for the suppliers you work with,” warns Beth of the issues that can surround sourcing in this way. “But, at the end of the day, they’re going to be really grateful they became more environmentally conscious.” Given Unspun’s momentum, she’s clearly got a point.