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The Apparel Skills Gap in the Eye of a Fashion-tech Start-up

Candid industry expert interviews 

We are glad to kick off our “Motif Talks” series with Walden Lam, the Co-Founder of UNSPUN, a robotics and digital apparel company building custom jeans for each consumer on demand. He shared with us his views on skills and the apparel industry as a young and vibrant entrepreneur.

Guest Introduction

Walden grew up in Hong Kong and has operating, investment and strategy experience in e-commerce, retail & fashion with lululemon, IDEO, GGV Capital, Goldman Sachs and OC&C Strategy Consultants. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and an MBA degree from Stanford Graduate School of Business.

UNSPUN, When Robotics and Apparel Meet

M What’s the meaning of ‘UNSPUN’ and how did you come up with this idea of company and brand name?

WSpinning is a process in the industry where a lot of twisting happens, and we take it as how far the industry has gone. We feel like a lot of the processes are a little bit counter intuitive, a bit inefficient and quite difficult at times. So, UnSpun is the reverse of that, and thinking through whether the processes makes sense and what are the processes that we could change.

M Could you talk about ‘UNSPUN’ and recent updates?

W We actually were incorporated in 2015. We didn’t do anything full-time until July 2017. So really we’ve been working on this full-time for just over two years, and now we have two offices, one in San Francisco and one in Hong Kong. We have 17 people full-time. We have a store in San Francisco, and we do pop-ups in Hong Kong every five weeks or so.

Our team size doubled since last year and we are doing a lot more pop-ups. Product development-wise almost every two months we have new features, new products, new fabrics. This August we are rolling out the shorts, so launching new products. Right now we are expanding into new categories. We are talking to different brands and understanding their needs about where potential on-demand production makes sense via customized bottoms categories that they have in mind. Then, rolling out 3D machine around mid-year next year.

Sourcing Talent in the Apparel Industry

M Do you see any skill gap in the apparel industry?
W If you’re commenting on the overall industry, absolutely yes. We worked with factories who are still using Windows 98, they cannot even open our compactible files. I think that’s the nature of how value is distributed in this industry, there is not a lot of room especially for manufacturers to invest and facilitate the resources with knowledge acquisition.
M How did you build your current team?

W We have historically not used any external agencies. It is just a combination of Linkedin posting, university boards, job boards and sometimes a more targeted approach within the hardware and software community. Sometimes we get people onboard with a contract position and then they get converted into full time.

We have traditionally been looking more for people outside of the fashion industry, that’s for sure. Increasingly we are finding people that are in the industry that want to do something both around innovation or sustainability. They have taken the initiative to study with online courses, they are curious enough to be wanting to create something different.

M When you find people outside of the industry, will you give them some training to bridge their fashion skills? Where do you source the industry training?

W I previously learned that if something is codified, and infinitely shareable, generally that’s not something that is cutting-edge. That’s probably already rather mainstream. So, we tend to offer training that is proprietary and inspirational to our staff, but we wouldn’t say “okay now we are going to a computational geometry class for everyone.” Just because that’s not directly relevant. Our research team are pushing the boundaries and our team can benefit from the inspiration from all the work they are conducting. A lot of what we do, we are trailblazing. It’s hard to find external industry courses that exactly meet the needs of our niche.

M Where do you see the opportunities to carry forward the industry?

W One aspect is sustainability, but players are still moving in various directions. I’ll give you a few examples: on sustainability, I think people are confused because there are so many standards around what sustainability means for the industry. It’s very hard for brands and manufacturers to combine and spend resources in the right way. I think just having clarity around what tradeoffs people can make would help. I think brands are not necessarily equipped with the right level of resource and information to converge on standards. Generally, sustainable functions within brands are not considered a key function, they are on the periphery in the decision-making process. They get informed, maybe at best consulted on the decisions. So I think that’s one, having clarity around sustainability and what tradeoffs people are making. Another one is around 3D. We would love to see a lot more collaboration among software engineers and designers. I think automation is definitely another one. In our world, we are obviously looking into automation but it’s not easy. Take laser whiskering for example, the technology is more than one decade old, and still today, there’s too much pushback from the industry to enable experimentation. We see so much of that in many factories that we visit, which is sad. At the factory level, getting training on these exciting new technologies could help solve a problem would be good. People look at things as a one-off investment and don’t care as much about the process or the HR aspects “now we’ve made an investment, what do we do with it.” The machine is there, compliance done, boxes checked, that’s it.

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Up next...

In the next Motif Talks interview series, hear Edwin Keh, the CEO of The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel(HKRITA), share his views on Industry Innovation and Skills. 


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