The current machinations driving the fashion industry are “pumping garments into the world without insight into what consumers want,” according to Walden Lam, co-founder and CEO of Unspun. The Bay Area-based fashion tech innovator is looking to change that.
The four-year-old digital apparel company aims to create the jeans of the future, using a proprietary algorithm and fit technology to generate custom-fitted products. The tools drastically drive down returns by providing consumers with personalized styles that were built for their bodies alone. Concurrently, Lam said, Unspun is also developing 3D-weaving technology that it hopes to deploy on a global scale, giving brands the ability to bring these goods to market quickly and efficiently.
Unspun was born of a need to solve pervasive fit issues, especially with trousers and pants, which are often a pain point for shoppers, Lam said. The company honed in on jeans—a wardrobe staple—as a category ripe for evolution, and was buoyed by the desire to help curb fashion’s massive waste problem, which has contributed to the climate crisis. “We wanted to be part of the progress,” Lam added.
“We took inspiration from the 3D-printing world, and wanted to create products on demand,” he said, noting that Unspun believes creating an appetite for custom-fitted product can change the way shoppers consume, as well as the way brands produce. “Our thesis was that we needed to at least have some backing by the end consumer to be able to convince the industry to adopt something like this,” he said. Lam believes that creating products with a demonstrated need that were cut to shoppers’ specifications could ultimately divert tons of fashion waste from landfills and incinerators.
This spring, the company launched a virtual customization tool that allows shoppers to visualize the fit of their jeans on an avatar made with their measurements. Using the tool, they can input preferences for drape, hem length and more. Previous shoppers can also submit their photos to provide references for new consumers.
While consumer-facing technologies that optimize fit have become increasingly prevalent on the market, Unspun claims to be unique in that it also creates a tangible product that shoppers can purchase, he said. Shoppers must first download the Unspun app, which uses TG3D’s fit technology to generate their measurements, and then the denim-specific algorithm applies the data to one of four styles of jeans, ranging from slim-fitting to relaxed cuts. “Within manufacturing, there aren’t a lot of innovations in the physical supply chain,” he added. Unspun’s eponymous denim brand lends credence to the company’s business model while serving as an example to potential partners.
In 2018, H&M partnered with Unspun on a line of denim for its Weekday collection, releasing four styles that shoppers could choose from and have customized. That relationship has persisted, Lam said, and Unspun is currently working on a project with the company in Stockholm. Unspun also has plans to launch three more collaborations with other brands this year, utilizing the same fundamental technology.
While Unspun’s collection with H&M, for example, was produced using the fashion giant’s existing supply chain, the company envisions a world in which brands can produce their collections using waste-free 3D-weaving machines, which the company aims to produce en masse. Production nodes or “microfactories” would exist on multiple continents, bringing manufacturing closer to a brand’s end consumers. The model would not only cut costs and carbon, Lam said, but shorten lead times on the customized product, which at this point takes about two to three weeks to produce.
“If you’re waiting beyond one month [for a product], you’ll forget that you’ve bought something custom,” Lam said, noting that the four-week mark is a dropoff point when shoppers become less enthused about their purchases. And in running a business based largely on referrals, consumer experience is key, he said. “If you have to wait a one-month cycle for customers to give feedback—it’s hard to drive business growth that way.”
“That’s why 3D-weaving is in development,” he added. Customers are now expecting next-day or even same-day delivery, and that’s an expectation that Unspun must contend with, even as it is creating custom product, he said.
Lam said the company’s mass 3D-weaving ambitions have been a part of its value proposition from day one, and Unspun is hoping to see them begin to take shape in 2021. When asked about the biggest challenges in scaling the business, Lam said that funding for fashion technology players can be slow going, given the limited understanding of venture capitalists. While fit technology has become a competitive space, Lam said, backers are less willing to funnel funding into what they perceive as a retail business creating a physical product.
“You don’t have a natural ecosystem where the potential funders of startups have the knowledge or appreciation of what [Unspun] is about, and the potential it can hold,” he said.
Still, there are some tailwinds pushing the company’s mission forward. “Sustainability is top of mind” for both consumers and investors, he said. What’s more, the trend toward localized manufacturing only stands to accelerate as brands look to diversify their sourcing relationships, and countries that had not previously prioritized apparel production are investing in their supply chains. Public and private entities are also coming together to fund these ventures, he said. “The lead time on that funding is typically longer but they are sizable investments, so if you can survive long enough, you can begin to capture those opportunities,” he added.
Lam hopes to see Unspun not only survive, but thrive, taking on collaborations with fashion firms across the globe. “At a cruising level, more than 80 percent of the volume coming out of the microfactories will be driven by brand partnerships,” he said. Unspun as a brand will serve as a “pioneer within the portfolio of companies to test cutting edge technologies” that it continues to innovate, he said. Being able to point to the success of its in-house brand is “significantly more effective than having to walk brands through a pitch,” he said. “We don’t want to say, ‘Hey, you need to use this’—we want them to say, ‘We want that.’”
“We’re running out of time—we have nine years to solve the climate crisis,” Lam. “So the more we can scale these innovations, the better.”