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Dornbirn Congress Breeds Innovation Among Retail’s Biggest Brands

The only way to advance retail to the level current consumer demand is dictating is to create novel partnerships in the supply chain—like those born out of putting brands and scientists in a room together to fashion new ideas.

That’s the kind of collaboration that Dornbirn Man-Made Fibers Congress hopes to foster and has been striving for in the 55 years since its start. And today, innovation is one of the few ways forward for sustaining a competitive edge.

The annual conference held in Dornbirn, a textile region in Austria, brings together researchers, retailers and the tech-savvy from more than 30 nations with the chief purpose of discussing innovation and value creation for fibers and the supply chain.

“We want to be the platform for innovation for kind of everybody being involved in innovation from fibers to the retailers and the brands,” said Friedrich Weninger, managing director of the Austrian Man-made Fibers Institute, which organizes the event. “Brands are coming because they’re not getting really new input, what’s new in terms of functionality that we can expect. This is really a wave of what we can see in the future, smart wearables and how that works as fabrics.”

Over the course of three days from Sept. 20-22, the Dornbirn program will offer upward of 100 expert lectures covering topics like fiber innovations, textiles, finishing and functional additives.

The event is also a 50-50 split between lectures and networking because, as Weninger explained, “Innovation comes with cooperation and networking, so this is our main thrust to make this really differentiated than any other thing.”

This year, a panel dubbed “Sportive and Functional” will round out the congress, where a marketing professor will moderate a discussion among top executives from Adidas, Skinfit, Urbanrock and Icebreaker concerning what’s coming up the innovation pipeline and what influence new communication channels like social media may have.

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To get the next generation of innovators involved, Dornbirn also hosts a Young Scientist Forum a day ahead of the congress, grouping 15 young research talents in a workshop with a managing partner of Austria’s biggest industry consulting group.

Brands like Apple, Nike, Victoria’s Secret, Target and Athleta have attended Dornbirn in the past, and this year a similar roster of high-level brands are expected.

“I’ve learned so much from the supply chain just in terms of innovation and sustainability and things that are going to really mean something to our business and our plans,” Katherine Chow, Athleta’s director of fabric R&D, said at last year’s congress. “I’m just so inspired by what’s going on right now with polymer science and fiber science and again I think there’s tremendous opportunity to partner with the supply chain down in the earlier stages in terms of how we can help influence them to come up with things that are going to work for us.”

Beyond being the backdrop for innovation, Dornbirn is a breeding ground for problem solving.

At a previous show, according to Weninger, General Motors gave a lecture and at one point discussed how its customers are complaining that their denim is rubbing off on the car’s leather seats. The conversation prompted present researchers to talk about a coating for denim that could curb this and similar scenarios.

The Dornbirn congress will also cover innovations in sustainability, specifically as they pertain to recycling, the circular economy, multiuse of materials and what this all means for the supply chain system.

“It’s about efficient use of resources,” Weninger said. “Because, especially with social media, if there’s somebody that’s one step ahead of you, you can really lose out in a short time.”

It’s also about the intelligent use of resources, like creating clothing that protects against Zika, another topic that could be on the table at this year’s event.

The bottom line is that retail is facing tough times (and dwindling bottom lines) and innovation has never been more relevant for any hopes of success.

“Commodity is of course, low or no margin, and with innovation you can ensure better margins,” Weninger said.