As fashion tilts toward technology and sustainability at every level along the supply chain, the industry needs talent to develop innovations, and investments to scale them up. Discovering and nurturing both ends of the equation is easier said than done, but fashion tech—aka techstyle—is where The Mills Fabrica shines.
Innovation incubator The Mills Fabrica, headquartered in Hong Kong with a new outpost in London, drives collaboration with an open platform that accelerates innovations for sustainability, particularly for textiles/apparel and ag/food industries. Fabrica is the innovation arm of The Mills, a three-pillared revitalization project by Nan Fung, transforming its final textiles factory in Hong Kong into a new heritage, retail and innovation hub. CHAT (Center for Heritage Arts, Textiles) is the museum and community arm, while Shopfloor is the experiential retail arm.
Fashion tech was already on an upward trajectory before Covid-19, but the pandemic pushed the fashion world to a digital model almost overnight, urgently driving the need for new innovations. From upstream tech innovations to B2B digital 3D sampling to consumer-facing on-demand manufacturing models, fashion tech innovations are cropping up at record speed. Fabrica’s mission is to spot the diamonds in the rough, then polish them to perfection.
Co-director Alexander Chan explained how The Mills Fabrica differs from the competition, and why great innovations must be paired with solid business strategy to ensure success.
Acting as a “bridge and connector within the industry,” Fabrica has worked with about 25 fashion tech companies since it launched in 2018, offering deep levels of help to scale them up. Textile startups that make the cut, for example, receive a 12-month incubation program with customized support, business connections and advice; an investment fund from seed stage to Series B; a 15,000-square-foot co-working space and lab for prototype with state-of-the-art tools; and a fabric and experiential concept store, allowing companies to showcase technologies, launch new concepts and interact with customers.
“While there has been a growth of incubators over the past few years, many only focus on brands. We are open to working with anyone along the supply chain, and our expertise is Asian supply chains,” Chan said. “At this stage, a lot of the deep tech and mature innovations come from the U.S. and Europe, but for them to scale they would need an understanding of how supply chains work in China, Hong Kong, across Asia. A lot of what we do is make connections to the right partners.”
Every startup won’t hit the jackpot, of course, but The Mills Fabrica stacks the deck by seeking those with broader applications. “We tend to like companies that are platform-based technology,” Chan said. “Or something that can be used on multiple types of fabric, or to produce different types of fibers. The breadth would be quite important in terms of scaling.”
Meanwhile, launch expectations don’t always match reality. If there’s one common denominator in what companies get wrong when it comes to rolling out new innovations, Chan said, it’s the amount of time required to get up and running.
“Whether it’s a brand or a manufacturer, the desire is often, ‘Here’s an innovation, can we launch it in 12 months?’ Most of the time the answer is no,” he said. “The innovations that come out of the lab have to be tested in the product, then scaled up in the factory, then launched in the market, and that can take anywhere from three to six years, depending on the maturity.”
While time-to-market is decreasing as supporting investments increase, things still take time to scale, and faster doesn’t necessarily mean better. “[Companies] need to have some degree of patience and be willing to do pilots,” Chan said, and every idea is different. “A company that can cause a massive industry disruption might take longer to bring to market, while technologies that are more incremental, like cutting water used in a production process by a certain percentage instead of completely, will implement quicker. It’s a balance.”
The key is prioritizing and delivering the right milestones for the company to grow in the long term. Three parts need to work together, Chan said. “One, the company needs time to develop and scale up the technology; two, it has to gain traction with brands and retailers so they’ll do pilots with them, and three, it’s about funding.”
A global scope
“From the investment side, we look at companies from all over the world—the mandate is global,” said Chan. “On the incubation side we run that in both Hong Kong and London.” The Mills Fabrica recently added a second operation based in Kings Cross, London, with a soft launch in July and an equal mission of bridging and connecting its British startups.
While most investments and incubation programs are for companies that already exist, The Mills Fabrica also wants to reward great ideas. “Every year, we run a global competition (TechStyle for Social Good 2021) with universities and give innovation prizes to students working on interesting research projects or technologies,” says Chan, who adds The Mills Fabrica also provides residency for a period of three months in Hong Kong or London once students finish school.
The Mills Fabrica is also eyeing the agriculture and food space for future initiatives. And while this might seem like a stretch for a fashion incubator, it isn’t. “We realized there are a lot of similarities in sustainability in consumer preferences and tie ins to fashion as well,” said Chan. “Regarding cotton and agriculture, it’s encouraging to see some of the large brands shifting to think more about agriculture. Look at what Patagonia and H&M are doing thinking about regenerative agriculture. There’s a reason for that and we see that intersection as something that would be an interesting trend to look at going forward.”