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Sourcing Summit Preview: Taylor Shupe of FutureStitch Speaks to the New World of DTC Manufacturing

As the former CEO of Stance, Taylor Shupe learned a few things about manufacturing. After launching the cult sock brand with his four co-founders in 2009, Shupe found himself immersed in the logistical decision-making that can make or break a fledgling direct-to-consumer brand.

Fast forward to 2019, and Shupe has launched a full-on manufacturing empire designed to completely revolutionize the processes and practices that he feels have bogged down the industry for far too long. In October of last year, he put the finishing touches on a 300,000-square-foot facility in China’s Zhejiang province that’s been dedicated to his newest venture: FutureStitch.

The luxe, modern facility looks more like the campus of a successful Silicon Valley startup than the cramped, dingy and wholly uninspired factories that have plagued apparel production for years. Shupe wants to usher in a new age of manufacturing—one that’s highly efficient, conscious of its workers’ health, safety and well-being, and fast enough to keep up with the demands of the digital age.

Sourcing Journal caught up with Shupe this week for a glimpse into the world of DTC manufacturing, which companies like FutureStitch are attempting to rebuild from the ground up.

Sourcing Journal: What makes Future Stitch the most innovative apparel producer in the world?

Taylor Shupe: I would never claim to be the most innovative manufacturer of apparel. I would say that we have created a sort of sock manufacturing mecca, and we have individuals from all over the world from the best sock manufacturing markets like Italians, Israelis, New Zealanders, Bulgarians and Chileans. We have a very talented team that’s very diverse, and I think diversity is an important measurement.

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When it comes to being the best, other measurements would probably be doing more with less, and with innovation, it comes down to how much IP or technology you’re able to create. Another measurement is speed and how fast you can execute, and of course, the quality of the goods.

I think we’re doing really well in regards to all of those measurements, but I wouldn’t stake the claim that we’re the most innovative apparel manufacturer in the world.

SJ: What’s one key thing you believe you’ve tapped into that other manufacturers haven’t?

TS: I think I’ve tapped into workforce empowerment. I do that through capturing their creativity and passion in a way that’s atypical in manufacturing. I think that makes us really unique.

I also think we’ve done a good job developing our own software to match and meet the needs of demand. The software is obviously run to better the hardware; to make it more efficient and productive. I think that’s something we’ve done that’s really distinct.

In terms of actual efficiencies, I think you’d be really hard pressed to find a peer group of ours making similar products that has the same volume and quality on a per laborer basis—meaning that we’ve automated things through process and technology that has allowed us to be highly efficient.

SJ: How did your experience with Stance shape what you’re doing today?

TS: I feel like a lot of brand value is created from indirect investments that maybe aren’t so obvious from a returns standpoint. And I have applied that same logic to manufacturing.

I think traditional manufacturing is very direct, and I believe that manufacturing is akin to brand building. I want to create capabilities that allow me to harness the consumer’s insights and their expectations so I can create a better product. Traditionally, there have been so many layers that filter out a lot of that information from the brand to the middle man to the actual manufacturers themselves. And a lot of the time, brands don’t even know what the consumer wants, to be honest.

And so I’ve approached it differently. We actually innovate and create technology; we create IP pretty regularly around material science, knitting techniques, new utility design—and that’s all been because we’ve treated it more as a brand.

The plan is really to use FutureStitch as a fully vertical model with that Chinese market, so it makes sense why we would do it in this way. There’s a lot of social value in what we’ve created, not only from an architectural and design standpoint, but also from the perspective of innovation, storytelling and the social component of how the workers are actually working, and how they’re taken care of.

SJ: What’s been your biggest learning over the past year?

TS: I think that the biggest learning has probably been the value of concentrated simplicity.

We’ve had a lot of opportunities to consolidate machines, materials, hardware, color palettes, roles and responsibilities to simplify and flatten the organization. And often times, from a direct perspective, the opportunities don’t make sense.

Like when we say, “Hey, let’s change all of our Spandex yarns,” and it’s going to cost us 20 percent more. But then you start to realize that the quality’s better, defects are down, the workers are actually treating the yarn differently because they know that it’s higher value—and because of that, you’re getting more output and less rejects. You have less stock that you need to carry because you just have one kind of yarn.

We’ve done the same thing across the board with different types of materials, counts, everything. When you pencil it out, you see that it’s going to cost us a lot more money. But when you get to testing, you realize that behavior changes and the quality changes to a point that you didn’t quite understand. You just knew that simplicity was good and so you’re going to try something out.

So I do that a lot. I try to reduce the complexity of the business despite any direct investment changes.

It’s been really cool to see how much smoother things are when there’s less handoff, less variables and less to choose. Complexity is something we’re actively fighting against. The thing that we invest most heavily in is speed—and that’s the most critical.

Hear Shupe speak on the Sourcing Summit New York panel, “What You Don’t Know About How DTC Brands Are Doing What They’re Doing.” Visit our event page for more info and to buy tickets.