Striving to reengineer fashion to be better for all parties involved — customers, garment workers, and the planet — an important part for Son of a Tailor, Jess Fleischer tells, is to inspire other stakeholders in the industry.
— We want them to question the status quo and consider made-to-order as an alternative to mass production. That’s why we regularly attend conferences or panel discussions, give talks, and contribute to publications about sustainability, innovation, and technology, he tells.
One of them took place last week. As part of Berlin Fashion Week, Berlin Fashion Summit is a cross-disciplinary platform that brings together thought leaders from the fashion industry, NGOs, academia, and public institutions, in order to explore what fashion could and should look like in the future. Fleischer was invited to share the company’s experience alongside voices such as Orsola de Castro from Fashion Revolution and Cecilie Thorsmark from Copenhagen Fashion Week.
— The title of the panel I attended was ”Tools that build trust”. In this regard, I made the point that it is crucial to share information and data on how you address sustainability issues. In my opinion, this also includes being honest about areas where you still need to improve. We were all aligned that you can only build trust if you also share flaws, he tells, continuing,
— Sustainability is complex. If we really want to make progress we need to accept this complexity and stop oversimplifying. Ideally, you are doing great on all three sustainability dimensions — the environmental, social, and economic dimension — but with a small team of just over 30 people like ours, that’s impossible. You need to pick the areas where you can have the biggest impact, develop smart solutions, and spread your ideas to the world. In our case, that’s zero waste, zero inventory.
How should the industry work with tech and innovation? And how do you work?
— The fashion industry needs to start to innovate beyond trends, we need more players to question the status quo. The first step is to participate in the debate and the second one is to share data. The fashion industry is one of the most secretive industries but what we need is collaboration, another point I made at Berlin Fashion Summit, says Fleischer. He continues:
— My background is in engineering and manufacturing. When I started Son of a Tailor, I looked at the clothing industry and realised that it innovates constantly on new fashion trends but was 100 years behind in supply chain innovation. The fashion supply chain is optimised for the mass production of low-cost items. This results in tremendous amounts of waste as it’s difficult to match supply and demand and because it’s often more economical to just produce a few items more, just in case. These items are usually standardized because that’s cheaper. At the same time, fit is the number one purchase criteria for men’s fashion.
— I thought — why couldn’t you apply lean manufacturing and technology to garment production? This would enable us to produce made-to-order, eliminating overproduction. And with one single piece as the minimum production unit, we could offer our customers the perfect fit by making the item specifically for them.
— But in order to really change the status quo in the industry, this has to work at scale. We have developed an algorithm that creates the perfect fit in only 30 seconds, based on just four inputs that most people know from the top of their head — height, weight, age, and shoe size.
— So technology and innovation are absolutely essential to our business model. But it doesn’t stop there. We are continuously exploring how we can optimise our processes to further eliminate waste, and innovation and technology play a key role in that. One example is our zero waste knitwear collection. Even when doing made-to-order, you still have production waste. So we started a research project to see how we could remove that. We developed a way to combine our custom-fit algorithm with 3D-knit technology. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it work for t-shirts but for knitwear it was possible. Our entire knitwear range is 3D-knitted [the machine is seen in the top picture, Ed’s note], resulting in less than 1% production waste.
— Currently, we are exploring how we can use blockchain to improve traceability in the supply chain. This would streamline our processes a lot, especially as we continue to grow.
How will this development proceed, with tech taking over the industry? And is it only a good thing, or does it come with challenges, negative aspects, and risks as well?
— We are convinced that technology has huge potential for the industry to address some of its key challenges, especially in regards to waste and supply chain traceability. Personally, I’d be happy to see more brands move in this direction. It’s not about applying new tech blindly but about challenging the status quo and about exploring how it can enable us to deliver better products, with more respect for the planet and for the people who make our garments. Most tech is not inherently good or bad, it’s about the underlying business model and what we chose to do with it.
— That being said, there are clear risks that come with tech — issues of privacy or job security. I think it’s important not to lose the human touch. One of the things our customers love the most is for example, that we reconnect them with the people who make their products. Every piece comes signed by a member of the garment team.