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Inside Unmade’s plans to customize athleticwear

by Jill Manoff

London-based technology and manufacturing platform Unmade has made a mark by enabling fashion brands to create custom garments on an industrial scale. Now, it has its sights set on athleticwear, particularly the knit trainers brands including Nike and Adidas have been hyping for seasons.

“They use the same production techniques we use today,” said Hal Watts, CEO of Unmade, “and none of them currently customizes [their knit] products.”

There’s clearly an opportunity. Sneakers represent fashion’s fastest growing category, expected to be worth $84 billion next year. Since 2012, when Nike and Adidas launched the Flyknit and Primeknit, respectively, both brands have been building on the trend with subsequent knit sneaker styles. Recently, fashion brands have followed suit by launching their own versions of the shoes, propelled by the popularity of Balenciaga’s $595 Speed Trainers, which came out last November. Retail analytics firm Edited told Quartz the number of “sock-like sneakers” on the market has grown 220 percent since Q1 of this year.

 Unmade launched in 2013 as Knyttan, a small consumer brand specializing in custom knitwear, which essentially played the part of a guinea pig. With it, founders Watts, Ben Alun-Jones and Kirsty Emery proved it was possible to build a brand on top of the technology they had developed. They stepped back to redevelop it so big brands could use it, and in late 2015, B2B company Unmade was born.

The technology is a software that programs industrial machines, allowing custom styles to be seamlessly integrated into existing supply chains. Everything is done digitally and automatically, rather than through a comparatively slow, costly technician.

“It’s a whole new type of customization,” said Watts. “We don’t do custom assembly — which is like NikeID, where the customer pieces together bits that already exist. We do custom manufacturing; everything is made from scratch.”

Unmade’s biggest clients to date include Farfetch and Opening Ceremony. Last winter, the company collaborated with Opening Ceremony on a customizable knitwear capsule collection, which allowed shoppers to create garments within the retailer’s set parameters. At the same time, Unmade linked with Farfetch, permitting brands — starting with Opening Ceremony — to offer customization on the e-commerce site. Digital renderings allow shoppers to see what finished items will look like, down to the stitch, and custom orders are produced and shipped by Unmade’s partner factories (located in the U.S., Europe and Asia) within three weeks.

Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 10.34.40 AMA customizable sweater in the Unmade x Opening Ceremony collection, featured on Farfetch

Most recently, it partnered with NYC’s Museum of Modern Art with a commissioned piece for the “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” exhibit: a customized Breton shirt, which is on display alongside a classic Breton shirt, part of the uniform worn by the French Navy in the 19th century. Visitors can take a turn manipulating the design, by “pushing” and “pulling” the shirt’s stripes on a digital touch screen.

“The whole idea of ‘modern’ is about doing something today that has a sense of the future and pushes the world forward a little,” said MoMA senior curator Paola Antonelli. “It was really important to give a sense of possibility.”

It makes sense that the industry would move in this direction.

For brands, Unmade’s platform offers a unique customer experience, exclusive styles and a sustainable production model, as well as freed-up warehouse space, for starters.

“It’s like what happened with iTunes and digitalization of music,” said Watts. “All of a sudden, you could offer millions of songs, because you could easily distribute them. You didn’t need CDs, you didn’t need stores. What we’re trying to do is digitize clothing, so that a brand can have thousands of SKUs, without having a warehouse full of stuff.”

From a customer’s point of view, it’s “I can get something unique that I’ve been involved in, for the same price as normal product,” said Ben Alun-Jones, Unmade’s creative director.

Because it’s worked into factories’ longstanding processes, the production of custom pieces costs the same as that of mass-produced styles.

“With [Unmade], a shirt can be printed in a couple of hours,” said Liz Bacelar, founder of open-innovation firm The Current. “For footwear, it would be about 40 minutes. That changes everything: the way labor in fashion is structured, the way we deal with waste, the way customers see instant gratification. To be able to do good by both the environment and the customer is a home run.”

Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 10.39.11 AMThe interactive touch screen featuring Unmade’s Bre.ton, on display at MoMA

Unmade is currently in growth mode, building its team from 21 to 30 members. It’s also expanding to manufacturing techniques beyond knitting, including printing and laser cutting. “Today, even leather goods are printed,” Watts said, pointing to the possibilities.

And the no-brainer move athletic footwear is right around the corner. The company is currently “in R&D and working with a few activewear brands,” said Watts. He declined to name names, but said to expect “some pretty awesome products” to hit the market next year. 

The market is ready. According to a 2016 consumer study by Deloitte, 50 percent of consumers are interested in purchasing customized products and services. Early this year, a survey by millennial marketing company Ypluse revealed that 75 percent of shoppers ages 13-34 are interested in buying products that are customized to their taste.

“Fashion can be complicated, but ultimately, it’s about people and their expression,” said Alun-Jones. “We don’t want to get in the way of that. We want to create exactly what people want.”