Words: Anna Cummins ; Image: Amanda Kho
Denim Unspun’s co-founder and “chief hustler” breaks the mould with on-demand, custom-fit jeans that boast minimal environmental impact
Buying clothes often gets marketed as a form of therapy, a dopamine-fuelled route to glamour and the admiration of others. But the harsh reality frequently involves standing in a fitting room amid crumpled piles of items that are too big, too small or quite often both.
The advent of cheap fabrics, mass production and the throwaway culture of fast fashion means well over 80 billion new garments are made each year globally, and we all fit into them through trial and error. Not surprisingly, the global fashion industry also produces billions of dollars’ worth of deadstock (unsold items) annually – these are often sold in outlets or shredded and repurposed, but large numbers end up in landfills.
The dual issues of poor fit and mounting deadstock are something that Denim Unspun – a venture-backed Hong Kong and San Francisco-based robotics and apparel startup – has effectively eliminated with its on-demand model.
“In the early days [of the company], we talked to over 300 people; we followed them to see how they shop, we looked into their closets and spent a lot of time in changing rooms,” recalls Denim Unspun’s eloquent co-founder Walden Lam, who grew up in Hong Kong and gained an MBA at Stanford. “We found that over three-quarters of men and women have fit issues when it comes to jeans.”
Wielding fierce intelligence, Lam speaks with a characteristic blend of level-headedness and passion. Before Denim Unspun, Lam worked as a strategist with several large apparel companies. It was during this period he witnessed firsthand the wasteful model of mass fashion. “I remember the uncertainty of whether we’d be able to sell all the products we’d committed to along the supply chain,” he recalls.
“That’s a big part of why we focus so much on on-demand production.”
Now two years old, Denim Unspsun recently completed a 12-month incubation programme in Hong Kong at The Mills Fabrica, a “techstyle” incubator and VC fund overseen by developer Nan Fung Group. The company also completed a successful seed funding round and is imminently due to announce more details.
The first step in creating a pair of Denim Unspun jeans is to get a scan. Scanners are available in the company’s Hong Kong office, their retail outlet in San Francisco and wellness facilities worldwide, thanks to a partnership with self-service health scan company Fit3D.
After a customer steps onto a rotating plate within the infrared scanner, body measurements are converted into 100,000 data points within a minute. The data is processed and sent to a local workshop, along with fit, waist height, finishings and fabric preferences. The patterns are laser-cut, the jeans hand-stitched and the final product is delivered to the customer’s door within two weeks, at a flat fee of US$250 per pair.
Denim Unspun’s on-demand approach has eliminated traditional problems associated with excess inventory. “By selling products that fit we have seen a very, very low return rate for our product versus a usual fashion e-commerce company,” Lam says.
This also has a positive impact on the bottom line. “We don’t have working capital tied to inventory at all,” he adds. “And we gain the revenue ahead, instead of having to wait until it’s sold.” Denim Unspun also avoids the logistical challenges that come with customers getting used to free returns and returning eight out of 10 items.
But nailing fit and eliminating deadstock aren’t their only concerns. “In our early research, we learned exactly how water- and energy-intensive the jeans production process is,” Lam says. “Starting with one of the most polluting product categories is the best way to make an impact.”
A third of the world’s textiles are made with cotton. The conventional variety used in mass-produced denim is treated with harmful chemicals – in fact, 16% of all insecticide use in the world involves cotton cultivation. Dyeing cotton is also typically a chemical-laden and heavily water-intensive process. Further, from a labour conditions perspective, the permanganate bleach used in acid wash is harmful to people and the planet.
At Denim Unspun, customers can choose from a range of around seven sustainable and innovative fabrics. These include classic denim made from organic, recycled or BCI (Better Cotton Initiative)-certified cotton and two materials incorporating Kitotex technology, which employs shrimp shells and other waste seafood to help dye bind with fabric, thereby using 50% less water. A recent limited-edition range included a material made from upcycled coffee grounds, in conjunction with a Hong Kong coffee shop.
The next steps for Denim Unspun include a collaboration with a Hong Kong company – soon to be announced – that will take back worn-out Denim Unspun jeans and reuse the fabric at scale. But perhaps the most significant development is an on-demand 3D weaving machine, currently being tested in China. The machine manipulates threads into the final product – eliminating cut-and-sew waste.
“This is a big part of the mission of the company,” Lam says of the machine. Indeed, Denim Unspun’s bold vision is to “reduce global carbon emissions by at least 1%” through “automated, localised and intentional manufacturing”.
And things look promising. It’s taken just two years to create a model that defies our current understanding of how clothes are fit, made and sold, and it’s a model that could one day become mainstream. A sustainable fashion future, free of fitting rooms? We’re all for it.