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Welcome to The Quality Makers, an interview series highlighting pioneers in the direct-to-consumer space. Join us as we get an inside look at the world of digital shopping through the eyes of the individuals shaping it…
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Kevin Martin is the co-founder of unspun, a fashion company that weaves denim, technology, and sustainable manufacturing in the march toward ethical consumption. unspun uses 3D scans taken from customer’s mobile phones to create 1-of-1 jeans and in doing so, alleviates the headache of inconsistent sizing and the environmental consequences of supplying sized clothing.
Consumers are picky. Aligning quality, sizing, and styling makes pleasing customers difficult, particularly for online retailers. Failure to meet their expectations has a drastic impact on the kind of waste the fashion industry is responsible for. The cost of putting returned merchandise back into circulation is often costlier than simply discarding it. That’s why in 2020, 2.6 million tons of returned clothing were sent to landfills. Examining textile waste on an individual level, the average US citizen discards about 81 pounds of clothing annually.
Looking at a popular denim company’s best seller for men’s jeans reveals that between the waist and length combinations, there are 64 available options to choose from, and this doesn’t even include the different color options or the big & tall sizing. Think about manufacturing 64 different sizes for a single pair of jeans. Now scale that idea across all colorways of each style for both men and women. Do the same thing for countless brands and you’ll realize the kind of beast unspun is up against.
Sustainability is difficult to ignore when talking about the global fashion economy. Kevin and I first met in a Slack channel two years ago, so I was excited to chat further and see the issue through his eyes and understand how unspun’s technological approach to sartorial trousers can shift the narrative.
What is unspun, how did it come about, and how do you describe it in a sentence?
KM: We think of ourselves as a fashion company, but with technology in our veins. The reason unspun exists and what we think about as our North Star is reducing global carbon emissions by 1% through automated, localized, and intentional manufacturing.
Depending on who counts, apparel is in the top 3-5 dirtiest industries in the world. A major chunk of that comes from overproduction. We think about messy oil spills and whatnot—very visible and easy to imagine. But in the grand scheme of things, between the environmental harm that comes from creating versus consuming, you’ll see that creation is where a lot of the waste lies.
For instance, our products travel around the world—sometimes multiple laps around Earth in terms of total travel distance, all to not be sold. And then typically what the industry does is burn it.
Beth, my co-founder, was the original visionary, and she was appalled at how that was the norm. She worked in the industry and she was like, "There must be a better way." What would it take to make something only once? And that became the core mission for us. Let's only make what we actually need.
So at our core, we say "Okay, we need to change the way apparel products are built. If we can do that with this crazy new manufacturing tech, then we can show the world that we do have this future of only making what you need." As we're building both hardware and software for that, we want to prove that this works and it's here.
The unspun brand is all about ultra-sustainable, custom-fit denim—no sizes to any of our products. We don't even have gendered products. We just make custom jeans for uniquely shaped humans.
Your model avoids the inventory headaches that come with running a sized business. What kinds of unique challenges have revealed themselves in selling bespoke apparel online?
KM: Like I said, the long-term vision that we're working towards is an industry where something is made as soon as “Joe” places an order and it arrives fitting “Joe” perfectly.
Fit is one of the biggest problems in the industry in terms of why there is so much excess. It’s a double-edged sword—either you add complexity by doing a custom fit or you lose resolution by having small, medium, large, and so on. We don't necessarily think that everything in the future will be completely customized. A new method of manufacturing where there's no difference between making ready-to-wear sizes and a custom fit is what overcomes the sustainability piece.
Size is still hard no matter what. There's also the perception of size. If I say "skinny jeans," what I picture in my head may be different than what you picture in yours. So a secondary element is that we spend time thinking about this visualization. What is the product that you're going to get if you can't try it on right away? How do we make sure that unspun and “Joe” are thinking of the same type of jeans that will be delivered? In essence, the look itself is the product and the customer’s dimensions are built around it.
Walk me through the customer experiences when ordering from unspun and how your software accomplishes virtual tailoring.
KM: If you want a pair of custom jeans from unspun, you have to do a 3D scan on your phone. So we use the face ID sensor. You prop your phone up, you wear tight-fitting clothes, and you spin around in a circle while the face ID sensor measures depth.
These face ID sensors detect how long infrared waves take to hit a point and reflect. If you’ve ever used one of those pinscreen toys, you can imagine this imaging method to look something like that.
We can create these accurate 3D models of people's legs, and then we feed that in with their selected style and fabric properties as stretchy skinny jeans and 100% cotton ones will fit differently. So all of those aspects come together, we generate a unique set of pants and send them to be produced.
unspun has a fit guarantee. Are most customers satisfied with the outcome of their first measurement?
KM: Overall, we have less than a 10% return rate, but there's a point of diminishing return where I don't think unspun nor any company can get that to zero.
It goes back to this idea of communicating what you're going to get. You can place an order, we take your scan, make the patterns, and send it to production.
In some instances, people like to do another round of tweaks. They’ll say “Hey, I want my jeans looser here.” And we're able to incorporate that. The other cool part of the unspun process is creating this feedback loop that stays with you as a customer. We'll have you send them back to us so that we can reuse them and build you a second pair with those tweaks.
From a customer loyalty perspective, fit is one of the main loyalty drivers, and that's an important one for us— being able to nail it for you so that you can trust us going forward.
unspun recently did a collaboration with Collina Strada. Does unspun have more exciting collaborations on the way that readers should watch out for?
KM: The Collina Strada launch came out within the last couple of months, which was a super exciting project that we worked on and premiered at Fashion Week last year. We've also done one with Pangaia incorporating sustainable, metal-based denim.
We have one more announcement later this fall that I can't talk about yet but it'll be a super exciting second iteration of unspun and this bigger vision of both fit and different manufacturing styles.
We’ll keep you updated with the latest on unspun. Until then: customize your own pair of unspun jeans here.
*This interview was edited for clarity.