Hong Kong start-up developing 3D technology to weave perfect pair of customised jeans with zero waste

A start-up is combining 3D scanning and weaving technology to make the perfect pair of jeans, as consumers’ preferences shift from big-name brands to tech-inspired and sustainable fashion.

San Francisco-based Unspun, which joined Hong Kong’s The Mills Fabrica “techstyle” incubator in February, touts itself as a zero-inventory store; jeans are only made when an order is placed. The incubator says techstyle covers material and supply chain innovation, wearables merging technology and style, and new retail experiences

The two-year-old robotics and apparel company, which counts the National Science Foundation, H&M Foundation, venture capital investor SOSV and the Mills among its early backers, aims to become a zero-waste operation. It is developing a 3D weaving machine that would completely eliminate fabric waste, with plans to deploy it in stores as early as the end of this year.

“The best way to think about it is like a 3D printer for clothes,” said Walden Lam, one of Unspun’s three co-founders. “But when people think of 3D printed clothing, they think its plastic-y, not something people would want to wear. What we are actually doing is using yarn that goes into everyday clothing and manipulating it into the final product.”

With 3D weaving, Unspun will no longer have any cut waste, the discarded fabric from traditional apparel making techniques. For now, Unspun uses their cut waste to create reusable packaging for their jeans.

“The packaging also happens to be able to fit a 13-inch laptop, even though we did not intentionally make it that way,” Lam said.

Unspun is currently in talks to close a seed funding round, but declined to disclose further information on the deal or their valuation.

According to Statista, the size of the global denim market was US$60.4 billion in 2017 and is forecast to grow to US$87.6 billion by 2023.

A report from market intelligence firm ResearchAndMarkets.com last month showed that the growing popularity of online sales is enabling vendors to provide customised denim products tailored to each customer’s size and colour requirements.

Unspun joins a host of luxury labels, making everything from jewellery to glasses frames that employ 3D body scanning techniques to boost sales.

According to the consultants Deloitte, mass personalisation is being made possible with advances in 3D printingtechnology.

A recent report in Wired magazine, quoting a Deloitte survey in the UK, said that 15 per cent of respondents were willing to pay 40 per cent more than the regular retail price for a personalised fashion item.

Unspun is banking on the trend catching on. It has partnered with a body scan company called Fit3D to set up more than 1,000 infrared scanners worldwide where customers can get a 20-second body scan – allowing for customised fittings, stitching and styling.

The start-up said that most of these scanners have been placed in gyms, as one of their main customer groups are people who work out a lot, so they often are unable to find mass market clothing to fit their body type.

“Customers will not be overwhelmed [as there are no] piles of small-, medium-, large-sized jeans,” said Lam, who also handles marketing and branding.

Unspun’s founders chose to focus on jeans, which has one of the most polluting and labour intensive manufacturing processes. Workers who sandblast fabric to create distressed denim are saddled with chronic lung disease, while dyeing requires toxic chemicals and hundreds of litres of water per pair of jeans.

“We want to change that and offer products that do not involve using labour to spray toxic chemicals, so we are experimenting with ozone wash and laser whiskering to create the patterns,” said Lam.

Hong Kong-born Lam has been pleased with Unspun’s reception in the city, where he said there is a deeper market for fashion products.

“Our very first pop-up we wanted to test whether people were open to 3D body scans and if they were willing to pay a little bit more,” he said, adding that the response was overwhelming.

The company said they originally started out partnering with a workshop in Hong Kong, but since they could not meet demand they have roped in other manufacturers in China’s Guangdong province.

Currently they do not have any pop-up stores in Hong Kong, but are doing it by appointment only.

As for the price – a pair of Unspun jeans will set customers back by HK$1,962 (US$250). “It’s easier for prices to go down than to go up, but we have to scale to get there, especially when you are setting up your own infrastructure – we have to set up scanning stations and create a supply chain to support that,” Lam said.

In addition, Lam said, standard jeans from other brands sell for the same price or more.

“Levi’s sells custom jeans with an eight-week turn around, and their starting price is US$800. It feels like we are actually leaving money on the table, but we are trying to be disruptive so we will take it.