The Future of Knitwear
An interview with Nimbly Co-Founder Christian Birky.
Christian Birky is the Co-Founder of Nimbly, an on-demand knitwear manufacturer and software platform. Nimbly are building a global network of factories to power an on-demand knit supply chain. Christian also serves as the Co-Chair of the Nexus Ethical Fashion Lab.
HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INVOLVED IN SUSTAINABLE FASHION?
It was completely by chance. I have always enjoyed clothing. But I never thought that there was anything impactful or important that could be done in the industry. My background had been in social activism, environmental activism, and the nonprofit world. My senior year of college I thought I would be a human rights lawyer. Then I realized that I was probably more interested in doing something creative. But I wasn’t sure exactly what that looked like.
I was graduating from Princeton University and, at the end of my senior spring semester, I was involved with a few fashion shows on campus. One of them was a sustainable fashion show. It was the first time I had come across the combination of sustainability and fashion. It was within a week or so of Rana Plaza (the Dhaka garment factory) collapsing in Bangladesh. These two things showed me a complete disconnect between how I had been trying to impact the world and the way I was dressing myself every day. That summer, I spent time looking for clothes that excited me in terms of design and also how they were made. This was in 2013. It was a much less common topic than it is now, especially for men’s clothing.
Eventually, I started a company called Lazlo, based in Detroit. We hired someone who spent 22 years in prison -- including six and a half years in solitary confinement -- to cut and sew high end men's t-shirts, made out of 100% American organic cotton.
WAS HE WORKING FOR YOU WHILE IN PRISON?
We interviewed him while he was in prison, which was an absolutely amazing experience. He had learned to sew in prison. When he left prison, we hired him as part of our small team in a little cut and sew shop based in Detroit.
It was this chance to show how much good can be done: making this beautiful product in Detroit, from the beginning to the end of the supply chain, while creating a job opportunity for a marginalized workforce. That was where the initial spark of interest caught fire.
HOW LONG DID YOU HAVE THAT BUSINESS?
Between ideation, business planning, and raising capital, we set up production at the end of 2015 and ran it for about two and a half years.
There was lots of learning going on. We started out with 30 items because I was completely clueless about the industry. I focused on the things I wanted to wear and decided to make those things. That did not work out so I boiled it down to seven items, and I was still completely in over my head. Finally I decided to start with one item, a t-shirt. And just making one simple garment took far longer than I expected. Because it was custom fabric, one that required in house indigo dyeing.
While we loved building our own workforce in Detroit, we also realized that Lazlo, a small brand, was not going to be able to get to the level it deserved without help. So we partnered with several great individuals and organizations to start a factory and high-tech garment manufacturing training center in Detroit called The Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center.
WAS THIS CENTER SPECIFICALLY FOCUSED ON FORMER PRISONERS?
I wanted to find a way to work with a trained workforce in need of an opportunity. I had studied prison policy and I wanted to provide that opportunity. Originally, I didn't think fashion and prison policy would intersect. But when I learned about the training programs in prisons in Michigan, I realized that there were many tremendously talented and skilled people leaving incarceration. I also knew that finding a job was going to be difficult for them. So I was glad to open a door for them.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR ROLE AS A CO-CHAIR OF THE NEXUS ETHICAL FASHION LAB.
Through the work that I was doing with Lazlo, I was invited to join a group called NEXUS, which is now over 6,000 members globally. About two thirds of NEXUS’ members are from the world’s wealthiest and most influential families. The other third are leading social entrepreneurs, artists, and activists.
NEXUS’ goal is to bring together the resources, ideas, and energy to work on the world’s most complex and challenging problems. These issues include organizing an incredible relief effort for the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian and mobilizing a significant amount of capital towards sustainable energy projects. NEXUS is focused on building the relationships or infrastructure necessary to tackle critical and massive challenges.
Within NEXUS there are different areas of focus. I co-chair the Ethical Fashion Lab, which means that I help community members understand how important issues – such as women's rights, climate change and clean water -- intersect with the fashion industry.
IN YOUR WORK WITH THE ETHICAL FASHION LAB, DO YOU FOCUS PRIMARILY ON EDUCATION? OR ARE YOU INVOLVED IN DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS AS WELL?
Currently, the Ethical Fashion Lab is primarily focused on education. However, the goal of NEXUS is to be not merely educational but to also spur individuals and communities into action. I believe one of our biggest opportunities is showing people how the fashion industry touches topics and causes they already care about – something they often do not realize. By connecting the dots between fashion and entrepreneurism, I help them understand the powerful solutions they can be a part of today and tomorrow.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR NEW VENTURE, NIMBLY.
At Lazlo I learned that technology is going to completely change the fashion industry. And that -- if used and applied properly -- it could have a significant global impact on reducing waste and pollution, as well as creating jobs.
For the past two years, Nimbly has been working with brands to develop knit products (sweaters, knit dresses, scarves, blankets). My business partner and I shared a similar goal of wanting to have a positive impact through fashion. We believed that on-demand manufacturing was an innovation where sustainability could line up with scalability and profitability relatively quickly. Made to order turns the manufacturing paradigm on its head, allowing a producer to make a garment in a matter of hours that previously could have taken a supply chain six to eighteen months.
Nimbly plugs directly into brands’ websites and -- when a customer clicks to buy an item -- the order is routed to our facility. Then the garment is knit, washed, and sent out within 48 hours, directly to the customer. The brand never holds any inventory.
We currently have two machines in operation in our factory. But as we engage larger brands about handling their orders, we are realizing that we will not be able to handle large orders, such as 250,000 pieces. So we have reached a moment where we can either add in multiple expensive knitting machines or build out a network of factories that can take on our additional production needs.
We prefer to the latter: developing a network of factories globally, manufacturers that can handle tiny or massive runs, in locations close to the end consumer, under the right balance of quality, price and ethics.
While we love on-demand manufacturing, we do not think it is going to be more than one part of the supply chain. As Nimbly grows and scales, the ability to balance on-demand production with larger run manufacturing creates more efficiency across the board.
IN TERMS OF MANUFACTURING EFFICIENCIES, IS IT LESS EXPENSIVE TO PRODUCE MULTIPLE GARMENTS AT A TIME VS ONE AT A TIME?
On-demand manufacturing tends to be 20 – 25% more expensive vs. bulk manufacturing. This cost difference may come down as we build and optimize factories that are designed specifically for on-demand. But there will always be a cost premium associated with on-demand because it is less efficient than bulk.
AS YOU ARE BUILDING THIS NETWORK OF FACTORIES AROUND THE WORLD ARE YOU FINDING THAT MANY FACTORIES ARE OPEN TO ON-DEMAND MANUFACTURING?
Yes. There is strong interest in on-demand among big and small factories alike. Manufacturers realize this will be a part of the industry moving forward. Despite this, factories are hesitant to invest on their own since their margins are very small. Those manufacturers who are financially successful are often so because they have been smart about taking risks. So understandably many of them want to see evidence that there is a market for on-demand with customers placing meaningful orders before they invest in adding in this technology.
IS ON-DEMAND MANUFACTURING EASIER FOR KNITWEAR OR OTHER CATEGORIES OF APPAREL?
I think there are trade-offs with both. Our ability to directly network into digital knitting machines around the globe is one big reason we chose knitting. It is also easier to turn a kilo of yarn into a wide variety of garments, vs fabrics. So the combination of being able to harness digitally connected machines with lower, cheaper labor requirements made knitting more attractive vs. cut and sew. Yarn is much easier to manage than fabric.
TALK TO ME ABOUT 3D KNITTING. HOW IS THAT DIFFERENT FROM TRADITIONAL KNITTING?
There are three categories of knitting. You can knit rolls of fabric which you then cut and sew, which makes t-shirts, sweatshirts, etc. Or you can do what's called fully fashioned knitting, where a flat-bed knitting machine knits the panels of a garment, and then they are linked together to make the front, the sleeves, the collar, etc. This is how the vast majority of sweaters and knit dresses are made. It is very fine work which requires great eyesight and very nimble fingers. It is not a beloved job anywhere.
Finally, a company called SHIMA SEIKI in Japan came up with a machine that allows them to do what they call 3D knitting, which basically means it knits a finished garment which comes off the machine as a complete sweater, and you don't have to do any linking. There are a lot of advantages to these machines; obviously the labor piece, the lack of seams (ideal for drapey garments) and the ability to produce next-to-skin pieces. A challenge of this technology is that you are limited in what finishing details and designs you can offer. We started with 3D knitting and we have made some really great products with it. We are now moving into fully fashioned knitting since this will allow us to serve the whole market.
IF YOU THINK ABOUT THE FASHION INDUSTRY IN 2030, WHAT WOULD YOU HOPE TO SEE?
I would divide it into two pieces. On one hand, I believe consumer behavior is the only way to really change the industry. On the other hand I am very excited about how technology is changing the supply chain. We are going to see a host of new materials that are easier to recycle and use fewer chemicals to make. We are going to see an evolution in on-demand manufacturing, more responsive supply chains, and increased automation -- although I also believe humans will continue to be very involved in making clothing.
Where I hope the change comes is in the way we relate to the clothing in our lives. We have all been sold a myth that purchasing clothing (and other material things) makes us happy. If we are going to make the industry better for the planet and humanity, it starts with changing how we perceive and identify with clothing. I hope we get there; frankly, I am not sure we will. Millennials have definitely started to change their perspective on fashion, and Generation Z even more so. But any shift here is fundamentally tied to our overall relation to consumption, an issue that far transcends the fashion industry.
SO DOES THAT MEAN FEWER IS BETTER? IS LESS MORE?
Definitely. Fashion can be really powerful. When we use clothing to chase status or for personal validation, this is fashion at its worst. However, when it is a representation of who we are in terms of our values and creativity, it is very powerful.
So yes it definitely means buying less and buying better. But it is also about having a more meaningful relationship with the material goods in our lives. Surrounding ourselves with stuff that doesn't line up with our values leads to internal conflict and unhappiness. For those of us who have embraced the sustainable fashion world, we are lucky to have choices about what we buy – and why.
WHAT DOES SUSTAINABLE CONSUMPTION LOOK LIKE?
I believe it means being mindful of our consumption. It is recognizing that we have choices about what we buy. This includes, “who is it made by?”, “what is it made of?”, and “what is the impact it will have on the planet?”. It also includes “do I love it?”, “will I wear it?”, and “is it going to be around for a while?”. If it doesn’t fit well, don't buy it. If you're not excited about it, don't buy it. In short, I think we need to carefully look at our prospective purchases through the dual lenses of 1) how will they impact our community and the world at large, and 2) how will we appreciate and use them. Only after considering these factors should we move ahead.