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The Name: Unmade

The Place: Although the lovely Somerset House in London WC2 is where the office is based this is mainly an online retailer at present. And it has had a pop-up store in Selfridges for a brief stint. The fact is to be honest they’d rather not be a retailer at all, but more of that later.

The Story: Knitting. It’s not cool is it?

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Hal Watts, co-founder and CEO, Unmade

Nope: It’s for old people.

Yes: And slightly odd people on the tube.

Agreed. Knit one, purl one, what’s that all about? You don’t actually know what that means though do you?

Not exactly: And I’ll tell you something else you don’t know – knitting is where it’s at, pal. This is the beginning of a revolution which could change everything and it all starts with some software for a knitting machine.

Well, it starts with the founders, and they are?  Three Royal College of Fashion graduates – one (the female part) is the fashion guru, and the other two are innovative design engineers.

What? Yes, you can do that course at the RCA, one Hal Watts is by training a mechanical engineer and the other is an electrical engineer and they started out by consulting for people like UK Sport where they helped develop new products like aerodynamic clothing. But then they discovered, wait for it…

Yes? The industrial knitting machine – on which 20% of the world’s clothing is produced.

Crikey. They cost £35k each and Unmade has three. Now listen this is important – each machine can produce about 40 items per day and it doesn’t matter whether it’s sitting in a room of 500 of them in China churning out identical scarves or sitting on its own in Somerset House making bespoke gloves – it’s output is 40 items a day.

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And this is important because… More complicated/differentiated patterns make no difference to the time taken to product the item.

And this is important because: Normally a software expert takes days to produce a file to programme the knitting machine’s computer to produce just one design. However, Unmade’s engineering founders have devised a way of producing a simple file that can programme the machine in seconds.

And this is… Stop it. It’s important because the machine can now produce 40 completely different items in the day, and before you ask, this is important because it unlocks both personalisation and on-demand production on a potentially industrial scale.

Ah, now you’re talking: The beauty of the system is that it costs not one penny more to product 40 different articles than it does to product 40 of the same, which sounds counterintuitive but the secret is all in Unmade’s software.

You know I’m wondering if other brands might be interested in this amazing software malarkey: Oh, it’s such a relief that you are here. Of course they are, you idiot, in fact any brand that is interested in customising could be interested. Imagine personalised items and you don’t hold any stock. There is absolutely minimise waste and the returns rate is to die for (at around 2%) because people have designed exactly what they wanted so they really, really like it. It’s really about helping retailers drive up direct retail sales, which helps differentiate them from the aggregators.

Any retailers on board yet? Naming no names but Autumn 2016 will see the first evidence of retailer action. The company hopes it has created the kind of retail experience brands are interested in and fashion retailers’ websites will simply say ‘powered by Unmade’ to alert you to its presence. There are UK and Italian brands interested, mainly heritage companies who own their own knitting machines and production facilities.

But back to the present, how does this work for a customer ordering a piece of knitwear right now from the Unmade website: Right. There are templates, 50% of them created by Unmade and 50% of them from collaborating designers. You can create a piece from scratch but the vast majority of people simply customise an existing design on products like jumpers, scarves etc.

What am I parting with? Average spend is £125, but it’s about £200 for a jumper.

Blimey: But consider, from customising a top fashion bod’s design on the tablet to the machine beginning to knit one, purl one to putting on said V-neck takes 30 minutes. Thirty minutes!

And who exactly is parting with £125 an order? It used to be men, technical people and the like, early innovation adopters. However, now the idea has reached the wider fashion world partly via the pop-up shop in Selfridges and so now it’s the ladies who are turning up more regularly. But the age span is 25-35.

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You know I can see that retailers will be very keen but I bet you manufacturers aren’t so happy: Unmade built its own site mainly to showcase the software because so many people in the clothing industry said that what they proposed was impossible. People who control vast banks of knitting machines in the Far East – they won’t be particularly happy. It’s disruptive, it’s revolutionary. Think Gutenberg and the printing press.

Steady, it’s only a jumper: OK, but it brings manufacturing back to the UK and away from outsourced locations around the world. It allows very small volumes to be cost effectively produced, top-up runs when you need them, you don’t have to have 10,000 of the things knitted to get a cheaper price.

Why isn’t anyone else doing it? Trust me, there are patents on this software, the RCA team aren’t stupid. And as I just implied, the engineers who spend days programming machines to produce thousands of one item are not about to kill the golden goose by doing themselves out of a job. Unmade’s point is that first music was physical, now it’s digital. And clothing will go exactly the same way.

I see, any other future predictions? Short term it’s all about personalisation, but the greater prize in the long term is on-demand production for even commoditised products. Fashion’s business model is going to undergo a huge change and Unmade brings it on.

Actually on reflection, I don’t think knitting is boring any more: Aha, the William Caxton of the scarf world is converted.

PCMS is a global provider of IT software and services for the retail industry. PCMS offers a full-range of integrated commerce solutions across selling touch points and also provides turnkey managed services and cloud hosting. Its client list includes John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Whole Foods, as well as Walgreens in the US and fashion brands including Prada and Ferragamo across Europe.