Fashion Tech Alchemy: What's the Winning Startup Formula?
What makes a successful fashion tech startup? We explore here.
In our last article, ‘Is The Fashion Tech Ecosystem About to Explode with Endless Possibilities?’ we talked about the many pioneering fashion innovators and how vital it is that there are support systems in place for these exciting startups. This month, we wanted you to meet an emerging fashion tech business to demonstrate just how impressive these projects are – The Future of Walking.
The Future of Walking is an excellent example of an emerging fashion tech start-up who would not be where they are today without their fab lab and co-working space. In fact, the team even met and formed the idea for their product and business at Makerversity, during a two-day hackathon event focussing on products to tackle air pollution. I met with four of the startup founders at Makerversity to discuss the benefits of co-working spaces, the challenges of creating ecological products, and the advantages of a team with diverse specialisms.
Spontaneously sitting together at the hackathon in 2018, the product that the team came up with was a trainer with an integrated valve in the sole. Allowing polluted air to flow past a filter and expel the clean air on the way out – The Future of Walking is aptly named. Never mind about a theoretical “carbon footprint”, this product will literally alter a person’s footprint on the ground that they walk on, hoovering up damaging air particulates and making a cleaner city wherever they go.
The shoe can filter approximately the same amount of air that is breathed out by a person as they walk. A person wearing the shoes would be making a “micro-contribution” to clean air, as the team explain. They view their target audience as ‘Woke Millennials’, the demographic who are highly aware of the social and ecological problems surrounding us. They’re looking to make a positive impact on the world without, perhaps, compromising their sense of style.
As far as the team know, The Future of Walking is the only footwear-based air filtration system. And as footwear sales, in particular of athletic shoes, have been rising (Mintel predicts the UK market will be worth £15.6bn by 2023), investment in developing their model makes business sense.
Their shoe won second prize in the hackathon. It was so viable as a product that the five-person strong team (with a few alterations in the line up since that first day) decided to develop it commercially. Sabina Weiss, Inês Marques, Umar Hossain, Yoo-Jin Jung and Sam Cryer secured a spot in the Makers With a Mission program at Makerversity, which offers a six month residency to startup businesses with ideas demonstrating a particular ecological or social benefit.
When we meet the team show me around Makerversity. As well as the usual co-working space, there are rooms full of technical equipment. In one there is a whole wall of shelves with 3D printers, racks full of recording and other technical equipment, plus a laser cutter. The next is more textile based, with a Kniterate knitting machine prototype, state of the art sewing machines plus many other pieces of professional equipment you might need to make up fashion samples.
We then head to the comfortable meeting area to talk more. The team cheerfully squash on a sofa together. Inês jumps up to make us all tea, while Yoo-Jin, an innovation designer, shows me how the sole of the shoe was designed based on the structure of a lung. Umar then shows me a video on his phone about his PhD project – it involves 3D printing using metal filaments to create structures for medical implants.
It’s this knowledge of 3D printing and understanding of material that has been invaluable to the business, as have each of the other members’ day jobs – Sabina is a product designer, Inês is a social and sustainable designer and Sam is a scientist. The shoe is still in the development stage, and there are lots of discussions and experiments to be had regarding the production of the ultimate in ecological and ergonomic shoe design. Having team members with different specialisations is a real advantage, while the company is still small enough to make decisions quickly and with much more flexibility than a larger organisation.
They clearly know their subject well and dive into a lively discussion about their journey so far. Sabina talks about other companies who have generously shared their knowledge and inventions through open sourcing, about trends in shoe sales and other ecological initiatives in general. Inês takes me through the different types of plastic required for a flexible shoe, and then discusses their explorations in how to find those qualities in an ecological way. They are looking into plastics made from milk protein or recycled plastics.
There are several collaborations too. 3D visualisations have been made for the brand by Variable. As a direct result of Kniterate’s involvement in Makerversity and their prototype machine sitting in the workshop, it is easy for The Future of Walking to create a knitted textile top for the shoe. These could, of course, be made with biodegradable threads and other structural elements of the shoe using fabrics made from pineapple, sugarcane, or coconut husk waste – something which they have been collaborating on with MaterialDriven.
From that hackathon at Makerversity last year events have come full circle. Back in January The Future of Walking helmed a hackathon of their own, the TFW x IFA Paris Innovation Challenge Day. It gave the second-year students in the Bachelor of Fashion Marketing program the opportunity to see how a new fashion tech brand is developed. They were then invited to contribute their own ideas on the best ways to make the product shine. The five-month project gives plenty of time for ideas to flow both ways between students and entrepreneurs.
This is what The Future of Walking are all about. Their pioneering attitude, openness to ideas and opportunities given to them by the Makerversity have allowed The Future of Walking to flourish, and we highly anticipate the day we can own a pair of their future forward, environmentally conscious trainers ourselves.