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Fashion’s New Demand Chain? NFTs, Blockchain and Made-in-America Microfactories

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

By Sourcing Journal

A network of $300,000 microfactories could make reshoring a reality for American fashion.

That’s the dream for Lisa Morales-Hellebo, whose Refashiond OS made its debut at New York Fashion Week in September. But behind the flash and sizzle of a larger-than-life four-story-tall model—virtualized, of course—dancing behind Spring Studios in styles from the startup’s proof-of-concept streetwear capsule, the supply chain expert is hard at work trying to reimagine how brands get on-trend high-end fashion to hungry, fickle consumers.

“We are building the Made in USA fashion demand chain,” Morales-Hellebo told Sourcing Journal. “We do all the heavy lifting that small factories couldn’t do effectively on their own.”

Heavy lifting is one way to put it. The brain trust behind Refashiond OS includes head of microfactories Jeff King, who designed Gerber Technology’s Innovation Center in Manhattan’s Starrett-Lehigh Building and amassed more than four decades of experience engineering and managing global distributed production facilities. Tiffanie Schadler has overseen north of $3 billion in fashion during her 20 years in planning at Marc Jacobs, Hugo Boss and Ralph Lauren. Mark Damschroder, former in-house counsel for Caterpillar, guided phone-case maker Otterbox through its biggest growth years. And co-founder Erik Mumford shapes Refashiond OS’s go-to-market strategy as chief revenue officer.

Assembling top-flight talent is one thing; building an entirely new fashion system—when “opacity and lack of compliance” are “kind of a feature, not a bug” in the globalized supply chain—is another challenge altogether, said Morales-Hellebo, who believes starting from scratch makes far more sense than trying to retrofit a broken model.

Refashiond OS connects the myriad dots that are part and parcel of bringing a garment to life. It handles the marketing, brand onboarding, tech pack creation and sourcing, and even manages innovation for a brand or designer’s tech stack, taking the lead on hardware and software training, too. The platform cobbles together best-of-breed solutions already familiar throughout the industry because “there’s no single stack that every brand is going to want,” she said.

“We believe the future of all business has to be true stakeholder value chains,” Morales-Hellebo said of her preference for collaborating and partnering with experts versus simply reinventing the wheel.

Last year’s epic disruption underscored the urgent need to reimagine and localize the fashion supply chain, “when all of a sudden, no one could get a container to a port,” she said—a problem that has only worsened in recent months. And because supply chains are a “living, breathing thing” in which one falling domino topples the rest, access to raw materials matters just as much as finished-goods factories do, which is why Refashiond OS partners with mills in the contiguous Americas, she added.

The startup also prioritizes sustainable fibers from makers like Lenzing and sees a world of possibility for circularity regenerating textiles. “We literally are sitting on generations’ worth of assets,” Morales-Hellebo said. “We don’t need to grow another damn thing, or make fabrics out of some new magical cactus. We’ve got plenty of fibers. So how do we reuse them and accelerate that?”

The setup of Refashiond OS’s inaugural “hub” factory—the first of a national network, Morales-Hellebo hopes—keeps things local, and decidedly eco. That New York City Innovation Center run by Gerber Technology, a Lectra Company takes the reins on the pre-manufacturing, textile printing and cutting, while Kornit chips in on digital printing technology and waterless non-toxic pigmented ink. Even packaging gets the eco-friendly treatment with The Better Packaging Company sourcing compostable mailers.

The consumer goods veteran says a pending patent application specifies how Refashiond OS’s business-to-direct-to-consumer tech stack pulls each partner’s API data into a centralized location where designers and brands can review their holistic digital demand chain.

On the consumer-facing side, the startup unveiled an NFT, or non-fungible token, marketplace for September’s big fashion week debut. Because “designers just want to design” and leave the details to the experts, Refashiond OS can convert their sketches into 3D objects that social influencers can virtually model on their platform of choice—say, Instagram or TikTok—to gauge demand prior to greenlighting production.

That’s essentially the trick Refashiond OS pulled during fashion week. For five days, consumers around Varick Street could use their mobile devices to pull up a shoppable, four-story-tall hologram of one-time Miss Universe Paulina Vega Dieppa wearing designs by Maria Intscher-Owrang—previously of Vera Wang, Calvin Klein and Alexander McQueen—with prints contributed by Curvazoid, a New York street artist known for colorful graffiti and graphic murals.

More than a stunt, that moment illustrates how designers and brands “can market and protect their collections featuring a unique augmented reality (AR) buying experience powered by Illust Space; and leveraging Mint Gold Dust’s NFT exchange,” Morales-Hellebo said.

With NFTs catching on in fashion, designers might be warming up to the idea of putting virtual first, especially if it limits waste and protects margins and authenticity. In the Assembly.Fashion marketplace where consumers can shop Intscher-Owrang’s inaugural capsule, $145 tees and $325 dresses are offered alongside the hero hoodie, which can be purchased with ($399) or without ($349) an accompanying NFT on the cuff. Consumers more interested in dressing for the metaverse can purchase digitized fashion courtesy of Dress X, with garments verified via Smart Seal’s one-of-one blockchain authentication tied to the purchaser’s digital ownership, Morales-Hellebo said.

At its core, Refashiond OS wants to help brands seize on opportunities to sell relevant product without the months-long lead times and carbon-belching supply chains that have become the norm. “This paradigm shift in buying fashion empowers U.S. factories to become on-demand production nodes across a collaborative micromanufacturing network,” King, the microfactories expert, said in a statement.

The startup’s collaborative ethos “supports ‘Made in USA’ manufacturing, fosters sustainability, and eliminates unnecessary waste throughout the process by producing post-purchase,” he added. “Ultimately, we’re building a new fashion demand chain that prioritizes people, planet, and profits.”

This article was published in Sourcing Journal November 4, 2021. Gerber Technology, a Lectra Company a SPESA member.

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