LONDON, United Kingdom — From music to news, the growth of digital media has fundamentally reconfigured the way content is created and consumed, ending the monopoly once enjoyed by large record companies and publishers and giving rise to a wider chorus of voices. Now, new digital fabrication technologies are set to drive a similar revolution in physical manufacturing, making the tools of factory production available at the click of a mouse, with no penalty for short production runs.
This means the per item cost of producing one of something is the same as the per item cost of producing 10,000, opening up tremendous potential for what product strategists call “mass customisation,” blending the benefits of craft production, where each item is unique and customised to the aesthetic or functional needs of an individual consumer, with the cost-efficiencies and scalability of mass production.
At the forefront of this shift is Knyttan, a vertically-integrated fashion start-up based in London, which, today, is set to announce a 2 million pound (about $3.1 million) seed round led by Connect Ventures with the participation of Frédéric Court’s new venture fund Felix Capital, as well as Robin Klein, José Neves, Pascal Cagni, Edoardo Zegna and others. The valuation of the company was not disclosed.
Founded in April 2013 by Ben Alun-Jones, Kirsty Emery and Hal Watts, who met at London’s Royal College of Art, Knyttan aims to disrupt the $200 billion knitwear market with technology that turns the industrial knitting machines, which make 20 percent of the world’s garments, into the equivalent of 3D printers for clothes, enabling users to design and ‘print’ their own customised sweaters, scarves and other knitted items, made of Merino wool, for 200 pounds (about $315) for sweaters and 80 pounds (about $125 ) for scarves.
Industrial knitting machines are difficult to program, which means they need skilled (and expensive) technicians to operate them. Even a simple sweater can take hours to program. As a result, fashion companies must order a minimum of about 50 units of a particular style to make economic sense, limiting the degree of variation they can offer. Knyttan’s digital production system completely changes how these machines are controlled, eliminating the need for expensive technicians by replacing them with software. This brings the minimum size of an order down to one, meaning the company can make 1000 unique products for about the same price as 1000 products that are the same.
“The lightbulb moment was realising that an industrial knitting machine could be turned into something approaching a 3D printer for clothes, but the barrier was software. By re-writing this software from the ground up, we can use these industrial machines in ways no-one else does,” said Hal Watts, chief executive of Knyttan.
What’s more, because Knyttan only holds digital stock — the products sold via its website are rendered photorealistically on models, without actually being manufactured — and customers pay before production begins, Knyttan operates a highly advantageous business model, radically reducing the risk of unsold inventory at the end of the season and avoiding the cash flow issues endemic to young fashion labels, who must pay suppliers for production before they receive payment for their goods.
Knyttan’s approach also eliminates the high upfront design and sampling costs associated with traditional fashion manufacturing, as well as the long lead times it normally takes to go from concept to production, allowing the company to respond quickly to trends.
“‘Why can’t I have a say in what is in the shops?’‘Why can’t I change this detail?’‘Why does so much clothing end up in a landfill?’ We use digital technologies to begin to answer these questions in a way that’s both unique and industrial, which until now has been a contradiction in terms,” said Watts. “Knyttan has many seeming contradictions at its heart: unique and industrial, profitable and sustainable, scalable and meaningful.”
Crucially, Knyttan does not offer consumers the ability to create completely original designs. “We make style guides that can be edited by our customers to create their own version,” explained Ben Alun-Jones, Knyttan’s chief creative officer. Indeed, the company takes a curated approach to customisation, guiding users through an editing process whereby they can easily create garments within set style parameters, lowering barriers for consumers who fear making mistakes or are wary of too much work, and ensuring the aesthetic quality of the output.
In addition to a vertically-integrated knitwear brand with its own customisable designs, Knyttan is also a platform for other labels at a time when consumers are increasingly hungry for unique and individually meaningful items. “Increasingly, brands are acting like platforms,” noted Watts. “True platforms like Farfetch are so successful at the moment; they are able to offer a huge breadth of product whilst maintaining high standards of curation,” he added. “As a result, it benefits designers, boutiques and customers. Platforms can really lift everyone.”
Knyttan is currently collaborating with London-based designer Christopher Raeburn on a capsule collection of customisable knitwear allowing consumers to create unique versions of the designer’s pieces in such a way that they still retain the aesthetics of the brand. A preview of the collaboration appeared on the catwalk, last Sunday, at Raeburn’s London Collections: Men show. “Knitwear is one of the bestselling categories in our collections and one we see as key to the future of the business,” said Raeburn. “We hope this will be a collaboration that can grow and develop, allowing us to step into the world of mass customisation and offer our customers something truly unique.”
“Knyttan is a formidable enabler for creative talent to design and produce knitted garments that just couldn't be created before, mainly because of supply chain and design technology limitations. Knyttan opens up new alleys to fashion designers to create new designs and products, especially mini-series that will be attractive to consumers for their uniqueness,” said Frédéric Court, founder of Felix Capital, a $120 million London venture capital fund focused on backing tech-powered fashion and lifestyle start-ups, which now holds a stake in Knyttan.
“I invested in Knyttan because I could feel in the team a deep passion to revolutionise the knitwear fashion market, which lacks this kind of innovation. I am a firm believer in ‘curated customisation’ as the true disruptive force in terms of design and production,” added José Neves, founder and CEO of Farfetch, who made a personal investment in the company.
Knyttan is currently in talks with a number of large, established fashion players and, armed with new funding, is set to expand its team and “further industrialise our technology through a series of factory and retail partnerships which can take the Knyttan vision to the next level,” said Watts.
Importantly, Knyttan also aims to extend its platform to a wide range of creatives beyond fashion. “As one of our key innovations is turning knitwear into a blank canvas, we can also work with creatives from other fields,” said Alun-Jones. “What if Grayson Perry created patterns you can make your own?”