LONDON, United Kingdom — Despite the well-documented technological advancements in the consumer-facing elements of the fashion value chain — marketing, PR and retail — there are still huge opportunities for optimising manufacturing and wholesale activities using technology, especially for smaller fashion companies which typically use Excel and other manual tools to stay on top of everything. So, when an enterprising start-up offers to do this in a way that is not cost-prohibitive, The Business of Fashion is bound to be interested.
I first met Ari Helgason last year when he introduced me to World on a Hanger, a London-based start-up focused on streamlining the manufacturing process for independent fashion companies (see explanatory video here). Since then, Ari and his business partner Tom Riley have gone on to develop Fabricly.com, an apparel sourcing marketplace which "connects independent brands with high quality apparel and accessories manufacturers."
This latest idea caught the attention of Silicon Valley-based Y Combinator, which has provided critical early-stage funding to high-profile start-ups like Reddit (peer-to-peer news), AirBnB (peer-to-peer accommodations) and loopt (mobile-based information sharing), helping them to move through the critical phase "from idea to company," and taking on average a 6 percent stake in return for its early-stage support.
Paul Graham, a Partner at Y Combinator, has become somewhat of a Silicon Valley legend and his "How to Start a Start-up" essay is a must-read for any technology entrepreneur. He told The Business of Fashion: "We funded Fabricly because connecting designers and suppliers seemed an obviously good application for the internet. And Tom and Ari seemed like they would be the right people to do it, because they had already built World on a Hanger, and so both had access to and an understanding of designers."
"Fabricly is an instance of a pattern that is quite common among the 172 startups we've funded: enabling contacts in a peer-to-peer way that would not have been possible back in the pre-Internet days," he continued.
BoF caught up with Ari Helagson to learn more about his plans for bringing technology to the unglamorous, back-office of the fashion business.
BoF: What led you to start World on a Hanger, and more recently Fabricly.com?
I was fresh out of university and had come across many of the problems we're solving while doing sales for womenswear label Ostwald Helgason alongside my studies. My co-founder Tom Riley is an entrepreneur who has been involved with other internet startups and I knew him as a brilliant software developer who would be able to build the technology.
We built World on a Hanger because we had seen fashion businesses being run in a very haphazard, unstructured way. We were convinced that organising production and sales could be done much more efficiently online, drawing on web 2.0 ideas. The basis for the technology was out there, but it wasn't really available to fashion labels. We set out to change that.
Fabricly solves a problem that almost all designers have - how do you find high quality, reliable manufacturers? Most manufacturers don't have websites. A lot of the time you have to go with word of mouth. There are so many great suppliers, for example in Italy, but no easy way of getting to them. And once you have found them, checking up on them can take weeks. Fabricly speeds up that process by letting you research suppliers and instantly connect with them.
BoF: What value is offered to your customers?
Automation and collaboration. The beauty of software is that what takes hours to do manually can be done automatically in a few minutes. World on a Hanger cuts the time from when designers come up with their designs to when they ship to their customers. This is done by automating most of the processes involved. Time consuming things like calculating material needs, scheduling production and printing paperwork are are all automated.
Collaboration is the other big thing. You could say that we're bringing web 2.0 to how design businesses are run. The kind of sharing seen on social networks is built into the software. This is what our customers are most excited about. People use Facebook all the time, so they're used to that way of thinking. Instead of emailing information back and forth, everything is kept in one place. This means better organisation and more informed decisions.
BoF: Why did you choose to take funding from Y-Combinator?
Y Combinator is known for nurturing top internet startups. They are behind Silicon Valley success stories like Reddit, the social news site that was acquired by Condé Nast. I had heard about them because Paul Graham, one of the founders of Y Combinator, writes great essays on building startups. I had been a fan of Paul's essays for years and knew that he was someone I would like to work with.
BoF: What synergies exist between Fabricly and World on a Hanger?
Because fashion shows are being streamed live and retailers like Zara bring out new styles every few weeks, there's growing pressure on designers to deliver quickly. Fabricly gives designers the tools to go from design to finished product faster than ever.
BoF: Where you would like to take your businesses going forward?
Our vision is to help designers move faster, experiment more and be more creative. Everything we do is aimed at shortening the time from design to finished product. Fabricly is a big step in that direction.
We'd like to do more to support emerging designers. Most fashion graduates know all about designing a collection, but they are not well prepared to build a business around it. Our tools help them turn it into a business. That’s why we are working with the British Fashion Council's NEWGEN programme and sponsoring their designers.
Finally, we will keep focusing on giving people what they want. The motto of Y Combinator is "Make something people want". The best ideas come from listening to your customers. People bring you their problems, and all you have to do is come up with solutions.
Imran Amed is Founder and Editor of The Business of Fashion