Recently, I was introduced to something called the IOU Project, a somewhat radical concept that marries fashion design and supply chain transparency in an innovative way. Through a deep understanding of digital media and a true appreciation and love for the craft behind fashion, the people who make up the IOU Project are working hard to flip the entire process of manufacturing garments on its head.
Understanding that 20 million families in India depend on the textile industry (and by that I mean traditional hand weaving) as a means for their livelihood, IOU founders Kavita Parmar and Ricky Posner made it their mission to bring the weaver to the consumer at the end of the supply chain.
How would this best be done? Well, the onset of digital media and social networking is, yet again, a vehicle for evolution within the fashion industry. Through the use of video, user generated content, Facebook integration, Twitter engagement, photography, QR codes and smart editorial, consumers will be able to purchase an IOU design, while learning about every step of the process.
Given the fact that I’m a textile junkie, I was over-the-moon excited to speak with the founders of the IOU Project, Ricky Posner and Kavita Parmar. I have always been a huge believer in sharing the history of a product and getting to know the hands behind the art. IOU has taken my desire for this kind of knowledge and has delivered in a creative and smartly executed manner.
Currently in its last stage of testing, IOU is getting ready to launch at the end of April. I am grateful that they still managed to find the time to speak with us about IOU Project.
FMM: This is a unique concept. Can you describe IOU Project’s mission?
IOU: We aim to bring the consumer closer to the entire manufacturing process of the clothes we design. The idea is, of course, to have a better chance of getting our clothes out to customers (not an easy thing for an unknown brand working primarily on the web). But just as important, it’s about building a community of people who want transparency, accountability and authenticity. That is one huge thing, which is what we personally find most exciting.
We approach our designs as product design, producing a small collection (for lack of a better word) of clothing made from the traditional Indian lungi, which consists of a 2 meter piece of woven fabric, most often cotton, that is usually solid or madras plaid. No two are ever exactly the same, as each one is hand woven by an artisan who will thread the loom based on their mood and inspiration on that day. We take these lengths of fabric and create one skirt, one shirt, and one pant (or maybe a dress) with this particular fabric. Every single piece of clothing is different due to the unique nature of the fabric. We are not trend driven. We are basic with our design elements while still remaining stylish and everyday wearable.
FMM: You mentioned that IOU has faced complex challenges in building its e-commerce site and social network. Could you explain why?
IOU: There really were no adequate e-commerce platforms out there for what we were trying to do. We have tons of SKU’s but only one item of each. Each and every piece has to be photographed because each one is unique. Then, each item has to be traced back through the chain, telling its individual story — its heritage. It’s similar to an airline reservation service.
FMM: What exactly do you mean when you say that you have created an e-commerce experience akin to an airline reservation service?
IOU: Well, in a sense we have ended up building an e-commerce engine where there is a unique apparel item that exists in one warehouse and not in another, in one size and not in another, that can be reserved and released, and that is gone forever when someone buys it. This is very much like seat 18A in the May 1st flight from New York to LA — there?s only one!
FMM: Please tell us about the content you are creating within the IOU Project.
IOU: We are celebrating individuality! The great part of this project is that we are behaving very much like a content company, making films and extensively documenting the processes and individuals who touch the product all along the chain. There?s nothing new about this, except for the fact that in our case, these videos are needed because we are introducing the end buyer to the exact individual half way around the world who wove their fabric. Interesting as this may be to an end buyer, you can just imagine how excited the Indian weavers are. These people who arguably live in some of the harshest environments our planet has to offer, will have an opportunity, via the web to see their work transformed into beautiful clothing, and see who exactly bought each item made by one of their fabrics. We invite our customers to post their pictures wearing their IOU items so that everyone can see and meet each other.
FMM: Tell us about what changes the manufacturers had to implement into their practices in order to work with you.
IOU: Ha! Well, the manufacturers have gone from loving us to hating us to loving us again. Because of what we’re asking them to do, they’ve had to substantially alter their production processes to accommodate large productions of items made from unique, non-standard textiles. Being Italians, their standards are very exacting, and they will tell you that they’ve had a great time re-inventing processes to allow for a higher component of artisanship.
But in the end, they really seem to be excited about this project. They love the idea that we are bringing the focus back to the craft and artisanship that has managed to disappear from so much of the fashion industry. We think they are proud to collaborate.
FMM: What are IOU Trunk Show Hosts? Please explain the benefit of giving both consumers and your artisans they ability to become hosts. What are you hoping to accomplish with this?
IOU: We have built a really neat distribution system — a platform that allows anyone to become what we call an IOU Trunk Show Host. We’re building a community around the idea that our customers can dig through our inventory (virtually and at no cost to them) and reserve items which they can then share with friends on their favorite social networks. A Trunk Show Host earns a sliding commission (starting at 20%) from every sale – which we pay via PayPal. Trunk Show Hosts who select items essentially “own” them until they are sold or “expire”. Part of the social experience also takes place because Trunk Show Hosts can earn a commission even if a total stranger browsing our site stumbles upon and buys an article they reserved.
Now wha’s most interesting about this relationship is the way in which we can internet-enable the weavers and/or their coops to do the same — by inviting them to become Trunk Show Hosts. In one fell swoop we allow them to directly access part of the financial rewards of the value chain created by their artisanship. Viewed from the perspective of a weaver?s earnings, their textile is multiplied by a factor of no less than 50 as it moves from textile to finished good. As a Trunk Show Host, they or their cooperatives can substantially participate in this value creation. We find this utterly justifiably, after all, artisanship is at the heart of our venture.
This, of course is in addition to paying them for the fabric they made. We are paying them directly, without intermediaries; we know who they are and we pay them for each unit of work (in our case, per woven lungi).
FMM: What impact do you think or hope IOU will have on e-commerce as a whole?
IOU: We think big! We truly hope to help shift the way consumers view the clothes they buy; to open up the possibility for all labels to implement the elements of transparency and authenticity in what they do, at least to some extent. We want to remind people and brands of the craft.
At launch, IOU will be concentrating on its own designs; however, that is just the first step. The creators hope to implement the work of other designers, both large and small, as well as open the site up to a variety of products, such as furniture and accessories.
In the words of Ricky Posner, “This is not exclusive. In fact it’s the opposite. IOU Project is all about sharing and inspiring.”
Follow IOU Project on Twitter @theiouproject