Founder’s Letter: The Digital Way Forward

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Back in 2016, an impeccably dressed lady came to visit our New York office where she presented her creation, which was the first online digital textile platform I had ever seen. I was excited — as was everyone in our company. That meeting exploded our brains. For the first time, we could envision a digital online representation of every denim fabric at all the Kingpins Shows, with all fabric data available so that brands and retailers could see everything on their computer screens on their own schedules at their discretion. 

A few weeks and a few meetings later, we agreed to work together on her program, which was built to digitally exhibit novelty textiles including prints and yarn dyes in a platform suited to the denim industry. We planned to build a digital pavilion to house Kingpins’ exhibitors and all their products.

Sadly, things ran out of gas 13 months later and our idea did not work out.  I can’t remember all the reasons why but her company is now gone, she is out of the textiles business and I forgot about the idea — until a very good friend of mine, who I admire, purchased her software last year and the conversations restarted with his new company. Like before, the initial action was fast and furious but something came up as things were about to finalize and once again, the Kingpins Digital idea fizzled out to both his regret and mine.

And then COVID-19 jumped into our lives. From the outset of the pandemic, everyone in the fabric world started showing their collections online and my email inbox was flooded with waves of pitches from software companies with digital platforms. Every program we saw had good features  — and bad. Frustratingly, there was always some issue that made us hesitate in adopting each program. We knew exactly what we wanted but could not find it, until my daughter Emily went to an online Material Exchange seminar that was hosted by the USFIA. She called me afterwards saying “This software is the one  —  it’s great.”  And then I met (virtually, of course) the CEO of Material Exchange, Darren Glenister.

Material Exchange and Darren have deep roots in the shoe industry and digital materials. I loved their platform immediately, as well as the company’s focus on sustainability and social responsibility. Darren, who is bright, calm, articulate and clever, inspired our team.

Since then, Material Exchange and Kingpins have signed an agreement to collaborate and around Oct. 20, the Kingpins Exchange site will make its online debut. I know it sounds trite and self promotional to say “we are so excited about our new product ….” But the truth is, it’s been a four-year journey to conclude what the impeccably dressed lady showed us in 2016. In a pandemic world, this tool will have more value than ever.  

Obviously back in 2016, our original interest had nothing to do with a pandemic or travel restrictions or a need to work from home. It was all about my observation about our contribution to the denim industry’s very wasteful system of operation.   

The pre-pandemic way of selling denim textiles was to create a massive collection of new fabrics, often made into jeans and shown in up to six different washes. Multiple sets of these samples would be produced and given to sales forces throughout the world. These sales teams would then travel to their customers in all corners of the world to show them these samples  — often without any return on that investment. 

What is the “real” cost of that sample-making process? I’m not sure anyone but those who have worked in a denim mill appreciate the expense of producing 40 new fabrics each season, let alone 75 of them. Indigo yarn is not dyed on a cone but is dyed on a long range so the yarn-dyeing process alone is very expensive. After that comes fabric finishing, garment making and garment processing  — and just for samples. Every new color requires a new dyeing production, and almost every new weight of a new color requires a new dyeing process and spinning process. 

I don’t believe anyone has ever studied the cost of making one new fabric into jeans with six washes, but that cost would be shocking. And then the flights — oh my goodness, the flights! The little 45-piece jean collection is flown from the mill to denim shows in Amsterdam, Paris, London and Bangladesh and to the sales people scattered around the world. Then the sales people fly to every municipality in the world to show that collection to buyers. 

I’d love to see a study of the cost of one exhibitor’s collection including all the travel costs required to show the line each season. Were we to calculate the environmental impact of all this, our heads would spin. I believe were all this data publicized, the entire industry would be embarrassed and brands and retailers might align to put a stop to it and adopt a new initiative to show how sustainable they are.

What the impeccably lady showed me so long ago was how to do all of this without travel and in real time, so everything is available like Netflix  — on-demand at the push of a button.

If there can be an upside to this pandemic  —  aside from the continued health of my loved ones, colleagues and friends  — it’s the efficiency of meeting digitally. I am so proud of the seminars programs we have always held in person at the Kingpins Show. We’ve learned that that same experience of shared knowledge, innovation and discovery can be had online  — and in some instances are much improved by the ability to connect exhibitors and attendees from around the world without everyone getting on a plane. 

Online has a lot going for it  — post pandemic.

Recently, comedian Jerry Seinfeld wrote a piece for the New York Times, about his love of New York and how many people think “it’s over as a city” since so much is closed. “Energy, attitude and personality cannot be ‘remoted’ through even the best fiber optic lines. That’s the whole reason many of us moved to New York in the first place,” he wrote. 

This is true for New York and it’s true for the Kingpins Show. Meeting in person will be more appreciated than ever before when the shows return but perhaps when we do meet again, it will be with fewer swatches and samples. Maybe booths will be replaced or enhanced with 10-foot walls of TV screens. Who knows? 

With Kingpins Exchange, we hope to make that vision a reality.

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