- An American clothing company has designed reflective garments that make the wearer invisible in photographs
- The reflective, glass-based material is similar to that found on sneakers and safety gear
- A full Paparazzi-proof suit can cost up to $520
(WIRED)"Hey Liz, do you have an iPhone? Turn on the flash, and take a picture."
The directive comes from Steven Wheeler, a senior designer at online clothing company Betabrand.
We're at the company's San Francisco headquarters in a little room in back of their retail front that functions as the photo studio. I do as I'm instructed.
Here's what shows up:
The team—two photographers, Wheeler, Betabrand CEO Chris Lindland and a handsome bearded model— is in the middle of a shoot for the Flashback collection, a series of clothes that turn whoever wears them into invisible, ghostly silhouettes. Dreamt up by DJ Chris Holmes, the hoodie, hat, scarf and suit are made from the same reflective material you find on the side of tennis shoes and safety gear.
Glass nanospheres are bonded to the fabric and act as little reflective lenses, which gives the clothes their shine. "It's taking light and shoving it right back into the camera, which is what blows up the exposure," Wheeler explains.
In the photo the model is wearing a tailored suit designed by Wheeler in less than three weeks. At around $520, it isn't practical. Neither are the other items in the line, for that matter, but Lindland figures they'll probably sell well anyway.
He's confident because this is what Betabrand does. The company's whole business is based on knowing what consumers want before manufactures sew a single stitch. Betabrand does this by crowdsourcing ideas and concepts into their Think Tank. Any idea that garners enough votes during the Think Tank round will then become a prototype that's refined by Wheeler and his colleagues then crafted by the in-house Betabrand sewing team. That prototype then goes into the crowdfunding.
If a piece sells enough during crowdfunding (usually 50 to 100 pieces in the first 30 days) and they'll go into wider production.
In the case of the Flashback collection, the entire process—idea conception to building a prototype—took less than a month.
Holmes presented the idea to Betabrand in early January, and it burned through the internet, grabbing more than 550 votes (a better than decent showing on the site). After just a day or two in the Think Tank, Lindland already knew it was going to be popular enough to merit a prototype, so Wheeler began working on sketching up designs. Three weeks later, the pieces are now on sale.
Betabrand isn't fast fashion. "It's faster fashion," says Lindland. And without all the negative connotations that are usually tacked onto trendy, poorly-made garments, he adds. The CEO likes to say his company is the Quirky or Kickstarter of clothes, and it's a pretty apt description.
This model—confirming demand before creating supply—is smart, particularly for a clothing company. What you see in stores isn't the product of naturally-occurring trends, they're the result of a highly-engineered, year-plus process where designers, stores, buyers and marketers all try to figure out how to get us to buy stuff. Even with everyone working together, there's still a degree of blind soothsaying at play. "Ultimately as a business it's smart to product the things that people are really into and not sorta into," says Lindland. This not only lessens the financial risk for Betabrand but conceivably it cuts down on waste, too.
Take the anti-paparazzi clothes for instance. It went up on the crowdfunding page of Betabrand last week.
If it reaches its goal in 30 days (the goal usually equals enough inventory sold to justify actually manufacturing the product) then they'll be able to estimate how many garments to make based on total number purchased. Typical buys are three to four times the total number crowdfunded, so if 100 reflective hoodies are bought, Betabrand will manufacture 300 to 400 to sell on its site and in its store.
Designers get a 10 percent cut, which Lindland says is a more than a fair shake. "I mean, if we were selling a million a day it would be the deal of a century for a designer to work with us," he says.
Betabrand isn't close to that. Right now they have 150,000 active shoppers on the site, and that's growing mostly due to the decision to begin crowdfunding designs. To be fair, the company shoulders all of the making. Designers simply submit their idea and Betabrand handles it from there.
This includes the prototypes, manufacturing and all the production of marketing materials. Dedicated photoshoots are staged for every prototype, which seems like a sizable investment, and it is.
But, says Wheeler, "We have to treat every product like a success because we need every product to be a success." In a savvy move, the company decided to give a 20 percent discount to anyone who takes a photo in Betabrand item and uploads it to the site. As Lindland scrolls through community photos he stops at an image of a man skydiving with a sparkling Betabrand disco jacket on. "I don't think our workers comp would cover that," says Wheeler.
There's another image of a woman getting married in the Elope dress. And this: "Check that out, there's a customer with Dress Pants Sweatpants on meeting Kim Jong-un," says Lindland. "These are the things that land in our inbox." Eventually as Betabrand's community grows, the company will be able to offload some of its production work on the customers themselves.
That's a smart move for the company, but it's also a benefit for designers, who often have pages of unrealized designs that just sit in their sketchbooks. The burden of funding, making and marketing a product is taken off their hands, which opens up a far more democratic world of design.
Look at it this way: Most traditional retailers would never touch the poo emoji tie you designed or satellite-themed leggings or Holmes' reflective garb. But who really cares anymore? Today, if enough people wanna buy it, it's gonna get made.
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