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Fashion Tech: Spotlight on Soko

06/04/2016 11:04 | Updated 06 April 2016

The term 'Fashion Tech' is one that's been on my radar for the last year. But I've found it a challenging topic to engage with when discussed in the context of Sustainable Fashion.

I first came across this concept of a fusion of industries at the Ethical Fashion Forum's annual summit in June 2015 and didn't come away with any truly meaningful understanding of it.

Then I discovered a brand that offered a simple explanation to the term. Technology, of course, is not just about a physical product but also a system.

Operating out of the tech hub that is San Francisco, Gwendolyn Floyd, Co-founder of the pioneering jewellery brand Soko, kindly agreed to take my Skype call to explain her vision of this a little further...

I'd like to highlight at this stage, that Soko's products are handmade in Kenya, using reclaimed, recycled and locally sourced materials. Perhaps you've now put them into the "colourful", "fun" and "probably won't fit with the western way of dressing" box?

Think again.

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Soko's jewellery is slick, modern and suitable for everyday wear in addition to being entirely affordable (a constant criticism that is levelled at Sustainable and Ethical Fashion) with the majority of pieces priced between £25-£70.

So what's the story?

In a nutshell, Soko used to be 'a sort of Etsy for the developing world' by providing artisans with market access and payment solutions only.

Then the founders thought hang on, these guys have incredible skills but 'zero access to international design expectations, standards of production or quality control' and if we provide them with design ideas that are more in keeping with western aesthetics they'll sell more - it's win, win.

The pieces are designed by Gwen in San Francisco and produced by individuals or larger groups of artisans. And all this production is made possible by communication through the most basic tool: a mobile phone.

Soko considers two main factors to be important: Incremental growth and distributive production.

Incremental growth allows each individual artisan to progress at a rate of production that is in harmony with their own personal lives and experiences. It allows artisans to 'grow their businesses at a rate that is responsible and meaningful' said Gwen.

As artisans' skills are perfected and improved, their businesses grow accordingly, often reaching a point where it's no longer simply about making a product but, in addition, becomes about operations management: personnel, material inputs and outputs, financial management tools etc. And when it gets to this stage, Soko can help artisans grow their business in a sustainable way.

They have seen huge success with this model because it favours all parties. The brand succeeds because of the 'amazing talent that is growing incrementally' and the artisans succeed because 'they're able to grow their businesses at a rate that is reasonable and meaningful' to them.

Distributive production is what Soko believes their model empowers. Their mobile technology has allowed them to develop a 'virtual factory of independent artisan entrepreneurs' and in doing so, Soko have developed a system that allows 'predictive production planning from what had always been an invisible work sector'.

This innovative approach to market is what makes Soko stand out and that approach, Gwen and I agree, must be matched by an equally modern aesthetic. Gwen further commented that there is currently a disconnect between the people that manufacture goods and the people that wear them, and that is the gap that Soko are trying to bridge.

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Our discussion was diverse and fascinating and I'd like to highlight one more key point about Gwen's views on the future of the fashion industry.

She began by raising the issue of the global lack of trust we have in brands but pointed out that as consumers we still depend on them because it's convenient - and this is where technology can help. Not just 'production technology' but 'consumer technology'. In short, it comes down to convenience and speed, 'Who's going to make it the easiest [for the consumer] to affordably and meaningfully shop?'

It's worth highlighting here that Soko's timelines themselves are competitive with high street fashion giants. The process from initial idea through to mass production can take as little two weeks.

We live in a time where we can have anything we want at the click of a button and that attitude and reliance on speed is not going to change anytime soon. So how can we move forward? The answer is technology. And in Gwen's own words we need to create 'systems and production models and pricing schemes from an infrastructural and operational perspective that can feed the demand in a responsible way'

We cannot go backwards so we must adapt to the reality that is today by carving a new path for fashion that, like Soko, offers style in an innovative, impactful and responsible way.

This post was originally featured on the study 34 blog

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