The Seam CEO: Putting traditional skills at the heart of new fashion tech
Importantly though, as with many ‘3Rs’ initiatives (repair, resale and rental), they’re working with a key partner — UK-based care & repair specialist The Seam.
Businesses like The Seam — with a network of experts and the technology to make things happen — plus all the rental and resale specialists out there are revolutionising the way we think about the durability of luxury and mid-market fashion.
And in the case of The Seam’s area of expertise in particular, it’s taking something once thought of unexciting and outdated (invisible mending, repairing zippers, taking in waistbands) and making the old-fashioned ultra-fashionable, and very, very modern.
The Outnet’s launch into the repairs arena sees it offering both repairs and alterations across women’s and menswear. Importantly, the wider partnership with it and the other Yoox Net-A-Porter-owned e-tail brands is The Seam's first collaboration in true luxury retail via its extensive network of local makers across the UK.
The Seam said it was selected for its “personal approach to care & repair, having brought together a specialised group of makers to serve [YNAP] customers and reflecting the strong community-building values of the three online stores”.
So what’s on offer? Clothing alterations, bespoke customisations, repair services for specialist items such as knitwear and outwear, and care & repair for footwear and accessories (including sneaker cleaning). Most services will be completed within seven to 10 days and there’s an express offer, subject to availability.
It comes as YNAP’s high-end brands continue to roll out circularity-related services that “aim to deepen relationships between customers and their products, driving the shift towards more sustainable behaviours”.
But what is it about The Seam that has proved so appealing to a high-profile business like YNAP? And what made a tech specialist like The Seam CEO Layla Sargent think she could build a modern fashion business around the kind of skills we might usually associate with her grandmother’s generation?
The grandmother link is key. “I spent a lot of time as a child with my grandmother, a professional dressmaker for 65 years and my fondest memories are sitting next to her, watching her on a sewing machine repairing, making and altering clothes. Everything in our home was re-use, repair, recycle. The concept of circularity was deeply rooted in our mindset.”
Not that it led her to enter fashion as a career. Instead she worked in sales and tech: “I was working in a number of different technology start-ups, anchored by this idea of how we can use technology to bring people together who are in need of one another's specialist skills.
“I moved back to London in 2019. My Nan wasn't living in the city, and I needed someone to tailor my clothes, but found it difficult to find somebody with the specialist skills I needed.”
With a choice between a high street dry cleaner or a Savile Row-type, ultra-expensive bespoke tailor, she couldn’t find just what she was looking for. “Neither of them was what I was after, neither offered that experience I wanted to help me love my clothes,” she explained.
Cue one very big light bulb moment.
“I realised the industry needed a seismic reinvention and I conceptualised The Seam as a very simple two-sided marketplace. It digitises the traditional tailoring experience using a very smart matchmaking technology and a vast network of independent specialist makers.”
“My background helped me in understanding how that matchmaking tech should work, how to start growing the community and how to balance that supply and demand with the marketplace business model.”
That said, she was running another business she’d founded in the world of mental health (helping fast-growth technology companies to better support their staff), was very busy "and thought The Seam would be a weekend project.”
But printing simple flyers asking “can you sew?” and posting them round East London meant that within a few months “I had 300 people signed up to a website that didn't yet exist!”
The experts she met impressed her and were key to her deciding to devote her full attention to the business.
CUSTOMERS AND PARTNERS
Of course, the key to building a business of this type is finding clients and the company has done this by operating its own DTC online business as well as forging white label partnerships with brands and retailers.
“We work with monobrand and multibrand retailers who are dedicated to introducing care & repair and have customised The Seam booking journey to allow their customers to book in a very personalised experience,” Sargent said.
Those companies are also a crucial part of the marketing programme that gets the news about The Seam and the repair potential out there.
For instance, it has “a long list of white label partnerships launching over the next few months” and one — as yet under wraps — coming up that’s “a high street retailer which will be promoting it in their stores.”
Similarly, the YNAP link-up this year has seen The Seam being heavily promoted in publicity material for the launches.
And it goes beyond mere repairs. Sargent sees such partnerships as very important for the firms and individual consumers she works with who are thinking resale.
“We see care & repair as the lynchpin to the wider circularity model. Businesses like rental and resale are inherently limited without such services,” she explained, stressing that for-rent and resale items have to be in the best possible condition.
PRICE BARRIERS AND SUSTAINABILITY
Sargent sees limits to how far companies can move in care & repair based on their price level with her experience showing that there’s a price point at which consumers won’t view an item as worth repairing.
“If there’s value for something, even sentimental value, the money does’t come into it. But the usual cut-off point is around £85. We found anything you can buy for less than that, unless there's a special reason, people won't deem worthy of being repaired.”
That said, she’s also noticed that the price barrier is coming down so we should’t write off cheaper fashion just yet in this space — good news for fast-fashion firms aiming to boost their sustainability credentials and move away from the ‘buy it, wear it, bin it’ mentality of not that many years ago.
Consumers “are becoming more aware of how they can make positive change,” Sargent said, as part of the explanation for growth in the repair arena across the price spectrum.
Yet she also feels that the sustainability element of care & repair isn’t always the first priority, at least for the consumers using such services.
The YNAP link-up may add to its vision for a more circular future, but she said many people aren’t thinking about circularity.
“There are a number of reasons why people are repairing and altering their clothes. As much as the sustainability narrative is celebrated by our brand partners, we also find our customers are repairing their clothes because they really really love their items, and they want to keep them for longer.”
So sustainability and consumer interest are factors in the fast growth repair services are seeing. But the key element is improved accessibility via businesses such as The Seam.
“Trying to find somebody to offer invisible repairs on a very fine-knit woollen jumper 12 months ago was almost impossible,” Sargent explained. “Yet our most booked service every year has been invisible mending. The demand grows exponentially every year.”
This creates a problem for the business — that of finding enough skilled makers. “We haven’t got enough invisible menders, we had to build our own training course for makers who want to learn the skills. It’s a very unique skill,” she said.
“That education piece has been huge for us. But being able to work with specialists rather than generalists is important. The volume of demand is only growing, yet while we provide work at the moment for around 140 makers, we have a waitlist of about 3,000!”
That huge waitlist is a consequence of the rigorous onboarding and quality control programme for The Seam’s maker community. But its reputation for providing specialist experts and its local and decentralised focus are vital parts of its USP.
Those expert makers work independently across the country and the firm’s technology “will call on them as and when their skills are required and carefully match them to customers based on their skill set and their location. It means there's no cross-country logistics and as a customer you're working directly with a maker in your neighbourhood,” Sargent stressed.
“You know you’re working with the maker who has the specialist skills you need. If you have a suede jacket you only work with one who understands suede, who has the tools and experience needed. Having them spread across the country allows us to offer in-person visits. This is very important for our customers. It’s important to have this people-first approach. Customers have one-to-one communication and can discuss different option for their item and build connectivity. That’s the bedrock for sustainability.”
THE DATA ASPECT
Importantly too, The Seam’s relationship with those customers is a key source of data for it and for the partners it works with.
Sargent — with her technology background — is quite animated when she talks about this.
“We’re feeding back to brands and retailers,” she explained. “Their expectations are very high, and it's forced us to focus on areas that are going to be beneficial to us and to the industry and our partners.
“This is where I get really excited being able to feed back into brands information insights on which garments are being repaired, which garments are being altered, which zippers are breaking, which trousers are consistently too long, and being able to feed that back on a monthly basis is pretty exciting.”
So there you have it. If anyone tries to tell you that invisible mending or repairing clothes is an old-fashioned, dying skill, just quote Layla Sargent at them and mention data!
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