FashLab – fast, fair fashion from Estonia

Estonian entrepreneur Mari Martin, founder of Tallinn Dolls, a playful designer brand, wants to speed up the fashion industry, bringing clothes from concept to shelves in the shortest time ever – her new startup, FashLab, has plans to disrupt the way global fashion works; she sat down with Estonian World to talk about her experience and how she sees the future of fashion.

The term “depeche mode” or “fast fashion” has been around for years – long before the British band of the same name popularised it, but there is a growing number of people who believe the fashion industry does not act fast enough. Mari Martin, an Estonian entrepreneur and experienced fashion designer, sees this as a problem, and has created a new startup, FashLab, to push the business of making and selling clothing into the 21st century. Fashion tech is also one of the focuses of Enterprise Estonia, the Estonian government’s enterprise agency, as it is an example of an industry that could benefit from increased digitalisation.

Compressing fashion cycle to one month

FashLab takes the usual two-year fashion cycle from trend to retail and compresses it to an average of one month, using processes that allow garments to be designed entirely online using the company’s own software. It’s a true innovation in a space dominated by a few designer labels. As Martin explains, there are many small and medium-sized fashion labels, but the largest players are protected by the system that has been built around them.

As fashion-tech is an example of bringing digital transformation to a long-standing industry, it is one of the focuses for Estonia – one of the reasons why Enterprise Estonia is supporting FashLab. A little like Tesla and Uber in the automotive and ridesharing industries, Martin believes FashLab will disrupt the staid fashion industry.

“It’s a very traditional industry,” she says, “even though an outsider could focus on that constant creativity, everything behind the creativity is very old-school, and I think it’s been like that for centuries – nothing has changed. They teach people the length of the fashion cycle in schools. If you don’t question why it is like that, you take it as default.”

Mari Martin.

FashLab aims to challenge that default, bringing products to market, with enterprises of any size, as quickly as Zara, Uniqlo or H&M can, and in a manner that saves on precious resources, cutting down on waste at all stages of the design and manufacturing process. It does this by creating 3D models of garments on its program, the shapes and patterns of which are endlessly customisable. When a design has been finalised, the manufacturing process begins.

Disrupting fashion industry

Martin is best known for her Estonian-based label Tallinn Dolls, which this year celebrated its 10th anniversary. Tallinn Dolls began with Martin taking full charge of all parts of the process, from design to sales, but now employs 14 people in design, production and retail. The label is renowned for its playful-yet-powerful aesthetic, with each new season bringing an innovative twist on what came before.

Beginning hosting friends’ designs at fashion markets in Pärnu in the late 2000s, Martin built up a loyal customer base for her own designs and her friends, eventually taking Tallinn Dolls to shopping centres, along the way creating some of the first pop-up shops in Estonia for any local fashion label. Contracts were long-term with shopping centres, bringing additional security, and from this, Martin was able to take the first early steps towards securing Tallinn Dolls’ future, while building up its offering to customers.

Mari Martin (in the middle) with women wearing clothes by Tallinn Dolls.

Martin’s experience with Tallinn Dolls, which was one of the first homegrown Estonian fashion brands, has taught her how to position a company in a marketplace dominated by big players, and be successful. She has drawn upon this experience for FashLab.

Another thing makes Martin well suited to the world of tech startups is her willingness to be an all-rounder and take charge of all aspects of a fledgling company. “Things are done so differently in countries like the UK compared with Estonia. In other countries, people often specialise, but I’m like a decathlete – I’ve done work in the factory, marketing, sales, finance, marketing, now I’m in IT… everything!”

“There were things where, years ago, I thought, ‘there are people who know better than me, so I’ll leave that to them,’ but then I realised, nobody’s doing anything about that problem – it has to be me, then!”

“I realised that the fashion cycle is crazily long. There are agencies who are trying to figure out trends three years in advance. You have to pay these agencies to predict the trends. I would like to have this job, actually – to predict the trends – but I would never want to hire somebody to do that,” she says. “If you try to predict trends two years in advance, investments are naturally risky, because you can’t predict accurately two years in advance what people are going to want. You can’t predict trends, you can’t predict the economic situation, you can’t predict anything.”

FashLab takes this uncertainty out of the equation. “We have a one-month cycle. We offer a new product every week, at least three times a week. We can create a design on-screen in one minute, and then the garment is with the customer, on average, in one month,” Martin explains.

Fashtech startup

It’s an ambitious aim, but in spite of this, Martin took the decision on starting FashLab to completely self-invest in the new business, rather than seek seed or angel funding early-on. “It’s an alternative approach, and it’s been quite a struggle at times, because our budgets have been quite limited, but it’s focused us.”

“I really want to make sure we can move forward as our own company. I felt, as well, coming from the fashion industry, that not many people in the tech world took me super-seriously to begin with, so I wanted to prove a point, and test myself and see if I could make it in the startup world. I feel that I can.”

Mari Martin.

Martin has warm words, too, for Kristel Kruustük, the founder of Testlio; Kaidi Ruusalepp, the founder of Funderbeam; and Karoli Hindriks, the founder of Jobbatical – inspirational entrepreneurs who have blazed a trail for women in Estonia who aspire to run their own businesses. “I admire them very much – Kristel and Karoli are really close friends and good advisors. We discuss a lot, and they’re really encouraging and inspiring for me.”

Whatever encouragement and inspiration she gets from the founders of established success stories, Martin has a unique idea, that might just make big changes in one of the business world’s most conservative industries.

Cover: Mari Martin.

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