HKRITA CEO Edwin Keh showcases competition suits designed for the Hong Kong rowing team

HKRITA CEO Edwin Keh showcases competition suits designed for the Hong Kong rowing team

China's rise over the past two decades as the leading location for apparel sourcing has had a knock-on effect on neighbouring Hong Kong, shifting its role from that of a manufacturer to a servicing and sourcing hub. And its competitive advantage going forward is likely to lie in innovation, industry executives suggest.

"In the 70s and 80s, Hong Kong dominated the global textile and apparel industry because we were the most cost-effective producer in the world," says Edwin Keh, CEO at the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA).

"In the 80s and 90s we dominated because we had the best quality and the most reliable service in the world; in the 90s and over the last 10 years we continued to dominate the industry by providing end-to-end solutions. We can work with designers, we can work with global supply chains, we can work with logistics to ensure that we deliver our products," he told delegates at the opening of the ‘Innovation and Technology Symposium’ organised by HKRITA last month.

The follow-up question, of course is what next? His answer: "Our belief is that innovation has to be a critical piece of that competitive advantage of Hong Kong."

Dr Harry Lee, SBS, JP, chairman of TAL Apparel Group and chairman of HKRITA, also acknowledges that for Hong Kong’s textile and apparel industry to retain its cutting edge, "we need to sharpen our gears with innovative ideas and the latest technology."

Taking ‘The competitive advantage of innovation’ as its theme, the symposium brought together over 400 industry leaders, officials and academics across a series of interactive discussions looking at new approaches to research and development, and the importance of new business models.

It also provided a platform for HKRITA to showcase some of its cutting-edge work, which includes a Fabric Touch Tester (FTT), a new hand feel testing system that takes the guesswork out of establishing fabric hand feel; and an Imaging Color Measuring System (ICM), a digital colour matching system that will be commercialised next year.

Among its 30-40 other projects are nano-encapsulation systems to add functionality to fabrics, self-cleaning fabrics, intelligent QC systems, and production tracking systems. Keh told just-style that the initiative generating the most interest and excitement "is our soon-to-be-finished project to make fibre out of food waste and other landfill materials."

Also ongoing is a high performance sportswear project to design the competition suits for the Hong Kong rowing team, who won gold and silver medals at the Asian Games and are now gearing up for the Olympics next year.

And positioning the research institute for the future, three new international collaboration partnerships with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the University of Oregon, and Wuhan Textile University, will extend its research capabilities through joint activities in areas like fibre optimisation, sports management and high-performance sportswear development.

The keys to successful innovation

Fittingly, Dr David Ireland, general manager (innovation systems) at CSIRO, Australia’s national research group, was one of the day’s keynote speakers. His advice is that there are three key pillars to successful innovation: passion, preparation and collaboration.

"These three components are consistent around the world, and you want to get the right mix to do successful innovation," he said, adding: "The challenges are so big and so complex that no single organisation can do it alone."

One emerging area of innovation for the textile and clothing industry is smart textiles and wearable electronics, where "the challenges and opportunities are equally great," according to Prof Xiao-Ming Tao, chair professor of textile technology at the Institute of Textiles and Clothing at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Some of the applications she outlined include transforming traditional textiles into antennae for power harvesting; using textiles to power electronic devices; 3D knitted circuit boards that are highly stretchable, permeable, durable and washable and can be worn for several months at a time; and fabric pressure sensors that can measure the pressure with which an object is held, for example.

"But there are still a lot of things that need to be done in a laboratory before they [can be] reliably applied," Professor Tao explained.

She also noted that while it is "very easy for researchers and developers to think about available technology," more often than not this is also very expensive. Instead, "cost-effective and reliable manufacturing processes are a must," if ideas are to become commercially viable.

A multidisciplinary team is also key, which again puts the emphasis on collaboration. "You also need system integration; people do not just work at a device or a material level, you need to put them together, then critically look at the problems. This is the only way you can get something workable."

When it comes to commercialising these new technologies, alternative routes also need to be explored. "When a new technology goes into an existing company this route is very difficult and very long, because people have a target to meet and a well-set timeframe. Maybe small and new companies can integrate the whole thing [instead] and take the challenge ahead, rather than a big company with many orders to fill."

Universities also have a major role to play, not least because smart textiles and wearable electronics is such a new discipline "that there are no such trained people before us. We have to train the right people for this industry.

"Also, these people need to adapt to the culture of multi-disciplinary work, rather than single-disciplinary. Before, universities produced people in electronic engineering, textile engineering or apparel technologists, [but] they divide their domains too clearly. In the future we need new multi-disciplinary training and maybe, initially, at post-graduate level."

Bespoke innovation

In common with many western garment industries, another challenge facing Hong Kong as manufacturing has migrated to lower cost centres elsewhere has been the loss of skilled clothing jobs and workers.

But for investor and venture capitalist Jong Lee, this has provided the basis for a new bespoke tailoring business.

His company Bonham Strand Limited is a social enterprise that works with traditional master tailors and seamstresses to create bespoke men’s suits, 100% made in Hong Kong using fine Italian fabrics from the likes of Loro Piana and Zegna. It also provides apprentice opportunities for young people overcoming addiction problems.

But Lee is quick to dismiss any notion that the business is a charity. "First and foremost it’s about a quality product and whether or not you’re competitive and can differentiate yourself from the market. It’s a social enterprise, a hybrid concept bringing together the best of a number of worlds. Great product, we believe, is made by great people and a great team."

The company’s mission is to revive the bespoke tailoring industry in Hong Kong – where the number of tailors has fallen from over 50,000 to "a few thousand" – as well as nurture a new generation of artisans, and create real, living-wage, stable and long-term skilled employment opportunities for communities in distress.

Lee believes this direction also tallies with the clothing industry’s need for smarter business models, and that "made to order and made to measure is the new mainstream for the suits business. Everything’s come back to the human revolution."

By this he means that "right now we are at the end and at the beginning of two eras: we’re at the end of the industrial revolution, where it was all about scale, disintermediation and commoditisation. We’re at the beginning of the human revolution, where it’s all about the market of one – the individual."

He also suggests that Zara’s fast fashion model is now "a 20-year old phenomenon," but has imparted some important lessons.

"What did we learn as a smart tailoring company from fast fashion? Short lead-time is better; you don’t have to make one-year bets on what’s going to be popular next summer. Lower quantities mean scarcity and less inventory risk. More styles equal a higher hit rate.

"They’re very fast, they’re very efficient, they’re very modern in their analysis and the tools that they use to win. These winners do not rely on the lowest wages; they are able to succeed and make profit by being very mindful of their environmental obligations. It’s not just about price; they are smarter and they are faster.

"They’re also demonstrating that long, winding global supply chains are a liability...and when the boat’s still on the Pacific Ocean, what’s popular has just changed."

Is custom fashion, like that pushed by Bonham Strand, even better? "Lead times are as fast – if not faster – than fast fashion; there’s zero inventory risk; there’s far less real estate exposure, which is important in a place like Hong Kong; the choices are truly infinite and they’re bespoke; you have as much production control as you’d like."

The business is also by definition future friendly, environmentally responsible, and local production friendly. "But at the same time our challenge is to embrace technology and the supply chain without alienating our most important asset: human capital."

Bonham Strand is also working on a project with HKRITA to redesign the fit and tailoring of men’s suits, and include new, smarter materials that will resist stains, wrinkle less and offer better functionality.

Innovate or die?

Summing up the sessions, HKRITA’s Edwin Keh asked: "Are we at the point today in which we innovate or die? Are we at a point in this industry in which we have to think differently? Is this the point in which we stop talking about a labour-intensive, low tech industry and begin to talk about a knowledge based, technology based, innovation based business?

"If we’re not there today, we’re probably close. And it is this tipping point that should really capture all of our imaginations."

He added: "I think we’re at the beginning of the renaissance of the new business of textile and apparel in Hong Kong."