Gendry Morales | Merging Fashion & Technology and her collaboration with A.BCH
WORDS BY LISA KJERULF
With the rise of technology, it's becoming inevitable that it will soon, if not already, become a vital component to the future of fashion. Industry-specific incubators and accelerators such as the New York Fashion Tech Lab and Silicon Vally's Fashion Tech Accelerator are beginning to pop up and Melbourne now also has a new Fashion Tech tribe beginning to form meetups. That's how I met Gendry Morales, a leader and a change agent with an expertise in blockchain technology, an eye for fashion and an uncompromising connection to the planet's wellbeing.
We caught up over coffee and I got the scoop on what's happening in the fashion tech world, what it could mean for the sustainable health of the fashion industry and what she's up to with A.BCH.
Tell me a bit about your background in both tech and fashion...
Well growing up I was always into maths, science and physics in particular. I was that nerd chick in school who actually wanted to get into astrophysics and be an astronaut. But as it happened I went into computer science which was also challenging and intellectual. It was a whole new world for me, but I was able to merge my strengths in maths, technology and physics. So my love for technology grew from there and when I started my career 20 years ago as a back-end developer the technology was very much about integrating all kinds of systems together. I was actually one of these “strange” people that also enjoyed sitting next to the users. It influenced how I did my coding by thinking about how the product worked for the people using it and ended up discovering massive alignment gaps between the coding and how people were actually using the product and what they really wanted. It was in this space that I started to develop broad, but also really in depth tech skills that extended between the motive and human world. Over time I moved from just doing software engineering and development to various leadership roles within the tech industry and beyond in the financial corporate world managing multimillion dollar portfolios and budgets. So thats my tech background in a nutshell.
My special relationship with fashion began with my mother. She was the one who studied fashion design and growing up I remember drawing the designs with her and the process of going to get the fabrics and feeling the different textures, how they hung, their colour and how it worked for the outfit. It was original and something that was suited just for me based on the occasion or how I was feeling at the time. For me, fashion involves a lot of expression. We would giggle during the process of making the patterns to fit my body shape as it’s a bit different (like everyone) to the mainstream shapes. I have a shorter torso and we always catered for that through the design process. That was the beauty of the craft around made-to-measure clothing. It’s so special because it’s totally made just for you, how you are and what you want to express. That was my foundation and relationship with fashion.
I never thought that much about mixing tech and fashion together until many years later when I started to understand the impact of fashion with the rise rise of fast fashion. I didn't know a lot of people in fashion, but I started to get curious about where these textiles were coming from. Living out in the country, I was already beginning to gain a deeper understanding for the full cycle of sustainable farming beginning with the heirloom seeds. When you start getting in touch with that you really see the beauty of the full circle of life that happens in nature and how it works. So when I started thinking about the sprays and the pesticides and genetically modified seeds it was a lot for me to unpack. It’s one of those topics where the more you research, the more it opens your eyes to how dysfunctional it is and how it ruins these laws of nature that have been in place for so long. It just feels wrong, like, wow, you’re just cutting off this entire joyous part of growing your own things. I really started to think, where does the cotton in our clothing come from?
"I wanted to find a way to use my understanding of technology to find a solution that would bring the craft back to fashion and with it individual expression. It’s important for people to feel confident about their look while still adhering to the rules of nature rather than corroding this beautiful planet that we have.
- Gendry Morales (Image | A.BCH)
So that’s where sustainable farming, fashion and technology started to intersect for me. I wanted to find a way to use my understanding of technology to find a solution that would bring the craft back to fashion and with it individual expression. It’s important for people to feel confident about their look while still adhering to the rules of nature rather than corroding this beautiful planet that we have.
How did you start working with blockchain and what’s the best way to describe it to the world of fashion?
I like talking to people outside of the blockchain world about blockchain because they have a really different perspective on what it really is. I’ve heard the response... “oh so blockchain is like your life, as in your history is there forever and you can’t take it away.” I like that because I do feel that the reason a lot of technologists are very excited about blockchain is because it does mimic what happens in nature. We now have a technology that is immutable, which is just another fancy way of saying it’s like your life. Things are happening and you can’t reverse time and go and change them and you can’t modify on the fly even if we would like to. We can’t undo things that are on the blockchain.
There is a lot of detail for why we have a technology like that, but how does it even mean anything in the real world? Well, I think that it allows us to reflect on our past. It’s like time travelling back to different memories and times when certain things happened. So with the blockchain the stories about where the garment came from, for example, becomes something really powerful because we know that we are telling the story based on what actually happened. We know that it hasn’t been tampered with or changed. This is where it all starts to come to life.
It definitely brings some realness to it doesn’t it!
Yes and it essentially means that all the records can be openly distributed with no central control system that can modify or change it. That is some of the power and the challenge. Why I’m really interested in it is because in fashion there is a lot of data around brands and the bigger they get the more data they have containing info on their supply chain. They have quite a lot of ownership of this and are capable of getting insights into how they could do things differently. With the blockchain, however, we are essentially creating a database layer for the entire planet. So, what if, instead of it being bounded by what Zara knows or an online store like the Iconic knows, everyone could have access to that info and everyone could derive different insights with the ability to mix parts of the supply chain? We could find much more clever ways of doing what we already do today.
What I get the most excited about is we’d actually probably find a lot more clever ways of solving problems while also helping customers with what they really want out of fashion in the first place. How could we solve that in an entirely different way? It’s that level of transparency and ability to use the insights that shapes the beginning of a really interesting opportunity for us, while also starting to create a culture of cooperation rather than ‘how do i make my catch better than yours’ in competition. All we are trying to achieve with these digital transformations is how do we orchestrate that level of collaboration and cooperation at that scale by making things a lot more transparent for people while working together across all these different organizational silos and still centered around real customer needs.
Can you tell me a bit about the current project that you are working on at the moment with A.BCH to bring this technology to life in fashion?
A lot of things start from unusual places. Sometimes it seems like a detour, but it ends up more like a short cut. It all started with an experiment I’ve been doing around CryptoCats and a few of our CryptoCat owners were asking for merchandise such as t-shirts and I thought, really?! The last thing I want to do is create more unnecessary product that gets produced! It would just transform into all the things I stand against. I was conflicted between that, the opportunity to promote and listening to my users. But then I thought, what if I used this to educate people in the blockchain community about supply chain transparency in fashion?
I thought (laughing), why can't I just be normal and do it like everyone else? It’s sooo hard to find those who have that level of supply chain transparency that would be happy with. I found a few labels that came close, but then really tuned into the level of marketing they used to showcase one part of their supply chain that is so good while the rest of it was riddled with all of the same problems. It wasn’t good enough to make a point. I thought, if I’m doing this I have to go all the way. I wanted a local designer who is the best in order to also prototype what supply chain transparency looks like. I finally found Courtney the founder of A.BCH. A designer who has really taken the time to get to that depth of where all the components of her garments come from. She was hard to find, but I knew straight away that she was the right person to collaborate with and be that poster person.
While working with Courtney, I asked her if she had ever heard of blockchain and she had! A group in the UK called Provenance has actually started out very early prototyping of how the product stories that Courtney has on her product could look on the blockchain. It’s definitely interesting and has created a lot of attention, but it hasn’t really solved a customer problem. The product stories are already on her site, so there is no real advantage to it being on the blockchain. I’m not into gimmicky things and she is really practical as well, so while there is definitely something to explore here, I don't think the path that Provenance went down is the path that we should go down. We know that it would be fantastic to have everyone in the supply chain on board with blockchain and it’s a great utopian mindset to have when you’re getting through the day-to-day challenges, but we won’t get there if we don’t first set a path that solves real world challenges for the industry and consumers today.
At the moment we’ve got a few ideas and I'm working with my team on how we can mix different concepts we’ve seen in the blockchain space and apply that to what Courtney is doing. I've recently launched Flight Plan, which is a blockchain tool that will allow people to easily prototype decentralised application ideas on the blockchain. This is what I will be using to help find solutions in the fashion tech space, as it will speed up the development and allow us to test lots of concepts quickly. This technology is leveraging what we built with the CryptoCats.
That’s the space where we are just starting to hack around the edges. What is the market ready for right now? How can we free up the the designer’s time by finding a way to contribute data to the blockchain as a collective? I really feel for Courtney because she is one of those people trying to do the right thing and it requires her to work a lot harder. I don’t want to take up more of her time, I just want to develop this stuff for her.
I want to hack away at how can we do something that makes sense in fashion. Maybe that means taking a little of this great interest in blockchain at the moment and using that as a starting point for some meaningful adoption of the technology in this massive industry that is so dysfunctional today. The only way to get to the big dream is by hacking away at the edges and finding something that will break open the opportunity to do it.
As an expert behind tech, how do you envision this progressing the fashion industry in the future?
I’m not an expert, but do see fashion’s new place is instagram. There is a lot of fashion data in photographs and it means a new way to grab info. This morning I was like, what’s the weather and what should I wear? Technology can solve those problems easily if we can get the data in a more structured way without silos around certain organizations holding that data for themselves as a competitive advantage. If we can find a way to share it I think independent designers would be back on the table and it would make it a lot easier to find them as a consumer. Even old fashion services such as tailoring, things that are very hard for a consumer to figure out how to access, can be brought to life a bit more as well as all of the designers who are more supportive of circular fashion.
I think there is a barrier today around how fashion is digitalized. Once we are able create more structure around the data out there, I feel there could be a fundamental shift in how consumers interact with fashion - one that would look nothing like what the fashion industry looks like today. It could even be the evolution of stylists and curators playing a really active role in helping people navigate designers and new labels and how we put outfits together in our wardrobe. So that’s where my mind is heading with how the future of fashion looks!
It has taken a while for the fashion industry to catch up with what is happening in the tech world. What advice would you give to bridge the gap?
What I didn't realize until late last year is there are a lot of people in technology that are interested in fashion but just don't know how to navigate it. I'm not yet sure if there are many people in fashion who are interested in tech yet. However, if we think about a university like RMIT, we know there is a computer science department and there is obviously a fashion school, and if you try to put those groups together it’s difficult at first because they don’t speak the same language. They have a hard time connecting with empathy for eachother’s disciplines and how they could work together. I think bringing those once-thought-of opposites together is a very powerful way to start incubating ideas. Technology has now reached a stage where it’s easy to prototype things quickly and that’s where I think things can start happening quickly. It’s one of the reasons we created the Fashion Tech Meetup. We wanted to find all the people interested from both sides and it’s taken off without us doing much, which says to me that it’s actually a popular topic! There is a definitely an interest and people are just trying to figure out how to navigate it.