The word “innovation” is bandied about freely, but how can fashion firms build it into their daily operations? Drapers takes a tour of Speedo’s facility Aqualab to find out.
Innovation labs have become the norm in fashion retail over the past few years – John Lewis, Shop Direct, Farfetch and River Island are among those to have invested in technology start-up incubators, in-house user experience teams and dedicated digital collaboration spaces.
But for Pentland Brands-owned swimwear brand Speedo, innovation hubs are nothing new: it launched its research and development facility Aqualab in Nottingham in 2004. Today, it continues to stay ahead of the game, using new materials and technology such as 3D printing to ensure it is maximising on product performance.
Alex McIntosh, course leader for the Fashion Futures MA at London College of Fashion, stresses how important it is for fashion brands to have dedicated innovation teams.
“Particularly in the sportswear market, innovation is what that customer is looking for – they want to enhance their performance and they buy into that idea,” he says. ”Innovation is one of the most critical sales tools that we now have. Customers don’t need a huge amount of new product in their lives, so brands need to deliver something that appears to be new.”
Aqualab was born out of a marketing initiative. The aim was to create the world’s fastest swimwear for all competitive swimmers, from Olympians to club and county swimmers. However, it proved so successful that it now informs the entire company’s strategy.
The 11-strong Aqualab team is made up of a mix of roles, including garment engineering, material scientists, engineers and product designers, and is led by Tim Sharpe, innovation director at Pentland Brands. Having a dedicated team allows Speedo to build a network of specialist contacts, such as bio-mechanics and scientists from local universities.
Sports science is constantly changing, but what we do has to also work for the customer
Ben Hardman, Speedo product engineering manager
McIntosh highlights the important of having a mix of roles within an innovation team: “A lot of conversation around innovation can be quite ’surface’, but some bigger brands, including Speedo, think systematically about innovation and know they need people who understand the complete lifestyle of the product.”
Speedo has always prided itself on pushing boundaries. The business started life in Australia in 1914 as an underwear brand called Fortitude, which was produced in founder Alexander MacRae’s knitting factory. In 1928, Fortitude ventured into swimwear and launched the world’s first non-wool swimsuit in the figure-hugging “racerback” style – and the brand was renamed Speedo.
The racerback style was seen as controversial at the time because of the amount of skin exposed, but it allowed for greater range of movement and improved performance. In 1932, Australian swimmer Clare Dennis won gold in the 200-metre breaststroke at the Olympics in Los Angeles wearing a Speedo swimsuit.
As Speedo’s innovation manager Rachel Webley concludes: “Speedo has never been scared to embrace shape and form.”
Today, it is still a firm favourite among Olympic swimmers, including the most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps. Product innovation has continued throughout the years, moving all the way from woollen suits to a high-neck racerback suit knitted with chevrons in 1996. In 2000, it produced its Fastskin line of high-tech swimsuits, which had a riblet structure inspired by the skin of a shark – the sandpaper-like texture was thought to reduce drag.
Speedo has never been scared to embrace shape and form
Rachel Webley, Speedo innovation manager
In 2008, the brand made a landmark move away from knitted suits to a light, tight-woven construction known as paper suits, with rubber panels. Around nine out of 10 (89%) medal winners at the 2008 Beijing Olympics were wearing Speedo. However, the introduction of new regulations from FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation, the international governing body of swimming) in 2009 meant that Speedo had to go back to the drawing board, as rubber panels and fastening mechanisms were no longer allowed. Undeterred, Speedo introduced stability seams, a network of connections in the suit mimicking the muscles in the body. Areas of compression within the suit reminded the swimmer to adopt the correct posture.
Each new incarnation of the swimsuit is initially aimed at competitive swimmers, but Speedo uses its research findings to improve all product selections, sorted internally into three groups: “Fit” for the fitness customer, “Sculpture” for the female health and well-being-focused customer and “Mainline” for a fashion-led customer. The non-competitive categories use more tactile fabrics such as Lycra and Endurance, a polybutylene terephthalate-based material exclusive to Speedo, which it claims lasts longer in the water and reduces the effects of chlorine degradation.
“Sports science is constantly changing, but what we do has to also work for the customer,” points out Ben Hardman, product engineering manager at Speedo. “We spend time with swimming coaches, psychologists and the swimmers themselves.”
Aqualab is split into two halves: innovation and engineering. The innovation team is at the front end of the process, constantly discovering new technologies, new materials and new techniques through their network and by spotting new consumer needs.
People are looking at what fashion product can be, other than just a garment
Alex McIntosh, course leader for the Fashion Futures MA at London College of Fashion
The engineering team, meanwhile, measures bubbles of water and tests materials for absorbency, among other things.
“It’s a balance of science and human need,” adds Hardman.
More recently, Speedo has started using a 3D-printing machine, and technology that bonds and welds materials together to produce seamless garments. As a result, it can make 90% of all prototypes in-house, allowing it to test at a much quicker pace. Within one day, the Speedo design team can mock up a new print onto stretch fabric, and goggles can be produced on the 3D printer within four hours.
As McIntosh highlights: “We can’t live in a world with massive leaps in technology and not see it applied in a product concept. People are looking at what fashion product can be, other than just a garment.”
This innovation has kept Speedo at the top of its game for many years. Its implementation of new materials, technologies and designs across technical product to consumer suits means it remains popular with professional swimmers as well as those looking for a well-made, durable holiday swimsuit. Speedo shows how brands can integrate innovation into the overall business strategy and ensure it remains part of everything they do.