Innovating the apparel industry

January 19, 2021

Regardless of a diversifying export basket, apparel has remained Sri Lanka’s top export product for decades, with Sri Lanka being able to achieve $ 3.73 billion in apparel exports last year (not counting December figures), even amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. The country’s apparel industry employs 350,000 workers, which suggests it employs about 15% of the country’s workforce.

The industry has a number of key players, among which is MAS Holdings (Pvt.) Ltd. Headquartered in Colombo, MAS Holdings is claimed to be South Asia’s largest manufacturer of lingerie. Begun as an intimate apparel manufacturer, the company has today diversified into sportswear, performance wear, and swimwear. It also has a number of subsidiaries, including MAS Fabric Park (Pvt.) Ltd., Ultimo Brands International Ltd., MAS Intimates Ltd., and MAS Capital (Pvt.) Ltd., while Twinery – Innovations by MAS is the innovation arm of MAS Holdings.

Twinery was recently recognised by the South and South East Asia Innovation Awards, organised by Clarivate PLC. Twinery, or MAS, is the first apparel manufacturing entity to receive this recognition, which is also the first time a Sri Lankan entity has won such an award. In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Morning Business, the team behind this achievement discussed their success story and what Twinery Innovation does.

Twinery is known as the central innovation arm of MAS. The innovations manufactured and conceptualised by Twinery are claimed to be created for the betterment of communities, people and the environment in the process of innovating and creating intellectual property. “So when we say when we do innovation, why we do it is that we want to make human life better, and we want to make this planet a better place to live,” commented MAS Director of Technology Innovation Sithila Dassanayake.

Moreover, Twinery’s innovation involves small incremental improvements, or leap-frog revolution innovations, which involve analysing product and technology innovations to determine whether business models can be enabled. Furthermore, longterm innovations are examined and planned mostly for the core business, MAS, as well as for its adjacencies.

Adjacency expansion in organisations moves into related segments or businesses that utilise, and usually reinforce, the strength of the firm’s profitable core. MAS defines adjacencies as being “one degree away” from their core business today, and it requires going into different sectors. These expansions develop from Twinery, and it involves innovative concepts that create a mutual interest between Twinery and these adjacencies to collaborate on new intellectual properties and innovative products.

As the top export industry in Sri Lanka, the impact of different products that apparel brands sell could be considered highly influential. Innovation is known to be a key aspect in differentiating a brand from others and creating a unique space in the industry for the brand itself whilst stimulating consumer curiosity and expanding the product portfolio for consumers to freely choose from. Moreover, an interesting question would be how innovation occurs in the apparel industry, and the extent of influence by MAS products and services on this industry.

According to MAS, there are two ways that innovation can impact the apparel industry. The first way is collecting data and understanding the existing needs and wants of the consumer, where the consumer makes the market aware of their needs and wants. In this short-term factor, brands in the market collect data on consumer needs and wants, and recognise the demand for a certain product, leading them to innovate and release an innovative product to the consumer. The second way involves more of a long-term factor, where future or existing consumer demand is recognised in advance so that the brand can prepare for these consumer demands when they arise.

“There might be needs that people can’t express. So in that sense, in our industry we also have to do some stuff earlier than when a consumer or a customer comes to us and tells us ‘I have this need’. Even in the apparel industry, that’s where innovations mostly stem from – the need. However, there are no apparent needs we can work towards today that we can satisfy when the need comes. It’s like, we don’t start going grocery shopping when the kids ask for dinner, right? You have to prepare for that, so when the need comes, you can serve it,” explained Sithila Dassanayake.

On the other hand, there is also a positive relationship between innovation, the apparel industry, and the country. This is apparent as Sri Lanka’s apparel industry involves approximately 7% of our GDP and employs multiple people, directly and indirectly. Innovation supports brands in getting more recognition and revenue – and a greater revenue and better products exported benefit the economy greatly.

The first benefit would be the fact that employees receive a higher disposable income and would not face any issues relating to their salaries due to the brand’s success. This would encourage more spending and increase consumer purchasing power, increasing the supply of cash in the economy. The other benefit involves the instance where innovative products are exported, increasing international exposure for the brand and the country itself.

As the leading brand in the apparel industry, MAS plays an influential part in the positive relationship between innovation and the apparel industry. “With MAS being an innovative company within Sri Lanka, it enables us to look at getting more customers to come in, which leads to greater volume, which leads us to be able to invest more in innovation, in infrastructure, and in machinery. It allows to pick the game up, so overall it’s a cycle: if we don’t have innovative products, the customers won’t come; when the customers don’t come, we don’t have volume; when the volume doesn’t come, we don’t have investment; and so on. It’s a positive cycle, I think, that is happening now in Sri Lanka, and is probably the strongest industry in the country in terms of exports,” commented MAS Director Product Development and Design Vivek Ramachandani.

MAS officially initiated this innovation system in 2014, as opposed to the MAS innovations prior to this which was seen as less structured and developed in comparison. With their technology and creative teams, MAS has innovated for a series of years that aided in getting them recognition locally and internationally. As of January 2021, MAS was highlighted at the South and Southeast Asia Innovation Awards for the brand’s performance despite the challenges posed by Covid-19. The brand credited its performance to the creative and hardworking teams in Twinery and in the core company, as well as the adjacencies involved in development, and finally by highlighting the importance of innovation.

Moreover, MAS mentioned how the brand achieved the award during a global pandemic, highlighting the positive aspects that the pandemic had on the performance of innovation and the brand itself. Firstly, the brand highlighted, MAS was a reputed brand long before the pandemic, and had gained recognition for its innovation and performance over a number of years. MAS also pointed to the positive impact of the pandemic, which involved teams working faster through digital platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and sharing 3d prototyping, in comparison to physical meetings, which also saw increased engagement and made decision-making faster, boosting performance.

With the performance and innovation that MAS has shown, it is easy to wonder what lies ahead for this reputed brand. MAS mentioned that intellectual property innovation is essential for a brand like itself to own a unique space in the market, and to be the key solution provider for international brands and local startups. Furthermore, MAS aims to improve and better itself in approaching the generations to come.

“We have to be ahead of the game to understand the generations to come – as in what their needs would be. So we study lifestyles to understand what kind of lifestyle to cater to. Right now, the youngest generation we know of is the alpha generation; in a couple of years, they are going to be the biggest consumers to come. Right now the market comprises Gen Z-ers and millennials,” stated MAS Director Product Development and Innovation Nadeekha Leanage.

MAS also highlighted past collaborations with external partners, adjacencies, local universities, technology companies, and consumers, and how these collaborations aided in the development of products and innovation, adding that they would continue to do this in the future. It also intends to prioritise consumer needs, and noted it would follow megatrends like sustainability, which is an important aspect for consumers in the market.

Also highlighted was the state of the market, where consumers are unable to purchase products in the apparel sector due to the pandemic. “With the current climate, people can’t go shopping, so the retail model is changing, and it is just us keeping up with the times. This is a good opportunity for innovation, because the model has changed and now we have a chance to be the first in that line to change the model for our customers. It’s not based on any historic value about how they work with different people; it’s a whole new canvas, and the future is bright. That’s what they say and I think we just have to take it down, collaborate, and do it,” commented Ramachandani.

In addition to this, Dassanayake brought forth the claim that new recruits are amazed when they encounter the projects MAS works on. She further added that the general public is not well-versed on the modern approaches and enhanced technologies that MAS uses. Moreover, she stated that she believes that educated and capable people that could impact and influence great changes in Sri Lanka miss the opportunity to work in local brands, and thereby miss out on various things that could enhance their skill and expertise.

“Most of our educated and capable people go out of the country. One reason might be that they don’t know these kind of things are happening even in Sri Lanka. We have a lot of people that come and join us after their higher education, after obtaining their PhDs. Some of us joined MAS multiple times, because when we go back, we can’t find anything interesting that is happening. So we want to come back and join later,” commented Dassanayake.

She ended on the note that students and people with the right capabilities should consider being open-minded to projects done locally, as she has encountered “amazing” things and projects done in Sri Lanka.