MAEKAN & BYBORRE — Redefining Comfort: Rebecca Kelley

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Interview & Photos by Eugene Kan
Video by Ralph Sarmo

Interview & Photos by Eugene Kan
Video by Ralph Sarmo

Comfort. It’s something essential to our lives.

The degree of comfort we experience can impact how we view the world around us. Comfort can take shape in a practical sense. Are we dry? Are we able to move freely? Are we confident about how we look?

Comfort can also apply psychologically. Are we comfortable with the challenge ahead and the uncertainty of not knowing what’s next?

In abundance, some would say too much of it creates complacency. Too little of it, and you’re unable to settle into a rhythm, because you’re only focused on reducing the discomfort.

For Men’s Fashion Week 2019 this past January MAEKAN and the BYBORRE team partnered on a series of conversations with new and old friends on this concept of “Redefining Comfort.” Our conversations were candid and casual with a special interest around the inspirations of pioneers and creators who are looking to put their stamp on the world.

In our first episode, we speak with Rebecca Kelley of The Woolmark Company, a company focused on telling the story of merino wool globally. Rebecca’s efforts promote merino wool’s unique properties to designers as well as how craftsmen globally are working with the fabric, a special bit of Mother Nature deserving of our respect and interest.

We’d like to extend a special thanks to WeTransfer, GORE-TEX, The Woolmark Company, and the whole BYBORRE team for making this series happen.

At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.

Eugene: How’s it going today?

Rebecca: Good thanks, Eugene.

Eugene: Interesting environment for us to be doing an interview in the back. I feel like coffee and cars, I don’t know if you’ve ever watched that thing with Jerry Seinfeld?

Rebecca: No.

Eugene: So, Jerry Seinfeld from Seinfeld, he does this thing where he’s in a car with a celebrity and he basically drives around, because he’s got a ton of cars. Anyways, it just reminded me of that. But maybe we can start by having you introduce yourself and what you do.

Rebecca: Yeah, well my name’s Rebecca. I work in the production processing team for the Woolmark Company. So, working with the team across the globe looking at new and cool things that we can do with wool.

Eugene: How did you originally end up at Woolmark or what’s your general interest within the company and the fabric?

Rebecca: Well, textiles. I’m from Yorkshire, which is a well known area of the UK which is known for wool and so, I guess you could say that it was in my blood to begin with; my grandfather had a woolen mill in Bradford. I pursued fashion and then felt that I was missing something. Took it back a bit, went into textiles and from there, I connected with the Woolmark and I’ve actually been there for just over ten years now.

Eugene: That’s been a while, then.

Rebecca: Yeah, it has.

Eugene: For people that are unfamiliar with Woolmark, how would you describe it?

Rebecca: It’s a really unique company. We’re a fibre advocacy body, I guess. We are the marketing, education and R&D arm of the Australian wool industry. I think what’s really cool about Woolmark is that we work right the way through the supply chain, which means we can work with manufacturers, brands and retailers, designers, machine makers, nothing is really off limits. We can engage with so many different people to look at what’s possible with wool. I think the variety is particularly special and I guess that connection with the farmer as well and how you can take something from farm all the way through to an end product in the store.

Wool is a niche fiber. Around 1.8 percent of wool fiber share. It's pretty insignificant when you look at polyester and cotton and we're quite happy for that to be, there are only so many sheep. We're really focused on delivering a high-quality, high-value fiber. We want to ensure that wool growers get a fair price for their wool and that we keep it in demand.

Eugene: How do you think wool has changed as a material or its perception in terms of now we’re looking at greater sustainability within that and even supply chain management etcetera. How do you think wool has changed?

Rebecca: Obviously, wool has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s clothed people and been something that protects you, and I think what has changed most significantly is that it can now be used in arenas that wouldn’t necessarily be thought of as wool appropriate and I’m talking here about sports and performance. I guess the versatility of wool is what’s changed the most and what you can do with wool, how you process it, how you spin a yarn and how you can orientate it to be workable in areas that it wasn’t before. I guess it’s got so many more facets that we’re able to bring to the fore that wasn’t possible before and that’s exciting.

Eugene: What changed there?

Rebecca: I think developments in machinery have been huge, so how you can spin a yarn, you can use much finer wool now. It doesn’t have to forego the strength element. I think it’s really all been in the machinery and developments and that area that’s allowed us to play in areas that we haven’t been able to before. Long gone are the misconceptions about itchy scratchy school jumpers, uniforms, wool can be incredibly fine and, like I say, be used across a whole range of products now.

Who would have thought that Woolmark would be coming together with GORE-TEX and BYBORRE? Two completely different areas of textiles and I think that's what's particularly exciting working with complementary and competitive industries and seeing what we can do by coming together and I think that's what I'm finding particularly exciting at the moment.

Eugene: Yeah, that’s really interesting, especially to see it change and yeah, you definitely see merino wool and whatnot, which obviously factors into your collaboration collection with BYBORRE. It’s interesting to see how it’s changed too. Because in many ways wool is a natural fiber, so it doesn’t necessarily have this brand name connotation in the same sense, but it’s still now changing and becoming modernized in a way. I’m interested to know how you guys came across the work of BYBORRE and how that materialized as a project.

Rebecca: I’m particularly interested in the DNA of BYBORRE and their approach, particularly their business model and their sort of open-source approach to business. I think how they really look to start right back at the beginning and it’s all about how you can engineer those components to be the best they can be. It’s not just about adding, it’s about starting from scratch and making smarter decisions about the ingredients that you put into that product. For me, that really resonated and it’s something that I want to really explore with BYBORRE well beyond this collection.

Eugene: From your perspective, what is the relationship and balance between being comfortable and not being comfortable, being in a state of discomfort?

Rebecca: You know, it used to be that to look good you had to forego comfort, and I think that just meant that we were able to achieve less as people. It weighs on your mind doesn’t it, if you’re uncomfortable? It puts you off, it doesn’t allow you to focus on doing what you want to do or being the best that you can be. So I think today, it’s clear that you don’t need to forego comfort to look good. That’s something that BYBORRE really brings to the fore and something that I feel wool can play a real key part in. I think the softness and the versatility of wool really supports that whole…

Eugene: If I’m going to flip that same question, how do you look at it from the perspective of innovation and there’s comfort in knowing that you’re right, but what about when you’re trying to discover, innovate and you don’t know the answer and that discomfort and not being certain of something, how do you view that?

Rebecca: I think it’s good to be out of your comfort zone and I think it’s something that you have to…

Eugene: How do you manage that relationship between comfort and discomfort? I guess what I’ve found interesting especially between both your parties–Woolmark and BYBORRE–is that element of innovation sometimes is a messy process and it’s also something that can weigh on you when you’re going down one path but it ends up being the wrong one?

Rebecca: You know, I don’t think there’s any wrong path. I think you can start out knowing where you want to go and that’s sort of 50 percent of it, and I think the other side of it is what comes out of those wrong paths or those happy accidents that you can exploit. I think you almost need to practice being uncomfortable and get used to that feeling and use it to your advantage.

Eugene: Are there things that you personally engage in to embrace that or practice it?

Rebecca: Yeah, I try and put myself out of my comfort zone as much as I can. Doing this interview… No, only joking. I do in every facet of life, I always try and put myself out of what I’m used to doing and challenge myself.

Eugene: What was the last thing that you did that you felt uncomfortable doing?

Rebecca: That’s a good question. Presenting. Presenting in front of a lot of people. I’m used to being quite behind the scenes but challenging myself when I need to get up and speak in front of people.

Eugene: What are some upcoming projects that you’re working on that you’re excited about or interested in developing?

Rebecca: We’re really keen on, as I said before, looking at new places wool can play in that it hasn’t before. I think sports and performance is an area that we are really keen to further develop the opportunities for wool in. That’s going to be a key area for us and I think a lot of people don’t really know what’s possible with wool in that space and we really want to show them, reduce the risk for them and look at how we can work with machine producers, people further up the supply chain, to really get more of an edge.

Wool has been known as a great base layer in sports for long time, for the last 10 years it’s really done so much in base layers, but what’s next for wool? And I think developments in circular knitting machines really allowed us to go into that space, but what’s next? We’re Interested in warp knitting machines, we’re interested in finishing and dyeing that can be done in smarter, better ways. So I think working with supply chain partners that are right at the beginning of the process is really fundamental for us and we’re really building out our portfolio in that place at the moment.

Eugene: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges that you encounter? You mentioned a lot on the topic of uncertainty as to what you can achieve with wool. So how much of your challenge is really the educational process?

Rebecca: Education is so huge and it’s such a key part of what we do at Woolmark.

Eugene: Do you think that’s because of the innovative nature of it or… Because I guess for me it’s like, is it more breaking the bonds that people have in terms of what they believe wool to be versus what it can achieve?

Rebecca: Totally, misconceptions, absolutely. Education is so important at the retail level and at the consumer level and just to open people’s eyes to the possibilities. I think the fact that it’s known to protect you, to keep you warm, those things sort of come to the fore, but not that it could maybe keep you cool or regulate temperature or be used in a high intensity training scenario for instance. So a lot of people dismiss it and dismiss its capabilities. But then, if we do get people over the line and they do want to explore it, then we need to make sure that the yarn and all of the you know the ingredients that are going to need to perform do perform. So we need to test with the spinners, we need to test with the machine producers to make sure the wool runs through those machines, so there’s a lot of work that we need to do behind the scenes continually to ensure that wool stays relevant and valuable.

Eugene: You mentioned earlier that the development of machinery is what propelled wool into this new standard. Who’s leading that charge in terms of innovation?

Rebecca: Everyone is playing their part across the whole supply chain. Spinning is really important.

Eugene: For people that are unfamiliar with spinning, what exactly does that mean?

Rebecca: Making a yarn, and we really use the yarn as the key ingredient to then produce a fabric, whether that’s a knitted fabric or it’s a woven fabric. So when we’re looking at strength and other sorts of characteristics you might want to bring to the fore, we look at what types of wool we might want to use and of course we look at what blends we might want to use wool with. Wool isn’t always used in 100 percent, if you want to bring certain functional qualities of the fore, then we’ll look at what the optimum other fiber blends might be and that’s also exciting, to see what’s possible by putting lots of different components together.

Eugene: How do you see the usage of wool relative to synthetics and petroleum products and is it scalable in terms of assuming wool is something that is a little bit better for the earth and whatnot. How will we see that potentially change?

Rebecca: Wool is a niche fiber. Around 1.8 percent of wool fiber share. It’s pretty insignificant when you look at polyester and cotton and we’re quite happy for that to be, there are only so many sheep. We’re really focused on delivering a high-quality, high-value fiber. We want to ensure that wool growers get a fair price for their wool and that we keep it in demand.

Eugene: I’m interested to know, that desire to keep it high-end, what is the reasoning behind that if there’s this sort of universal belief that wool is a superior fiber, and it could potentially be something that is a better option than polyester?

Rebecca: It’s a specialized fiber, it’s particularly difficult to grow. It’s a very hard industry for wool growers to be in and one of the problems has been that generations aren’t continuing in their parents’ footsteps, so going into things like prime lamb or crop or wine, which is a much easier way of making a living, it’s important that farmers can make a sustainable living from wool growing. And it takes a lot of skill and expertise to do it. It’s important that they’re recognized for that and they can get a fair price.

Eugene: It’s almost as though it’s much more holistic in terms of ensuring everyone through that supply chain as you mentioned is taken care of.

Rebecca: Yeah, absolutely. But wool is such a unique fiber, it’s so dynamic, naturally innovative and I think synthetic companies have been trying to engineer man-made fiber to do what wool does naturally and they never quite hit the mark. It is a special fiber and if it can work with great people in the supply chain that then it can be turned into a really fantastic product that meets consumers’ needs.

A starting point is bringing bits in from all of those different elements, all of those different facets, but I think you need a fairly tight team to be able to do that R&D process. Too many people and you never get anywhere.

Eugene: Prior to entering the wool industry professionally–I mean you have a background, a family background–what did you think it’d be like from afar seeing your family in it, and what has been the reality of you being in the industry?

Rebecca: I feel I’ve really found a niche. I feel I’ve got a really unique job that I don’t really see anywhere else and I think that’s because I work with so many different partners right the way through the supply chain. Sometimes, it feels like you don’t specialize in any one area, which can be frustrating, but it’s great to see how it can be used across so many different applications. So I’m not sure what I ever thought it would be like, but it’s definitely surpassed any ideas that I had. I guess I didn’t know what I was going to go into and it’s met expectations, that for sure.

Eugene: What’s compelled you to stay on this path?

Rebecca: Yeah, I think just always being challenged. I think that comes from the variety of brand partners, supply chain partners that we work with. I’m super excited to be, you know, working with GORE-TEX and BYBORRE and looking at what’s possible there. Who would have thought that Woolmark would be coming together with GORE-TEX and BYBORRE? Two completely different areas of textiles and I think that’s what’s particularly exciting working with complementary and competitive industries and seeing what we can do by coming together and I think that’s what I’m finding particularly exciting at the moment. I think it’s really the start of a bit of a new era of collaboration and I think BYBORRE really signify that change, the open source, that collaborative approach.

Eugene: Do you believe that that mentality of sort of amassing a village is required when you’re working on the innovation tip? Do you think that that’s fair to say in that competition becomes looked at a little bit differently when you’re actually trying to define something that has no previous existence?

Rebecca: A starting point is bringing bits in from all of those different elements, all of those different facets, but I think you need a fairly tight team to be able to do that R&D process. Too many people and you never get anywhere. I think there’s an optimum number of people to really move things forward and that’s key, so I think it’s big picture, draw it in and then and then focus down, and then evaluating, trialing, testing and then going back to the drawing board again.

Eugene: Generally speaking across industries, we often engage or disengage from certain projects because of that competitive nature. You mentioned open source and BYBORRE. How do you think that the way they’ve approached it has opened up your mind in how to work together with other people? Especially as you mentioned potentially competitive whereas maybe it’s more of a superficial sort of challenge when if you really step back you realize there’s actually benefits from all parties if we’re a little bit more open in working together to solve a problem regardless of whether or not we’ll consider competitors?

Rebecca: Exactly. I think increasingly we want to go out of our way to put ourselves next to people that are doing something completely different to what we’re doing. I think we’re part of a time when technology, science, and design are really converging and it’s really our duty to ensure we put ourselves in unique positions that we wouldn’t have done so before because I think that’s the only way we can really move forward with smarter ways of doing things, smarter solutions and you know doing that together, collaboratively is a lot more powerful than trying to do it in isolation.

Gone, starting to go, are the days where you wanted to sit on something and own it for yourself. I think it’s great to be part of a company that wants to collaborate and put something out there to see how we can move forward and continually make something better. And I think it was through that process that we really became in tune with what BYBORRE were doing and connected with their outlook.

Gone, starting to go, are the days where you wanted to sit on something and own it for yourself. I think it's great to be part of a company that wants to collaborate and put something out there to see how we can move forward and continually make something better.
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