Zhanna Naymankhanova is the Founder of SENSTILE, a company concerned with ‘transferring the touch and feel of textiles into the online world’ – they offer a solution that creates digital IDs of textiles relating to colour and other physical ‘tactile’ properties, and act as mediators between textile suppliers and fashion brands.
Visually identical fabrics can have very different inherent characteristics causing them to behave differently and this can impact the fit and feel of a garment, a quality issue Zhanna is keen to address. At SENSTILE, capturing and revealing sensory data and knowledge that relate to textiles is considered a vital part of the online fashion system as it connects to enhanced quality of wearer experience, an ideal that underpins the core values and beliefs of the company.
Together with mentors and help from organisations such as DeFINE, the SENSTILE team is working on designing a holistic system with all stakeholders involved to realise their vision of bringing quality as a strong competitive advantage. The technology they have developed plays a crucial role in the process since it can enable ‘no-touch’ digital evaluation. SENSTILE is one of the semi-finalists of the social innovation competition ‘Reimagine Fashion: Changing Behaviours for Sustainable Fashion’ funded by the European Commission.
With a degree in Engineering in Apparel from Omsk State Technical University (OSTU) Russia and a Masters in Design and Innovation (Strategic Lab) from the Istituto Europeo di Design (IED), Madrid and a background in fashion production, Zhanna has an interdisciplinary mix of skills, knowledge and industry experience she brings to SENSTILE.
SENSTILE’s communication tool for ‘no-touch’ digital evaluation of textiles. Image: Zhanna Naymankhanova
Prior to founding SENSTILE in 2019, Zhanna had developed her own DTC online fashion brand that has been selling through various platforms such as Amazon and Shopify. She was thus familiar with the online world of e-commerce and more importantly its issues. In particular, she saw a dangerous trend in apparel e-tail that was leading to a quality reduction due to the absence of hand evaluation. Zhanna was keen to address this issue specifically and it was during the half a year she spent at Massachusettes Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US helping startups with her knowledge on the fashion industry that she gathered her inspiration for SENSTILE and began investigating whether the idea is feasible.
The main idea for SENSTILE is to build a communication tool between fashion brands and textile suppliers where visual libraries can be connected reducing the need for so many samples whilst also facilitating online searches that can be conducted very quickly (see figure 1). Zhanna realised that to offer this kind of service and quality improvement to the fashion industry, she would firstly need to build a system where textiles can be differentiated by their physical properties digitally and at scale.
After the first three months of funded research activity and upfront testing, the team at SENSTILE had developed a search engine that considers the physical properties of textiles. Their system prototype with the first front-end application ‘Fabric Scout’ includes steps of scanning the fabrics, then processing through AI algorithms and saving the digital information in a database that is connected with the front end where actual searching is happening. After this initial success, SENSTILE started to talk with larger companies, to listen, and to also adapt to the technology. This process helped them to realise they could already offer a lot of different services to shorten industry lead times and make an impact without having to conduct more testing.
The first fabric library SENSTILE produced consisted of 300 textiles. During this first phase, the team worked to obtain information from similar fabric types to build a communication tool that will be tested and validated through pilots with a fashion brand and two to three textile suppliers. Due to COVID-19, the integration has been paused but will be restarted as soon as traveling is made possible. The results of the first pilot will also be very critical explains Zhanna, to define where they are currently and to know the right and most expedient way to do things moving forward. Phase 2 will aim to capture data from a greater variety of similar fabrics whilst Phase 3 will focus on looking at differences in a particular material such as denim. Conversation with one denim supplier are already undergoing.
In terms of applying technology to her own practice, Zhanna explains that at SENSTILE she works collaboratively with engineers and data scientists. Her technical team extracts and analyses data from the materials through the use of specially developed sensors and trained AI systems to enable data sets and digital IDs for each textile to be generated. Collaboration is crucial to Zhanna to solve the problem she identified of how to communicate the ‘tactile’ properties of materials online. Furthermore, it is a shared process that not only enables her to work towards her own goals but provides her with the opportunity to learn much from others. Finding good collaborators, Zhanna advises is key and going to conferences is one way to do this however, she cautions that successful networking and connections only happen when you are serious about your idea as she was.
When asked to summarise her next steps for SENSTILE, Zhanna highlighted 5 key objectives:
To focus on front end and user-experience.
To produce new sensor prototypes i.e. work on the special way they are set up.
To conduct more R&D on the way we perceive textiles
To enlarge the team (they are open to hire)
To take larger volumes of textiles to scan in parallel.
On the benefits of such of fashion-tech, Zhanna believes it can bring transformational value to the industry and the consumer. However, she also notes it should be introduced considerately – a smooth supply chain should be transparent and not come at the cost of the textile suppliers. While developing SENSTILE, Zhanna noticed a certain tension from textile companies to be open to the technology and believes this comes from a lack of understanding of the potential enhancements it can provide. You must always therefore be careful in your actions she explains and ethical in how you conduct the work so as to show how fashion-tech can impact positively for companies. This core value can however pose difficulties she adds, for a fast-moving start-up company such as theirs, when a slower and more measured approach might be required to ensure actions and outcomes remain attentive to any concerns.
Finally, on entrepreneurship, she stresses there is no standard approach to the steps you take on your journey when it comes to realising your ideas. It’s an individual thing and for her it has been about observing, being responsive, dynamic e.g. changing partners as required, and of holding onto her key motivations; she always reminds herself why she started SENSTILE. Her passion is to improve the quality of the fashion industry today and to transform it – a reaction to fast fashion and disposal fashion. She turns to her favourite inspirational quote from American internet entrepreneur, founder and CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, to illustrate further the complex mix of skills, personal attributes, dynamic approach and hard work essential to success. Where vision is enduring but detail all important and subject to informed change along the way to ensure a viable product or service for the intended market:
… it takes persistence, relentlessness… and you need a combination of stubborn relentlessness and flexibility and you have to know when to be which, and basically you need to be stubborn on your vision because otherwise it will be too easy to give up. But you need to be very flexible on the details because as you go along pursuing your vision you will find that some of your pre-conceptions were wrong and you’re going to need to be able to change those things. So, I think taking an idea successfully all the way to the market and turning it into a real product that people care about and it really improves peoples’ lives is a lot of hard work’