The Desigual brand, born in Barcelona in 1984, has launched Awesome Lab, an international accelerator for startups aiming to develop technological solutions for the fashion industry.
Javier Fernández, Desigual’s head of technological innovation, explains that the goal is to implement innovative solutions and an innovation culture within the company, an iconic brand in the fashion world. Silicon Valley consultant Plug & Play is Desigual's partner in the development and implementation of the project.
The first rollout of the programme features 7 startups that will develop their proposals over 8 months. Desigual will provide them with tools and resources and, working out of Barcelona, they will be able to participate in international events and will also get assessment from Catalonia Trade & Investment.
Awesome Lab is the first accelerator driven by a fashion company in Spain. How did the idea come about?
Within Desigual, innovation has been part of our brand DNA since our origins. This year we are starting to focus on open innovation. We connected to the innovation ecosystem of Barcelona and its startups, due to the advantage of proximity and thanks to the concentration of technology and innovation. We did concept testing with several startups that worked very well.
We saw that it also made sense to work with startups at an earlier stage, to get other benefits that apply to Desigual's strategic challenges. The ideal context for doing so was an accelerator: we help startups that focus on the fashion world to validate their product, and in return we implement solutions with the competitive advantage of being the first. Thus, we also create a mindset of innovation within the company.
“Barcelona has a series of values, such as talent concentration or business competitiveness, which help to attract tech companies”
How does Awesome Lab work?
The programme lasts 8 months. We want the 7 startups and the company to build strong grassroots relationships, and this will help build proofs of concept with greater guarantees as regards implementation.
They can work remotely, and we organize focus weeks, one week a month, where we pack in training and talks by experts on topics that related to their growth and facilitate their location in Barcelona. We also offer our networking and external access, for example, to VCs.
What challenges will they have to solve?
We’ve posed 10 strategic challenges, in areas such as ecommerce, data analytics, or customer interaction with clothing. There are also challenges on sustainability, payment methods and boosting creativity for designers, among others.
What was the selection of startups like? What were the selection criteria?
Plug & Play helped us identify some 800 startups. Out of these, over 150 applied and we selected 7. Our criteria were market potential, the type of innovation and the response to the challenges posed.
“Barcelona has international pull and offers a unique context and environment to be home to a fashion icon within the technological world”
How has teaming up with Plug and Play help you?
The plus that Plug and Play gives us, apart from knowledge and expertise, is access to startups out of our area of influence. What really matters is getting a good selection of startups that respond to the challenges posed, and they made this happen. Their greatest virtue is that they really understand startups and VCs. They have a branch office in Barcelona that is getting bigger and bigger.
Has the fact that the programme is located in Barcelona helped you to attract more startups to the Awesome Lab?
Definitely. I believe that Barcelona has international pull and offers a unique context and environment to be home to a fashion icon within the technological world. Our goal is to become the most important fashion technology hub in the world. The context is perfect and we’re not lacking in energy and character.
Furthermore, Desigual’s headquarters are privileged. Our offices cover 24,000 m2, in the Barceloneta neighbourhood, overlooking the sea, and this is a huge source of inspiration and one of the company’s signs of identity.
What characteristics make Barcelona a hub of innovation, compared to other places?
Apart from the startups emerging in the city, a number that grows increasingly, there are many founders from abroad who come here to establish their startup. Barcelona has a series of values, such as talent concentration or business competitiveness, which help to attract tech companies that want to establish themselves here. What’s more, quality of life in Barcelona is great.
There is another thing in Barcelona that works very well: the way that the ecosystem in Barcelona has come together and been generated seems very unique to me. Perhaps it’s a result of the associationism which is part of Barcelona and Catalonia’s nature. It is very noticeable that knowledge and ideas flow very well between the different players in the ecosystem: public institutions, academia, research, corporations, startups, or hubs such as Tech Barcelona.
Events like 4YFN or Tech Spirit also help a lot. Everything adds up and, in the end, a very consolidated and connected ecosystem has been created where we all know each other. In Barcelona, for years, remarkable efforts have been made to achieve all this.
The 7 startups that are participating in the program are Exonode, Vestico, Syrup Tech, Swearit, Personify XP, Resortecs, and SXD
What are the strengths of the textile and fashion sector in Catalonia from an innovation point of view?
There is a long-standing textile tradition in Barcelona-Catalonia, with an innovation cluster dedicated to the world of fashion that is quite unique. And there is a significant concentration of fashion companies.
I think that today fashion companies have to make more steps to take technology further, open themselves up to sharing. Desigual has already taken this first step and it helps us to have this concentration of companies around us.
How does Desigual apply digitization?
In Desigual we already had a major push towards digitalization before the pandemic. In the area of innovation, we have implemented several solutions such as virtual showrooms, a fitting solution with anthropometric technology that helps us reduce online returns, or visual computing technologies. We have also applied Artificial Intelligence so that chatbots can help customers.
How do you rate the support received from ACCIO-Catalonia Trade & Investment?
There has always been a lot of support and interest from ACCIO - Catalonia Trade & Investment. I attended a Corporate Venturing course organized by them in ESADE Business School, as well as other activities related to innovation and access to ideas and knowledge.
Furthermore, through ACCIO - Catalonia Trade & Investment, we’ve also participated in matchmaking activities in events such as 4YFN to interact with startups.