Photo: Thomas Meyer, founder and CEO of Desigual. Credit: Courtesy of the interviewee

By Cristina Sánchez

A jacket made from scraps of second-hand jeans. In the early 1980s, Thomas Meyer changed how we think about clothes by upcycling a worn denim jacket from the stock he couldn’t sell in his thrift store. That was the seed of Desigual, the company he founded in Barcelona (Spain) and which quickly became one of Spain’s most regarded fashion brands. Today, it has a presence in 107 countries, with 428 mono-brand stores and more than 2,700 employees worldwide.  

Aware of the challenges facing his sector, Meyer confidently says that “creativity and innovation are the primary sources of competitive advantage and will be even more so in the future”. For this reason, the company has put forward some new initiatives to promote “a more inclusive Desigual,” to continue “giving value to optimism,” the firm’s hallmark, and to imagine a future in which sustainability will be front and center.  

Desigual has just announced the launch of Awesome Lab, a start-up accelerator, to spur the development of new technological solutions. What made you decide to opt for open innovation?  

Managing everything with your teams and your vision is already overstretched. You may know where you want to go, but it is important to be open to all the creativity and innovation that is being developed. Technology is taking the lead in opportunities to innovate and working with start-ups is a fantastic way to attract innovative talent.  

We also want Awesome Lab to have a halo effect on the spirit of the entire organization. Innovation must be a mindset: it can’t be a one-off thing at the side of the company, it must be present in all areas. We want to pave the way for breakthroughs not because one day someone has an idea, but rather because we are all looking for ideas.    

In addition to setting yourselves apart from other brands, you also want to innovate the workplace. Recently, you have presented a proposal for a four-day working week, with the option of remote working on one day, for all head office employees. What are the benefits of this new model? 

The world is changing very rapidly, and work is going to decline. Artificial intelligence and robotics will gradually replace many areas and what we need are creative people, who add value and create new stories. That is why I think it is essential for people to relate to and express themselves freely, to be calm and happy, finding a balance between personal and professional life. Companies must facilitate that, not only to have more sales, but to build a better world.  

We believe that this proposal (four-day working week) is going to take us down that path. It is not a plan that the company is imposing, but rather proposing. Employees will vote on October 7. Obviously, when you do something ground-breaking there are many unknowns, but there is only one way to learn how to swim: by jumping into the pool.   

In addition to this specific proposal, how does Desigual promote the innovation and digital transformation of operations?  

We have lots of initiatives, from our new website to new ways of engaging with our consumer, the adoption of RFID technology (Radio frequency identification), omnichannel initiatives, 3D designs… Technology has also helped us to develop a blockchain system to allow our products to be traced, since logistics is key: clothes are manufactured in one part of the world, shipped to another, and end up arriving at the consumer’s home.  

Has the coronavirus pandemic accelerated changes in the company?  

The pandemic has accelerated projects that already existed and has made possible things that would have been unthinkable before, such as widespread remote working. But, beyond the things we see, underneath the tip of the iceberg there is a profound change of mentality, of taking more care of ourselves, of being aware that we are very fragile and that everyday counts. The pandemic has exposed our vulnerability. I think that is a gift it has left us, although I say this with great respect because for many people it has been very painful.  

What challenges will this new landscape bring to the fashion industry and what developments will make tackling them easier?  

Fashion faces two challenges. One is its own relevance. Young people are no longer interested in filling their wardrobes with clothes that they don’t wear and that have a very high environmental cost. It’s not about having 150 clothes, but rather about having the clothes they need. This is something that as an industry we have to understand first and then give an answer, but it is not easy, because the economic model pushes us to grow.  

Another challenge is related to sustainability. The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, and we must address this challenge quickly with a 360-degree vision from producers, fashion designers and consumers. We are all working hard to achieve this. Not only do we need to produce clothes that have a lower carbon footprint, are more natural and sustainable, but also clothes that last longer. There also has to be a trade-off: the consumer wants the product to be sustainable, but is not willing to pay more, so the industry must learn how to make all its operations more efficient. It’s a huge challenge, but new ideas will surface. I’m quite optimistic and I think technology can help in all this.  

Desigual has been synonymous with sustainability since its inception, as the first product gave a second life to used clothing. What role does sustainability play in the company today and what role will it play in the future?  

I started in the second-hand world in the 1970s and we were already talking about the throwaway fashion model not being right. In recent years, sustainability has become more and more important, and we are fully committed to this challenge. We have plans to lower our carbon footprint, reduce the use of plastic, and ensure that we only use responsibly sourced raw materials. Like innovation, sustainability is something that has to be in the minds of every employee in the company.  

You have also commented that fashion is no longer relevant to young people. What other changes have you observed in post-pandemic consumers and how do you connect with them?  

We are seeing a lot of changes (in consumers), first because they go to shopping malls much less. There is a certain degree of caution and they have got used to the fact that they can order something online at any time of the day and in a few hours they have it at home. Styles have also changed: if they spend a lot of time at home, they like to dress more comfortably.  

Also, as I was saying before, we are more mindful now and we ask ourselves why we are here and why we do things: why we travel, why we eat or why we wear an item of clothing. Consumers need to feel connected to a company’s mission. There will be companies that focus specifically on sustainability, others will focus on quality and design, and others, like us, on the experience, on how what you wear makes you feel. At Desigual, we have been clear since our inception that we wanted to make people feel special, different, happy, optimistic. It makes me happy to know that, if Desigual did not exist, a person who connects with us would not find those products.  

You have stated that Steve Jobs has been one of your references. Why?  

Without a doubt, he is one of the most influential leaders of the twentieth century. I am fascinated by how he always challenged the status quo: he has transformed many different industries, turning them inside out like a sock, and launched tools that have improved the lives of billions of people.  

In your opinion, what are the qualities of a good leader? 

It depends a lot on whether it is a political, economic, or artistic project, but I believe that every leader must have a dream and a vision of how to turn that dream to reality. From there, they must have the ability to put together a team, convey that dream and allow the team to flourish.  

What is your vision for Desigual's future?  

I envision it as a more open place to be created by everyone, without me being in the limelight. Above all, I imagine it to be a cool place to work, where everyone has a reason to come to work every day. That would be my dream.

Published by OPINNO © 2022 MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW spanish edition