Creators — Shunsuke Saito
A physics student who sought to expose the fashion industry’s flaws
Shunsuke is a 2nd year Ph.D. student in computer science at USC. He had always lived in Japan before he finished master in Physics. He spent one year at UPenn as visiting researcher before moving to LA with his wife.
What is your organization?
Fuctory. We say to fuck the factories. We were kind of “punk” to the fashion industry.
What was your major in college?
How did you get involved with the fashion industry coming from a completely different field?
I was from a rural area in Japan, and I had an inferiority to city girls and boys. They always were dressed so nicely. I felt really inferior in high school and that’s how I was driven to get into fashion. I started to buy a bunch of clothing and read about fashion so that I could, I guess, minimize my feelings of inferiority and be more like them.
What was your goal?
We tried to encourage students to broaden their horizons and give them more opportunities to see a different aspect of the fashion industry. I feel like students in fashion colleges don’t think by themselves, they just follow the current patterns of the industry. I tried to disrupt that by giving them critical thinking skills. I found this dangerous and wanted students to be able to think for themselves. With this opportunity, students question their current beliefs.
I invited a Japanese startup for cutting- edge e-commerce as well as owners that were old schooled with their own brick and mortar. Startups share everything online. There are pros and cons on both sides. I wanted to find something in between. I was trying to make the audience think about how we can combine the two things and start a discussion.
Fashion has a potential to change local economies. Interestingly, in Japan, there’s a very famous local clothing store. This store enhances the economy in the rural areas. They are very unique. First, their owner attracts a lot of people. They have an Instagram and a blog that attracts those from all over Japan. Maybe fashion itself can be a resource for a local area to attract more people. I invited owners from clothing stores in local areas and had a huge discussion session that was broadcasted all over Japan to watch.
What was the problem you were aiming to solve?
In Japan, the fashion industry has a lot of problems in terms of education and career building. When you first enter the industry, you start as simply a vendor, and then you can hopefully move up the company. However, if things don’t work out, you have to stay as a vendor or find another job.
The problem is you cannot cultivate any skills to apply to other fashion careers or careers in general simply selling clothing. You cannot make use of the skills anywhere else that you learn in the fashion industry.
If you’re not talented but you love fashion and begin your job, and you eventually realize that you’re not good at fashion, then you have to start from scratch and cannot make use of any of the skills that you learned previously.
How did you get the idea for Fuctory?
I had an opportunity to join an entrepreneurship school. It was pretty awful. The director didn’t know what he was doing. In fact, he was really weird. He had an incident with the government and couldn’t work for 10 years. He was studying philosophy at home and had this amazing ability to analyze and communicate with people. This is the one thing he did teach me. He was trying to actually take advantage of us. He would train us to do startups, and we would found a company. But then he would take a large stock of the company. I realized it was a rip-off and quit. But, I still learned how to communicate and find information gaps and bridge them together thanks to him.
Which came first? Entrepreneurship or fashion?
In my junior year of college, I had an internship with a software company. They made up a fake problem and got different backgrounds together to solve it. I was the only one from a science and engineering field. All of the other interns had already founded their own organizations and I was overwhelmed. I had never started anything before, but I realized the only thing that was missing was experience. I realized I had the potential to be at their level. I started looking for an opportunity to get involved with entrepreneurship, and that’s how I found this entrepreneurship school.
So, just to clarify, if you’re working at a clothing shop you don’t get the skills to enter another career?
Right. For example, if you begin your career in finance, you can always switch to a different firm or even go into business or other job opportunities. However, this is not the case in the fashion industry. Those going into the industry don’t know where to go after beginning the career. This is very dangerous. This industry is not healthy. Fashion schools encourage high schoolers to apply to the schools even though they realize they will not get success post graduation. If there aren’t any opportunities for the students, they need to stop recruiting. But, the schools are just seeking profit. They’re almost lying to kids and saying “you can do whatever you want, you can become a fashion designer, your future will be bright.” But this is not true. They are not aware of the real situation. They’re hallucinating. They don’t see the reality of the fashion industry.
I tried to bridge the gap by connecting students to the real industry. I held seminars where students could talk to designers about the real-world of working in the fashion industry.
Were the designers honest about the real world of the industry?
Yes. Young designers couldn’t reach customers well, so designers were encouraged to come to promote their product. This information gap led to a great event.
It started as an event, but it became an organization. I planned trips to textile factories so that they could see what actually happens during production. Textiles are always made in factories. In Japan, the workers are getting older and older and no one wants to replace their job.
Top fashion brands like Prada want these Japanese textiles because only Japan can make it with their special machinery and workers. For students, they can help fix this problem by first being aware of it. Students and workers connected at these events to brainstorm how students can solve the problem.
Did you deter or inspire people in the fashion industry?
I told them honestly, but I did not want to discourage. This was a tricky balance. I wanted people to stay in the fashion industry to change it, but I had to tell them the reality.
Did you do this all by yourself?
I got a team together of students to organize. I planned, and they implemented.
What happened to the organization when you came to the USA?
When I came to the USA, no one wanted to take my job. In Japan, my job was considered “dirty” since it wasn’t glamorous. It wasn’t that successful long-term, but it did affect students. One of my students actually founded a company educating about these same impacts. At least I gave them the tools to improve and have knowledge about the fashion industry.
Do you have any advice for aspiring innovators?
Although he was a generally bad person, the best advice I got was from that director of the entrepreneurship school: follow your interests. The passion comes from yourself. Through hard times, passion gives you that interior motives to not give up. This is why I chose fashion: I had a passion for it.
Would you consider yourself an entrepreneur?
The reason why I’m in the USA right now is because of entrepreneurship. Compared to other students in my lab, what I’m good at is communication. I’m good at problem-solving. Because of this, my professor was impressed and hired me. Looking at my CV or GPA, I am not impressive. I never showed up to class in undergraduate, only to exams. I didn’t do very well. I regret it, but it did work out. My entrepreneurship mind allowed me to sell myself to USC. I realized in Ph.D [studies], that the most important thing is communication. You work with someone else to identify and solve a problem. I know how to motivate my peers to put 100% into solving a problem. As a Ph.D, I feel as if I’m doing my own small type of startup if that makes sense.
Do you think an entrepreneurship mind is learned or innate?
Entrepreneurship can be learned. It’s not something you’re born with. The most important thing is to have a problem you want to solve, whether research or a social problem. This is what makes you an entrepreneur.
What does it take to be an entrepreneur?
You have to convey your passion. Even if you have a problem you’re passionate about, if you don’t motivate others to act, then you’re not doing anything. You have to make others feel the large problem is also their personal problem. So, I would say that the characteristic is inspiring others to feel the same passion that you feel for something.