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Ethical fashion weaves in social media

Some of fashion line IOU's weavers, artisans and sellers.
Some of fashion line IOU's weavers, artisans and sellers.
  • Online clothing business aims to link buyers to manufacturers
  • Called IOU social media and QR codes used to provide details of items' journey
  • Company hopes that socially-minded entrepreneurs will lead the future

(CNN) -- Presumably you're reading this article on a device of some sort. Suppose you could see a picture or video of the workers who assembled the device, and learn a bit about their lives. Suppose they could see a picture of you enjoying it.

Such transparency rarely happens, but it could.

A Madrid-based venture has just launched a fashion line that uses Facebook, QR codes, apps and some innovative techniques to connect the buyers and makers of particular items of clothing -- and it's got other ideas up its sleeve.

The IOU Project, which went live this week, offers scarves, shirts, dresses and each item is unique and identified by its own QR code.

With each piece of clothing there is a link called "This item's journey" that leads to pictures and profiles of the weaver who created the fabric and of the artisan who cut the material and created the design. Using the IOU Project's iPhone app, you can take a photo of the QR code to pull that story up again.

The 'story' behind each unique piece usually gets lost in the manufacturing process.
--Sucharita Mulpuru, e-commerce analyst

You can also snap a photo of yourself and upload it so that the weaver and the artisan can see their creation being worn by someone out in the world -- helping to complete the story.

Each item is unique because it starts with one particular piece of hand-woven cotton fabric called a "madras check."

These fabrics (about 8 meters by 6.25 meters) are collected from weavers in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where the craft has been practiced for centuries. A weaver needs four or five days to produce one.

From there it goes to a participating manufacturer in Europe, perhaps in Italy or Romania. Individual items are cut from a particular madras check, ensuring no two items are quite the same.

The items are sold only through the IOU Project website, although pop-up retail experiences are a possibility in the near future. With no physical retailing expenses involved more money goes into the pockets of the artisans, weavers and, in an interesting twist, to you.

With IOU an individual can become a reseller of any particular item. First you apply to become a "trunk show host." When applying you share your real contact details and links to your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn profiles.

If you have a strong presence on such services with lots of social connections, it helps your application's chances, as does running a popular blog. Once you're a host, if you see a shirt you think will sell, you can put it in your virtual "trunk," where you can keep it for 21 days.

If the shirt sells while it's in your trunk, you get a commission from the sale. Integration with Facebook in particular is tight. A Facebook account is required to be a trunk show host, and you can display your trunk show on your Facebook page.

The idea is that as an active social media user you will make an effort to share or promote your "trunk show" on your various social media outlets. As you do, you'll also spread the word about the project.

The company hopes to see bloggers and other social media users "getting involved with us, helping spread our brand -- not just the clothes but also our message," says Enrique Posner, IOU's head of business development and chief technology officer. "In the process they can earn money. It's a great fit for both of us."

The project founders believe they've created a new twist on e-commerce with their trunk show host ideas and have filed for patents.

Asked if the process appears to be unique, Forrester Research e-commerce analyst Sucharita Mulpuru replies: "Yes and no. I haven't seen this particular execution, but it's a combination of Etsy meets Upromise meets Avon's Mark."

Those e-commerce operations each have an element of IOU's approach. But the most unique aspect of the project, Mulpuru suggests, "is the 'story' behind each unique piece -- usually, that gets lost in the manufacturing process."

Meanwhile the IOU team is readying a separate trunk show host app. It hopes to interest other businesses that also want to create a network of incentivized social-media resellers.

"Entrepreneurship and new models of business today must be -- at their core -- social," says Posner.


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