Looking to the Crystal Sphere with Thimo Schwenzfeier

With the show director of NEONYT - we talked about the future of fashion - in an era when the pace of time is accelerated with improving technology with changing cultures and finally with COVID-19.


TCL: Let’s start by knowing more about you. In your Linkedin profile, it says you are a Global Thinker. In your life, when and how do you start to think about concepts such as fashion, sustainability and technology?

TS: I must admit constantly. It’s part of my life, not only a job - but a profession. I believe in the sustainable future of the textile and fashion industry and I try to bring in some of my expertise to support the revolution.I also believe that sustainability goes hand in hand with technological developments.


TCL: How were the NEONYT virtual talks? Can you please tell about the reactions of audiences to such virtual events?

TS: The virtual talks went great! With NEONYT on Air as a response to the coronavirus pandemic - we have taken a leap into cold water. Exhibitions are a people business and we are used to bringing together people in real live, not virtually. Together, with many NEONYT brands and partners; we have managed to put together a great one-week talk programme that covered the latest industry news and topics that concern the fair fashion community.

The feedback from within our community was positive. NEONYT on Air has shown us that there is an enormous need for communication and exchange in the fashion industry; as well as a huge motivation to drive forward change together. We’re already looking forward to the next physical edition of NEONYT next year as it has also become clear that fashion thrives on personalities, showcases and inspiration.

Digital formats can accompany this, but not fully replace it.



TCL: In recent years we see many successful start-ups in fashion. Do you think in the future new-born brands will dominate the sector? Can they take the role of the giants of today?


TS: That’s a typical “David against Goliath” scenario: the small innovative start-up against the global player - who wins? One thing is certain, the market needs such and such.

Start-ups can act faster, are founded, I think, mostly out of personal conviction and the desire to really want to change something. Big corporations - on the other hand - are often considered too rigid, not sustainable; but they have the appropriate reach and financial possibilities.

The topics of sustainability and fairness in the fashion industry are anything but new, of course. During the past few years, it seemed like more or less every brand was launching at least one sustainable capsule collection. Major brands are often hesitant about making fundamental changes to their business models – after all; many of them have been profiting from fast fashion for decades now.

Rigid structures make it even harder to implement new approaches. Young companies, on the other hand, are born from with a vision of more sustainability and innovation. From the outset, they have embedded these values into their philosophy, business model and organisation – thereby laying important foundations for a dynamic way of doing business in the future.

The best case scenario would be to achieve a balance between global players and young start-ups in order to create a better world for all - the shift towards more sustainability is one of the major challenges the fashion industry is facing and a lot of younger brands are showing that sustainability can function as a profitable business model.

The COVID crisis has not only influenced the fashion industry - but has also fundamentally changed society, the economy and culture. Values are shifting. Closeness, trust and solidarity are becoming the new benchmarks. This will also have repercussions on retail and consumerism in the future: not at the expense of others, but together with others is key.


TCL: Can the big brands change their strategy from aiming to sell more quantity products to aiming to sell more lasting products? In other words - does increasing the margins contradict with being more sustainable?

TS: In no way is this contradictory. Sustainability topped the list of the biggest challenges facing the industry, and it was also named the biggest opportunity; as attitudes change, brands old and new are changing the way they measure corporate success - with non-financial KPIs becoming an increasingly important part of the mix.

Organisations are starting to judge their success on metrics that are not directly linked to traditional business performance, such as sustainability, diversity and employee wellbeing. 2020 will require (fashion) companies to deliver meaningful change across the value chain and on multiple fronts while mitigating risk and managing uncertainty. It indeed is foremost the consumers/stakeholders themselves driving the change forward by asking how organisations, companies or brands are being socially and environmentally sustainable.

At our fashion sustain conference, we regularly host panel discussion with global players taking part - what we see there is that big fashion brands do not have to be convinced anymore. Inditex, H&M, C&A and many more are changing their business models already. 

Big fashion retailers such as Zalando or Asos are visiting NEONYT on a regular basis. There is a need and willingness for more sustainability among big players. I think collaboration is the key to reach sustainability along the entire textile production chain.

TCL: Recently we hear many new innovations in sustainable materials. Mostly these materials are bio-based, bio-fabricated or created from the crops. Now, conventional methods are meeting the requirements of billions, can new innovations meet such massive needs in close future?


TS: In other words - you want to know how we can make sustainability and sustainable materials profitable for the mass market. I think, we should try this the other way around. Nowadays, new fashion collections come onto the market almost every second week. The conventional methods you are referring to, are called a business model "Fast Fashion".

Suppliers bring extremely low-priced collections to the market within a few weeks, the production pressure is forcing suppliers to meet ever tighter delivery deadlines, meaning faster and cheaper goes hand in hand with low wages and ecologically irresponsible practices in production.

In Germany alone, over five billion items of clothing hang in our wardrobes. Per capita that makes around 95 items of clothing - one in five of which we hardly ever wear. So, what I am asking is this - is it really the demand that determines the supply here, or rather the supply that determines demand? Probably both.

In the end, however, one should ask oneself whether 24 fashion collections per year are really necessary. After all, the fashion and textile industry are responsible for around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and generates 1.7 billion tons of CO2 annually - more than international flights and cruises combined.

From my perspective, sustainability is closely linked to innovation and to digitisation. Production technologies such as production-on-demand, digital sampling, resource-friendly washing and dying technologies, closed-loop recycling or innovative fabrics from recycled materials are boosting sustainable textile and fashion production.

They help to make the industry more sustainable on a big level allowing for scaling up sustainable production while at the same time are creating opportunities for companies to reduce water, energy and material consumption. Sustainable innovations in textiles are crucial to the sector’s survival – now even more than ever before.


TCL: Longevity is one of the strongest arguments of sustainability. If a product lasts for long years, can we say there will be less production and eventually less need for labour power? Can we face with unemployment problems in the very end?


TS: It is true that longevity is one of the main characteristics of sustainable fashion. Even the best jeans, the favourite t-shirt, the most comfortable shoe will break at some point. There will always be a demand for new things; but the sustainable fashion industry also generates other jobs along the value chain – the key word being circularity.

In a circular economy the goal is to eliminate waste, which is beneficial for both business and the environment - and in turn - should be better for society. Consumption with a conscience and owning less – these are principles that form the foundation of the so-called sharing economy. The concept is also gaining ground in the fashion industry. Renting clothes, repairing jeans, the circular production of t-shirts - what these different business models all have in common is a new way of adding value and extending the product lifecycle.

Consumers are ready to try something new – shared economy experts Nudie Jeans, Global Fashion Exchange and the H&M Group were all in agreement of this on the fashion sustain stage in January 2020. The figures are proving them right. By 2023, the global online rental market for clothing is expected to reach a value of almost 1.9 billion US dollars – or at least that was the pre-pandemic prognosis.

Another example and a special highlight at the previous edition of NEONYT in January was the mobile repair station of the sustainable denim label Nudie Jeans; they fixed ripped jeans from our visitors for free! As pioneers of the shared economy, their vision is to become the most sustainable denim brand in the world. They are clearly on the right path. In 2018, the young Swedish company managed to repair 55,000 pairs and sell 10,500 used pairs of jeans.

For a functioning sharing economy, everyone needs to work together. Solidarity and cooperation, sharing knowledge and resources - the step towards a confident ‘we culture’ has been accelerated by the current COVID crisis and is something that should continue to grow.


TCL: The father of the trade shows is considered as the Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park, London in 1851. Now in 2020, while we are living this pandemic and virtuality is becoming more valid; how do you see the future of fashion trades?


TS: As part of NEONYT – planned for the summer – we teamed up with two B2B online marketplaces - “The Brand Show Circular” and “Joor” - offering our exhibitors the opportunity to position themselves in an international order context and look ahead to the time after COVID.

Irrespective of all this, I have absolutely no doubt that people in future are going to want to meet each other to exchange their goods in actual, not virtual reality – after the crisis perhaps even more than before – and that personal contacts provide the best conditions for good, long-term business.

Virtual facilities can complement global communication. The haptic experience -which is vital particularly in the textile and fashion industry will remain essential. Even if the trade fair landscape is changing, our great success factor always was and will always be personal encounters, for which we have been creating a framework with our platforms for 780 years – that is how long Messe Frankfurt and the trade fair business has already been around.

We can look back on an eventful history in which the Frankfurt trade fair developed from a medieval marketplace into a global player – experiencing many successes and mastering various crises, always with one constant: personal encounters.



TLC: Some futurists such as Ray Kurzweil or Michio Kaku, mentions about a crazy future waiting for us in the next decades. I do not mean a dystopia; but a future when automation and AI will dominate our lives much more than today. We can be cyborgs or we can use avatars to enjoy virtual lives. Do you have any idea about the fashion for those days?


TS: I have no idea what actual garments or fashion collections will look like, but I do have an idea about fashion and digitisation. Just last week during NEONYT on AirI hosted a talk with three digital fashion players.

We established that digitalisation is a booster for the fashion industry - rather than replacing face-to-face communication, it is helping to sustain and develop the business activities of brands; especially in the current circumstances.

We all agreed that digital tools will continue to fuel sustainability and quality in fashion in the future. The talk guest saw the biggest potential in aligning designs and production quantities even more closely with actual customer requirements using avatars, 3D sampling and virtual fashion.

The boundaries between the physical and the digital world, human and AI are becoming more and more blurred. The digital transformation in the fashion industry is demanding that companies change their mind set and begin to operate like purely digital players, or at least consider hybrid formats.

If - as a result of COVID - not only digitisation but also the development towards more sustainability do actually gain ground; then at least one positive aspect would have emerged from the current crisis.

in case you’ve missed the talk or want to check it out again it is available as an IGTV: Data is in the Air