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Fashion, future, forward: digital skills for textiles industry training

Watching more science fiction movies may help us dream better.

According to Doreen Tan, the Chief Executive of the Textile and Fashion Industry Training Centre (TaF.tc), it can also inspire us to reimagine the future of industries.

Industry 4.0 is upon us. Processes in the fashion and textile industry have been augmented by innovations such as virtual prototyping. Fast fashion produces a lot of waste, and sustainable processes and practices are being adopted. And dreams of customer avatars for virtual shopping experiences may soon be a reality.

TaF.tc is the first Continuing Education and Training Centre (CET) for Singapore’s textile and fashion industry. Digitizing their course materials and being pushed into the online teaching space has realized TaF.tc’s vision to become a global fashion school without boundaries.

Singapore Adult Education
Doreen Tan, Chief Executive, TaF.tc

TaF.tc is a partner of the EduTech Alliance project for the Emerging Stronger Taskforce building Singapore’s first digital learning and skills-matching platform to keep the workforce relevant for tomorrow’s jobs.

Kydon Group leads the EduTech Alliance project. Other partners include SMU Academy, the professional training arm of the Singapore Management University (SMU); JobTech, an online talent development platform driven by artificial intelligence and big data; and SkillsFuture SG (SSG), a government agency.

Doreen spoke to LEARNTech Asia in November 2020. She shared her thoughts on how the pandemic reinforced moves towards digital transformation in the continuing education and training space, and how students are relearning how to learn.

Editor’s Note: Our interview with Doreen is the fourth in a series offering partners of the EduTech Alliance an opportunity to share their thoughts on the future of learning and work.

Here’s the full video interview with Doreen. You can jump to adapted highlights in the sections below:

What kind of training does TaF.tc provide?

Our center was established in 1983 and we’ve come a long way. We train sewing operators all the way to professional positions such as merchandisers, designers, and sourcing managers. But over the years we have also worked very closely with the universities as well. Our diploma is accredited by nine universities all over the world from the United States to France, Italy, even to Sri Lanka.

What skills are in demand in the fashion and textiles industry?

We work very closely with the industry players. So most of the garment manufacturers, luxury brands, and the startup entrepreneurs, they work closely with us to gain new skills. 

One of the hottest skills right now is virtual prototyping. We’ve had virtual prototyping since 2009. In 2000 we were doing research on body sizing. The first country that did body sizing surveys using body scanning was the United Kingdom. 

Through that body scanning project, I found companies that were providing software for making virtual garments. So you don’t have to make a real garment to fit the mannequin. You make a virtual garment, which actually replicates the real garment so you can make adjustments. 

There’s a lot of savings in terms of lead time, as well as in terms of remake. As you know, our industry in terms of sustainability is always pretty low because of all the fast fashion that we create. A lot of trash is produced. Virtual prototyping is used by brands such as Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, as well as H&M.

How will Industry 4.0 impact the fashion industry?

I’m a strong believer in digitalization. When I first watched the movie, Ready Player One, I thought, “Wow, that’d be great.” If one day we were able to do that — you can meet your friends anywhere, virtually. 

Imagine you can learn anywhere. You don’t have to go to a classroom. You can meet all your friends online. When we first look at virtual prototyping I’m hopeful that one day we will have a virtual avatar of ourselves so that we can go to any virtual store and buy clothes. 

I think the reality is it’s a bit slow to adopt. But it might happen soon because the convergence of all this technology is going to be a reality.

Did technology transform training during the pandemic? 

When the (COVID-19) lockdown came, I was amazed how fast we were able to switch to digital online training, using Zoom. Many things that I thought wasn’t possible, for example, sewing — who would have thought that you can teach online sewing?

We actually sent machines to our students. And they were able to draft and sew online. And I think they are able to do that because in the past, you have to look at the teacher sew, and you crowd around the teacher. But because of COVID you can’t crowd around a teacher. 

Imagine your teacher is taking his or her camera, zooming to the needlepoint and you can actually see how it’s being sewn. And if you missed it, just play it again and again. So you learn that it’s much better. 

The students are able to produce the end results, which is a finished top and a skirt for our basic drafting and sewing, because they have the machine at home. So they can sew and draft anytime they want.

If they have to learn in school, our industrial sewing machines are not available to them 24-7, so they have to wait for the availability of the machine before they can actually sew. 

So I see a lot of benefits in terms of learning at home using digital tools, and also for eLearning. For the slow learners, you can repeat many, many times until you get it right.

You don’t have to make an appointment with the teachers to come to the school, you can make an appointment anytime with the teachers and just a Zoom call away. 

I actually conducted a textile class online and also taught them how to remove stains. So we prepare the textile swatches, as well as the stain swatches and send them to our students ahead of time. And through Zoom I can tell them what I’m seeing by zooming into the swatch and you can see the texture very clearly and we can analyze the fabric. 

Same for the stain remover. The students used to crowd around me to see how I remove the stain. But now with it pre-recorded, I just play it during the Zoom session. I don’t have to wash it 10,000 times. Imagine if I ran the class 10,000 times — I would have to wash the swatch 10,000 times.

There’s a lot of benefits. While I teach the subject, I’m creating a lot of digital content  and it will help me to put my content online as a form of eLearning.

How did trainers adapt to teaching online?

I think that COVID is actually an accelerator for digitalization. One thing my company did right is that we have a group of young people — about half of my company is below thirty. And when we switched online, I know that the trainers are asking, “How do I do this? How do I do that?”

I told my young people, “You’re baptized by fire.” They need to be a “tech angel” to my trainers. Do whatever it takes for you to help them teach online. So we send them microphone stands, we send them mics, we send them anything they want. 

For example, we were out of stands for cameras. My son had a microphone stand, which I could strap my phone to and it works. Nobody was buying microphones stands and we bought 20 of them and we sent them out to all my trainers. So anyone can be innovative. You don’t need step by step instructions. 

Taf.tc instructional video

How did learners react to the digital distruption?

When I launched digital course notes, I got a lot of pushback from the students. My staff told me that the students were not happy. They insisted on printed cost notes. So to discourage this, my staff charged $30 per subject for the printed cost notes and within a week or two they collected $2,000. I was shocked. 

I created a video to tell my students, “I don’t want your money. Take it back. Please try to use the digital course notes.” There’s actually an app that we use.

I realized that most learners want to have step by step instructions. In a social media marketing class, some students complained that when they asked the teacher something, the teacher said, “Google it.” If you can Google it, you don’t need to ask.

In social media marketing, you really need to Google a lot of things yourself — how to create a blog, or a social media (campaign) using Facebook. And I think that’s the key to be able to find your way out rather than get step by step instructions. 

TaF.tc course onboarding

Are you reaching more students digitally?

We have an international arm called TaF.tc International. We have a project in Cambodia with CGTI — the Cambodian Government Training Institute. So we provided all the materials to them. But that was face to face so right now we’re also working with them to use our eLearning modules and see if we can do Zoom classes. 

We also have a project in Myanmar, but because there’s a lockdown they were not able to do any digital collaborations. Our projects with the United Nations brought us to Madagascar, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt. We didn’t travel there — it’s all through Zoom which opened up even more opportunities for us. 

And I’m also working on project where, because some of the countries are French speaking, translation is needed. So we’re working on a pre-recording session. When you look at me, I’m speaking but French words come out of my mouth. 

I love all these new technologies. I believe that one day, I will be able to make an AI version of myself, and I can speak any language. 

Is teaching online more challenging for creative industries?

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a creative industry or not. If we rethink, we will be able to do it digitally. It’s just how to think out of the box. When it’s a push thing, like COVID, I found that my trainers become very, very creative. 

I’m a trainer. So I also become really creative and do all kinds of things. And there’s always new things coming out. Like, how can we never think of that? So, have fun! 

What have been the disruptions in the fashion industry?

For our industry there’s been major disruption. But it’s not new. Online shopping has been around for 20 years. But everyone always says, “Oh it’s different.” You can shop online, because the risk is very low. If you find that something doesn’t fit you, most of the online retailers will be happy to take it back. 

I remember in the early days of Lazada, there were quite a lot of returns. So how do we reduce these returns? That’s something that a retailer would have to think through. Maybe you have the better fit, or maybe a virtual avatar to do it. 

It’s a different way of selling to a customer. And I think that everyone has to try not to think that this is brick and mortar and this is online. The two worlds have merged. 

I was in a seminar recently, as a guest speaker, I was telling the designer who said that the experience online and the experience face to face is different and it is hard to replace each other. 

My challenge is, can we make it integrated? If you are online shopping with me, I know when you come on my site and I know that you are who you say you are. You have bought these things from me online. So this is something that I think that is really important. 

For the manufacturing part, there’s also disruption. The actual sewing and drafting is not disrupted. The prototyping of it means making samples that can change, because you can make a virtual garment. And once the virtual garment is done, you can make an actual garment using the patterns from the virtual garment. 

Jack Ma announced a secret project a few years ago, where they have a factory and run it in a very lean manner with a lot of automation and digitalization. And that’s why whether you are a manufacturer, a textile supplier, or anyone in the textile industry, just rethink the way you are doing things. And I know it’s very challenging, Some of my friends who are factory owners send their staff who are doing prototyping to our school. They are very good drafters and sewers. But to make a virtual garment is different from making a real garment. 

So the skill sets are quite different. It’s very challenging, but all of us have to say, “Don’t think about the past and just think of the future” and watch more sci-fi movies. That will help you dream better. 

How is TaF.tc supporting sustainability?

Someone asked me, “I want to do a Masters in fashion.” I said, “No. Do a Master’s in Technology, and focus on fashion.” We also have a course on sustainability, but it’s focused on fashion. 

With the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), even at a school level we try our best to meet that. We don’t have printed course notes. We use digital course notes. So as much as we can, we try to reduce our impact on the environment. 

And for the textile and fashion industry, there are also companies out there who are trying to reduce the impact. For example, denim wash. Denim finishing is actually very harmful to the environment. Because the sandblasting, it can be carcinogenic for the person doing the sandblasting. But now you can do it with a laser, instead of using chemicals and water to wash down a pair of jeans. You use air as well, and maybe one cup of water to wash down a pair of jeans. 

This company — Jeanologia — in Spain, and we work with them. We actually have sent students there to be trained. And then after that they join the industry. I think one of them is in Vietnam, and one is in China,

How are people pivoting their careers?

I think there’s a lot of help from the (Singapore) government. It is really up to the individual to find where they want to move to next. I think the challenge is more for 40 years and above. Because they might already have a career in doing certain things and how are they going to pivot their way out?

I’ll give an example in the textile and fashion industry. You may have a very seasoned sales manager, or someone who’s in charge of the shop. I would have expected most of them to be able to use a laptop. But I have come across students from the industry that were not able to use a laptop. 

That surprised me. Because I thought that everyone should know how to do it. So my advice to everyone is learn everything that needs to be digitalized — from your phone, from your tablet, from your laptop. This is the way going forward. In my office, there’s no physical form. I bought an old Ricoh machine. And Ricoh wants me to sign manually and find a rubber stamp. I have a rubber stamp, but it’s a digital rubber stamp. So I have to come back to the office to find a rubber stamp, stamp it and send them by post. 

I can’t imagine how many other companies are doing things like that. Have they not changed? So that’s something that surprised me. 

Your thoughts on upskilling and reskilling?

I think everyone is open to learning to a certain degree. But I think it is also very challenging for someone, let’s say you are 40 or 41 years old. And you’ve got a senior position in maybe sourcing and suddenly it’s being disrupted. So what can you do? You realize that you might need to have certain tools, or then change to a new job where you require to have programming skills, or being able to use Google Sheets and link up things. A lot of things that you have to learn. 

When you are new in that, I question whether the companies are willing to pay you for your past experience. So that’s the adjustment that I think is most difficult. 

The project that we are working on right now will give you guidance and advice on a career map. And you can do microlearning, you can learn a lot on your own. I think the most important thing is don’t wait for someone to tell you what’s next. You really have to figure it out for yourself. 

I have also gone through adjustments when I was 32 years old. I was in a high flyer industry. And I decided I want to slow down and I want to do something different. So I entered the education sector, and I suffered a 50% pay cut. But life goes on and you are able to pivot.  Because if you earn less then you just adjust your lifestyle accordingly. 

So I know how it feels. It’s not easy. It’s painful. But I am a survivor of that and I never knew that one day I will be able to run and own a fashion school. Just embrace the change and tell yourself what you can do. 

Maybe the government can help by giving internship allowances for someone in their 40s because if I go through another program and I enter the market at ground zero, then maybe come in as an intern. Reduce the cost for the company. But at least the person has a chance to get started again.

LEARNTech Asia
LEARNTech Asia showcases innovation in learning in Asia. We feature stories and resources in online learning, workplace learning, adult education, EdTech, and creative solutions by teachers and trainers in learning institutions, non-profits, and enterprises that enhance human capacity and inspire communities of lifelong learners.