Hong Kong is a place brimming with talented and intriguing people. In our weekly 27 Questions column, we get up close and personal with the city’s notable personalities, learning about their whims and aversions, pivotal life moments, and hopes and dreams — all in roughly the same amount of time it takes to sit through a casual speed date. This week, we speak to Walden Lam, CEO and co-founder of unspun.
The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants is a movie about a magical pair of jeans. They’re magical because, one, they act as a convenient narrative vehicle for migrating between the four teenage girls’ first summer apart in Greece, Mexico, South Carolina and Bethesda, Maryland, respectively. Two, and more importantly, they’re jeans that fit four people. Simultaneously. All at once. No alternations; nothing. Now, here is where our suspension of disbelief kicks into high gear. Here is where the real magic — no, not the magic of a four-in-one Bildungsroman adventure — exists. Jeans with the inextricably perfect, plot-hole-notwithstanding fit.
But there’s a reason why we’re not questioning the premise of The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. A pair of jeans that fit, let alone fit perfectly, is something special. Something unspun — with the help of their nifty, revolutionary software that turns a 30-second iPhone body scan into a pair of made-for-you jeans — has turned into reality.
But Walden Lam, co-founder and CEO of unspun, didn’t plan on being a person in fashion. Like most that graduated into the financial crisis in 2008, though, something’s got to give.
“I thought I was going to go into finance, like most local kids,” Lam laughs. “But I became a consultant instead, helping with a diverse set of clients, ranging from local utility companies with climate change initiatives to fashion companies with channel expansion. It opened me up to the immensity of this crisis we live in and the nightmare situations we have with our supply chain.”
Lam — alongside Kevin Martin and Beth Esponnette, who Lam met at graduate school — co-founded unspun as a way to address a lot of those big, systemic issues.
unspun bills itself as “a robotics and digital apparel company” that just so happens to “make the best fitting jeans on the planet.” It’s a tall order — “Our goal is to reduce the global human carbon footprint by 1% through an on-demand supply chain.” — but it’s one that’s already proved successful. Just this past year, unspun was named one of TIME Magazine‘s “Best Inventions of 2021” — for which Lam directs credit immediately towards Esponnette, who is in charge of the brand’s award applications — which tallies up to the second time the brand has been awarded that esteemed honour. The first was in 2019.
“In a way, [TIME‘s “Best Invention” title] puts us in the same league as household technology names like Google and Samsung,” says Lam.
“Selfishly, I have always wanted to create something tangible, making a better product that has a deeper purpose,” continues Lam. “Fashion, specifically denim, has such an emotional connection on an individual level. It feels like there’s a true potential to build a consumer brand with this product. Rationally, denim is also one of the most polluting categories and the majority of people actually suffer from fit issues.”
unspun tackles both of those dilemmas by, first, getting rid of inventory and cutting down on cutting waste — traditional methods of garment making create close to 15% cutting waste! — and, second, making sure fit issues are non-existent. Or as close to it as possible. The brand is so confident in their software they offer free alterations and returns if you’re not completely satisfied. Now that how a pair of jeans fit is taken care of, the question of fit diverges from a resigned “Does it fit?” to a much more fun “Do you prefer slim, tapered, relaxed or loose fits?” (Lam, who admits he’s not unspun’s aspirational customer, sticks to the tapered.)
And, because he’s the jeans guy, here’s what he had to say about the controversial comeback of the low-rise: “Let’s just hope we don’t litter our landfill with high-waisted jeans.”
You heard the man. Keep the jeans. Mull through his twenty-seven answers. Then go get your unspun body scan for those perfect, perfect indigo blues.
unspun’s Walden Lam Talks An Indigo Blue Streak:
Name: Walden Lam
Neighbourhood: Tai Po
Occupation: CEO and co-founder of unspun
1. What is your life motto?
“Gotta catch ’em all.” Choices are for kids. When we grow up, I think we tend to see many things as zero-sum, this-or-that, work-or-life. The reality is that we need everything to kind of work.
2. What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten in Hong Kong?
Let’s see, because we work in and around Central and Soho, we are so spoiled. A good day starts with Matchali and baked goods for the team from Bakehouse. We default to Nutrition Kitchen for lunch, but otherwise, Treehouse or Green Monday for vegan Tuesdays. We get Cookie DPT for snacks. Our first dinner would be at Samsen and our late night snack will take place at Little Bao. How’s that?
3. What was your first job?
I was an actuarial assistant at Manulife.
4. When was the last time you drove a car?
Today, we proudly drive a second-hand Tesla Model S. Tesla is such an inspiration for creating systemic change through a better way of consumption.
5. What is the best thing in or about your apartment?
Our energetic daughter who’s constantly running around the apartment.
6. Are you a morning person or a night owl?
A reluctant morning person working with California, but definitely a night owl by nature.
7. Which phone app do you think more people should know about?
The unspun app allows you to scan and get your jeans custom-made, from your home. Hard-plug aside, I use StashAway for some passive investments, and Lucid (non-fiction book summary) to distract me from social media.
8. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Tofu is pretty versatile.
9. What is your biggest regret in life?
Should have started something at school.
10. What is the top destination on your bucket list?
11. How often do you prepare your own meals?
0% of the time when I am in Hong Kong. 100% of the time when I was in California.
12. What is one movie everyone should see?
Westworld, The Prestige, Inception, Interstellar and Tenet. A big fan of the works by the Nolan brothers. They are incredible at creating uniquely human narratives through the cutting-edge innovation of the time.
13. What is your typical Sunday like?
Generally a really gruesome CrossFit-style workout and some outdoor time with our 3.5-year-old daughter.
14. If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would it be?
The Nordic countries or Japan? It seems like they have figured out the total package, from diet to culture to governance.
15. What makes someone a real Hongkonger?
You draw some blood samples and see if the blood is 100% milk tea. Going along with food analogies, Hong Kong people are a little bit like chasiu bao (barbecue pork buns) — there’s always an exciting story underneath the otherwise plain bun surface.
16. If you could invite any five people in the world to your dream dinner party, who would they be?
Five is too many. I only want Presidents Xi and Biden in a room playing Truth or Dare for five straight hours. I have a hunch that could sort out some differences.
17. What is one song you know all the lyrics to?
“Counting Stars” by OneRepublic.
18. Where do you go when you want to be alone?
During the lockdown, I have developed a habit of piloting drones with our little one. Because we have so many buildings, our city offers a very different facade when viewed from the top!
19. When was the last time you felt starstruck?
I have a huge soft spot for athletes because I trained quite hard when I was young, and the diversity in shapes among world-class athletes was a part of my personal inspiration to start unspun. Was definitely a little bit starstruck bumping into local heroines like Yvette Kong and Stephanie Au. One of them has unspun jeans!
20. Who is the best teacher you’ve ever had, what is one important lesson that they taught you?
Joel Peterson (former chairman at Jetblue) was a professor at our grad school. He always talks about building companies one conversation at a time.
21. What is your unique party trick?
Can manage a few steps of hand-stand walking still, I think.
22. Do you have a catch phrase?
Hope is not a strategy. It demands that we do not spray and pray, which is surprisingly how we deal with some of the world’s most existential crises.
23. Have you ever experienced love at first sight? Tell us about it.
Oh! That’s how I met my co-founders Beth and Kevin.
24. Do you have any favourite tattoos or special birthmarks? What is it?
Not cool enough to have a tattoo!
25. How many pairs of shoes do you currently own?
Around ten, which I feel extra guilty about. Shoes are notoriously hard to recycle, unfortunately.
26. When did you feel that you ‘made it’?
(Let me get back to you in ten years.)
27. What’s the best or worst career advice you’ve ever received?
“Follow your passion.” Controversially, I think it’s bad advice.