Thinking Big: Bunny Yan Helps Creatives & Big Brands Turn Their Waste Into Wealth
Bunny Yan is Co-Founder and CEO of the Squirrelz, a company that has evolved from upcycling design, to an upcycling retail shop, to developer of an app to save unwanted materials and turn them into treasure, and now, something much bigger. This creative fashion designer is helping to address the problem of manufacturing waste in the apparel industry on a large scale. For major clothing brands and organizations, she now offers solutions to upcycle and reuse some of their waste, turning it into beautiful products.
Can you tell me about your background?
I was born in China, raised in Jersey and I went to school in fashion design —that was my major. I’ve been in the industry for 18 years, working in both design and marketing. My own design style is kind of colorful and funky. I like pieces that you can really personalize, so I will have cool details on each piece, but I also have pieces that have the same silhouette but with different prints. Silhouettes with different appliques can be very versatile. At the end of 2008, I decided to travel back to China. I felt I needed to first travel the world before I started my own fashion brand, because it kind of pushed me to where I am right now. I’m very American so I’m not used to the culture in China. But I really liked the food and there were so many cool things to see and it was easy to get around, so I decided to stay a while in China.
What was your take on the apparel manufacturing industry in China?
It’s only after you have been in a different country —a manufacturing country, that you start seeing the factories and how much waste actually accumulates and gets destroyed. Over here in the U.S., you hear all these numbers like millions and billions, but you can’t really picture how big the problem is because it’s just a number and you don’t see it. For me, when I first got into fashion, I worked in quality control. I was working with four different brands and also trying to find a manufacturer for my own brand. At that time, my partner and I saw a bunch of doctor’s uniforms that had been created. Because of a slight color defect, they were going to be sold to the garbage collector for pennies on the dollar and then shredded into stuffing. And, that’s normal with flawed clothing. And many times, the clothing that’s not perfect just goes straight to the landfill, which is really sad.
So my initial thought was —if they’re getting rid of this stuff for such a cheap price, well, for a startup entrepreneur, it’s beneficial to start your own collection with such great material at that price.
That’s why when I saw the doctor’s scrubs, I actually decided to turn them into shopping bags —to upcycle them. I designed a shoulder bag and put different compartments in them. Scrubs are very sturdy and machine-washable —great for a travel bag. So, we started to retail these as our first invention and started to collect products from other designers who use upcycle/recycle methods to create.
Can you describe what upcycling is?
Upcycling is like recycling except that you’re taking a used or defective item and transforming it into something else with no or minimum alteration.
I actually started a shop retailing upcycled and recycled products in Shanghai —that’s how the Squirrelz was born. It was like a collective of upcyclers. We actually won the New Shop Award from Time Out Shanghai in 2014.
Then, at the end of the year, the Squirrelz changed direction. I started pitching a different idea at competitions and to accelerators. I could see a bigger picture about how to turn waste into profit. We got into a Chinese business accelerator program and were able to learn a lot about the operation and execution sides needed to realize our idea. We went to a pitch night and were able to get $400K in total from investors.
Wow! You got $400K in investments! What’s your journey been since then?
At first, we were doing e-commerce and finding overstock from factories and reselling them to designers. We were finding really big numbers of pieces—like half a million shirts, or 10 containers of fabrics. People who are usually interested in these numbers are import/export people. So then you start to realize that you are just another exporter and there’s no creativity in that. Then we discovered that, with every single item, you also have a new material coming in —they send you samples; you get small quantities and these just sit in the office and don’t move. So at one point it was like, okay, we need space —storing these materials is ridiculous. So we developed a communication app for designers and brands with materials —kind of a mix between WhatsApp and Tinder. It’s called Squirrelz and it’s to get the word out about these sample fabrics. I was able to clear my office quite quickly of the samples. By creating the app, people could post things like, “I’m getting rid of this” and “who’s got ribbons?” and “who’s got leather scraps ?” So, on the app, there are people interested in crafts; there are people from local theater making costumes, also in film, so pretty much from any creative area. So I felt like I’m on the right track. It’s been beautiful, lots of work, of course, and still more work to do, but so rewarding!
What about your retail shop?
The Squirrelz retail shop had to close because I just can’t juggle retail and also deal in wholesale material. I like looking at the big picture, which means getting designers the materials they need to get started, even though it sounds less sexy than selling retail products. Plus, I started to see all this potential in the material and by-products brands throw out. The pieces have essentially the same characteristics as the material they’re using right now to make their products. Yeah, so that was all in 2015. So, our business focus adapted again.
So, what is your business focus now?
I’m now working with different, bigger brands in the US. I help them develop resource strategies to turn their own waste into products and develop related marketing strategies to help with customer acquisition and increase their market share. I mean, they’ve got zero overhead because they’ve already got the material. So, we reach out and link different departments in a company—from procurement, to logistics. We have to look into inventory, marketing… when I pitch this to brands, I help them see the bigger picture —how it can provide benefits for every single department.
So our efforts to monetize what we’re doing is working. One of our clients right now is Ann Taylor. We are turning their marketing waste from their window displays— such as banners—into bags and clutches they can sell retail in their own shop. So, the Squirrelz charges a design fee, a production fee and, since we’re doing their production run in New York, we oversee everything and receive a fee for that as well.
We also have another big client, but we’re under an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement), so I can’t say too much. We’re dealing with both their leftover and expired product packaging and we’re looking into what we can do with that.
So, you’re no longer in China —you’re back home in the U.S. Why’d you move back?
At the end of 2016, we decided it’d be better to continue our new venture back in the U.S., because in China, everyone who is a decision maker for brands is in the West. And, I am bringing brands value, right? So I needed to appeal to the decision makers directly. It was a good decision.
So, Bunny, why is it important, what you’re doing?
It’s fun, first of all. And, it’s just really interesting to have all of these resources get some exposure. These are resources that nobody’s touching otherwise. When I say resources, I’m talking about 9 billion tons a year of perfectly good material, that’s 25 million tons a day, that gets wasted. it’s like throwing away money. The value is in the trillions of dollars. If I can be the person who changes the industry… it makes me happy that I’m able to help share information like that. And on the creative process, this work is what I love. It gives me meaning in life.
That’s fantastic. So, just for clarification, when you talk about the Squirrelz, sometimes you say “we” and sometimes “I”. Who is the “we”?
I started the company with a co-founder and now I am solo in the company. My co-founder was my boyfriend. My boyfriend is very good when you give him a project and he can run with it. A business partner needs to be able to delegate. My boyfriend is really nice and he’d end up doing everything himself and I would say, “You need to delegate. You can’t just do everything by yourself.” But he does not enjoy delegating, so that’s why I’m now on my own in the business. This change is very good for our relationship. We’ve been together for six years now.
So Bunny, are you designing any fashion these days?
No, I’m not designing anything right now.
How do you feel about that?
It’s fine, yeah!
So, are you going to keep the App going?
Yes, for sure. In addition to the trades going on, I want to get to know designers and other talent through the app. It lets me find, for example, a person making these amazing purses out of banners. I can then link her with a buyer. That means that I can be the connector.
The next evolution for the app will be going towards a freemium model, as I’m going to provide open-loop (open to the public) and closed-loop posting. Meaning, for use within a company or specific community. On the open side, right now, if your design school has a donation room, companies and brands can donate fabrics and designers and students can get in there and grab what they like. But it’s a very inefficient way to do that. Most people don’t go in there because it’s really hard to sort through things and the material is not promoted. So, a school can use the Squirrelz app to post and find materials and their students well be able to share and then come pick the stuff up. It also lets us see on the back-end exactly what people are taking—what’s moving and what’s not moving. It helps you figure out how to manage that space.
The closed-loop posting is really interesting. Take, for example, a company like VFC (VF Corporation), with multiple brands under them like Timberland and The North Face. If they have any leftover materials or by-products or defective products, they can list them in their own network. If they have a large amount of material waste, instead of burning it, another sister company can come and take it and make something else. It’s changing the rules of the game, by making that transaction and communication as painless as possible!
So, as you grow, what’s next for Squirrelz?
I’m going to start a TV show —it’s the Squirrelz Challenge. In every episode, designers will hack a different discarded material. The winner then gets to work with a brand who’s donated some material and create a collection. It’s kind of Project Runway meets Amazing Race. It’ll show that upcycled designs are stunning and the best designers can do upcycling.
Do you have any advice for women entrepreneurs just starting out?
You have to be profitable and you have to be efficient, but your products should also be sustainable environmentally. You want to make sure you are not wasting all these materials, because that means you’re throwing away money. Why not make it a more efficient operation, like a circular model that’s better for everyone in the long run? It’s just smarter overall to do it that way.
Also, failure is one of the things that happens to entrepreneurs constantly. Trial and error is how you learn. You’re going to fail a bunch of times. It’s about how you react when you fail. After you fail enough times, you’re going to realize it’s not that scary anymore. But, entrepreneurship is not for everybody. Do it only if if makes you happy. Do it to pursue a passion, or you will get burned out fast.
For more information about the Squirrelz, go to https://thesquirrelz.com/
To download the Squirrelz Free Material App, go to https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/squirrelz-find-or-share-excess-design-materials/id1139689225