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For Back-To-School Instagram Effort, Forever 21 And Breakfast Go Through 7 Miles Of Thread

Shoppers will be able to see what their Instagrams look like on a 2,000-pound machine that uses 6,400 mechanical spools to display the images.

Forever21 Instagram followers — the brand has over 7 million worldwide — will be able to see their images rendered on a 2,000 machine using 6.7 miles of threaded spools.
Forever21 Instagram followers — the brand has over 7 million worldwide — will be able to see their images rendered on a 2,000 machine using 6.7 miles of threaded spools.

For almost the past year-a-half, the technicians and artisans who work at the spacious loft headquarters of “non-agency” Breakfast have been putting together a quasi-digital display for clothing chain Forever 21’s 2015 back-to-school campaign, which kicks off the third week in July.

The concept involves connecting users’ Instagrams to a machine weighing 2,000 pounds called the F21 ThreadScreen. Ostensibly, the machine allows “friends from anywhere around the world to receive a video of themselves together unlike anything they’ve seen before,” according to the press release.

“As a company, we constantly seek innovation and discovery, so it was exciting to align ourselves with an agency that thinks of out-of-the-box ideas,” said a Forever 21 representative in an email interview. “We had very good results in the past that gave our fans new ways to get involved with our brand and wanted to come back with something unique. We worked with Breakfast to come up with a new, creative idea — ThreadScreen was the ending result.”

Okay, “non-agency” and “quasi-digital” in our description of Breakfast and its work do require some explaining.

Harmonizing Digital And Physical

Based in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, Breakfast was founded about five years ago by a mix of ad agency and software engineer refugees named Zolty (his first name is Andrew, but he just goes by his surname), Mattias Gunneras, and Michael Lipton. The idea was to form something that can best be described as a “Research & Development creative marketing workshop.”

By insistently eschewing the standard RFP process and demonstrating a distinct lack of interest in handling any advertising assignments that could be considered “traditional,” Breakfast has managed to attract brands that want to do a special one-off project that incorporates the highest technology with the most traditional materials in ways that show a true complement between digital and physical craft.

Zolty, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Breakfast
Zolty, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Breakfast

Car Manufacturing Is Easy By Comparison

And that’s the animating principle behind Forever 21’s back-to-school campaign, Tried and True. Unlike a lot of marketing efforts that have a guerrilla spirit that is actually intended to provide an edgy cover for the more straightforward marketing channels, the Tried and True campaign only involves Breakfast, Forever 21 told GeoMarketing.

“Our goal is to drive social reach of this campaign,” Forever 21’s rep said. “The ThreadScreen will naturally drive awareness, but it also shows Forever 21 as a leader in how social networks and technology can be used in completely new ways. After seeing the ThreadScreen, it will change the way that people think about the brand.”

While there’s nothing unusual about using social media to create attention, using an original machine for a six-day campaign run certainly qualifies as different. Rather than using pixels on a Jumbotron or creating a microsite to display images, the F21 ThreadScreen “is one of the most complex machines ever built for a brand,” Zolty said.

“It’s comprised of over 200,000 parts — over 8 times what you’d find in your car,” he said. “I certainly believe in my heart that it would’ve been easier to design and build a car than this. If you’re building a car and a part doesn’t fit, you can just change that part. With the ThreadScreen, the situation is, ‘Okay, that part isn’t quite right, but we have 14,000 of those parts — and we can’t just remake 14,000 parts and reinstall them.’

“When something goes wrong, you multiply it by a thousand and you can’t always change it; you kind of have to react,” Zolty continued. “It’s quite a different approach. So, yeah, if I preferred less of a challenge, I would’ve preferred to build a car.”

A F21 ThreadScreen module: the entire device is composed of thousands of motors and gears, 600 pounds of milled aluminum, lathed wooden spools — all have been custom designed, engineered, and manufactured from scratch.
A F21 ThreadScreen module: the entire device is composed of thousands of motors and gears, 600 pounds of milled aluminum, lathed wooden spools — all have been custom designed, engineered, and manufactured from scratch.

Building A Hashtag Machine

The F21 TheadScreen is composed of thousands of motors and gears, 600 pounds of milled aluminum, lathed wooden spools — all have been custom designed, engineered, and manufactured from scratch, Zolty said.

Each spool has a five-and-a-half foot-long piece of threaded fabric that rolls over top of it — imagine a conveyor belt. The fabric is made up of 36 colors, each one-and-three-quarter inches in length.

That all adds up to 6.7 miles of threaded fabric — enough to cross the Brooklyn Bridge six times — and 6,400 spools. If the spools were all stacked on top of each other, they’d be taller than the London Eye.

Instagrams that are hashtagged with #F21ThreadScreen are automatically captured and sized for the screen’s 80×80 resolution. Each spool’s motor drives the fabric to it’s appropriate color. Each ribbon also features a reflective strip, which is scanned by an infrared sensor, and tells the machine the color each spool is currently showing, allowing for corrections for any slip that may occur.

But now that’s its done, the hard part really begins: From July 22-28, the F21 ThreadScreen will be manned 24 hours a day by Breakfast’s staffers.

“There are so many parts, anything could go wrong at any time, and because this is a global project, we have to be prepared to keep it running,” Zolty said. “The fabric, in particular, is very susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity. As the machine heats up, those parts holding it in place start to act differently, which is why we have a little mission control team that’s sitting and watching it the entire time.”

The F21 ThreadScreen "body" that holdes the spool modules together.
The 11-foot high F21 ThreadScreen “body” that holdes the spool modules together.

Fashion Experiments

As a result of the sensitivity of the parts and the massive weight of the machine, the F21 ThreadScreen won’t be able to make an appearance at an actual Forever 21, as was initially hoped. Instead, it will remain at Breakfast’s shop, where it will transmit images on its dedicated site.

“One of the cool things about Forever 21 is that they like to do a bit of experimentation in tech,” Zolty noted.

For example, Zolty noted that when Forever 21, which has 700 stores across 48 countries, first moved into Times Square with a four-level 90,000 square-foot emporium with 151 fitting rooms in 2010, the entrance sported a 61-foot wide outdoor LED billboard that encouraged patrons to stand in front to pose for a Polaroid that would ultimately be broadcast on that same screen above.

In this case, since Forever 21 now has over 7 million Instagram followers, the F21 ThreadScreen is meant to do the same thing as that Times Square billboard, albeit on a global scale.

“With our strong global follower count, we are excited to see the turn out,” Forever 21 said.

“This effort promotes further engagement with its followers, its shoppers,” Zolty added. “At the end of the day, the big goal not about getting attention for this targeted thing. The hope and goal of most of our work is always to make something that appeals to a very broad audience while still personal. ThreadScreen is meant to create awareness about [Forever 21’s] stores and its brand, and its back-to-school campaign, all in a very individual way.”

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of GeoMarketing.com. A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.