An innovation lab at N.C. State's College of Textiles.

VF Corp. is taking its approach to innovation to a whole new level through a collaborative and strategic partnership with North Carolina State University.

The partnership allows VF to support student development at N.C. State via its College of Textiles and Poole College of Management, and allows the company to advance its apparel and textiles innovation program within the firm.

Steve Rendle, chairman and chief executive officer of VF, said, “Through our shared expertise in research and consumer insights, we aim to stimulate apparel innovation while also developing a consistent pipeline of exceptional leaders for our company.”

According to Scott Deitz, vice president of public affairs for the Greensboro, N.C.-based apparel giant, the two have always had an informal relationship given that the Raleigh-based university is just 90 miles “down the road.” Many graduates are employed at different divisions within VF. As part of the now formal initiative between the two, there will be more training activities for the students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as executive education opportunities for VF associates.

According to Deitz, VF will also establish a full-time office at N.C. State’s adjacent Centennial campus, which is home to the school’s research center. In addition to housing its extensive research library, other like-minded companies interested in furthering research and innovation have a similar presence on the campus.

Deitz said the partnership will enable VF to “better identify consumer interests, and identify innovative products that it can bring to the marketplace.” While the textiles college will focus work on fashion and textiles production, Poole will center on the business end that future leaders need to know on the data analytics side and, specifically, supply chain management.

“We may have a project associated with the research and innovation labs where we are tapping their capability at the same time, or there may be an idea that emerges from their [work] that may be turned over to our innovation centers to see if we can carry it forward,” Deitz said, adding also that some of those projects may be “confidential” in nature as part of the ordinary course of research and development.

Deitz also said that the formalized partnership is part of the company’s five-year strategic plan disclosed in March. While the partnership between the VF and the university is for three years, Deitz said the goal is for a long-term partnership beyond that initial time frame. He added that in addition to innovation research and expertise, the partnership gives “VF the opportunity to engage in talent development.”

To kick off the partnership, VF’s VF Foundation, which operates as a separate entity, has gifted the university $1 million to support initiatives at the textiles college and Poole. It also has established two partial scholarships for students that will be awarded in May for the following academic year.

David Hinks, dean at the College of Textiles, said Centennial campus is about 1,260 acres, with 4.2 million square feet developed and dedicated to research. Other firms with long-standing offices on the campus include Hanesbrands Inc. and Eastman Chemical Co.

Hinks said companies on the campus will sponsor events with the university for the students, as well as collaborate with each other on research projects. Because the campus is a research hub and training ground for its students, there are also manufacturing facilities to facilitate product development and analysis of test concepts and prototypes.

VF’s focus is on improving sustainability of products and services, and Poole’s supply chain management program should also play a key role in the partnership, Hinks said.

Hinks, as dean of the textiles college, also has a unique vantage point on where the future of textiles could be headed. He expects a continued move to regrow the manufacturing base in the U.S.

“I see a tremendous opportunity and resurgence and interest in manufacturing and marketing of U.S. apparel and footwear. There’s been a lot of change in the industry, and with the mass movement of manufacturing to one region or another, there’s also a lot of interest in local [production],” he said.

While manufacturing in the past was more labor intensive, which comprised a high percentage of the costs, the future will be centered on automation, Hinks said. He noted that energy costs are significantly lower in the state than in most parts of the world, and there is already a sizeable amount of production in North Carolina.

“Automation and innovation present new opportunities for companies like VF, and [their presence on the campus] gives them flexibility down the road,” Hinks said.


Centennial Campus aerial looking east towards downtown Raleigh.

N.C. State’s Centennial Campus, home to the school’s research facilities.  ROGER W WINSTEAD