Decoded Fashion Summit, London May 13, 2014
It’s like guys who signed up for women’s lit classes in college just to be surrounded by a room full of girls. No other tech conference will gather together so many women, much less see as many beautifully styled outfits and high heels, than Decoded Fashion, the Fashion & Tech conference and hackathon series founded by Liz Bacelar.
Yesterday’s summit in London, held at the Somerset House, brought to the table a diverse set of profiles from both sectors (during lunch, introductions were followed with: “are you from the fashion side or the tech side?”) and a group of innovative entrepreneurs who pitched the result of 24 hours of business development with the chance of earning a great opportunity to implement their idea with AllSaints. The unofficial, yet recurring themes of the day were mobile, mobile, mobile, and the power of imagery as a vessel for tech and for brand identity.
In the first panel of the day, on the new challenges in ecommerce, LYST founder Chris Morton insisted on the power of storytelling within brands’ own ecommerce platforms versus pure utility of a site like Amazon with which we associate words like “cheapest” and “fastest,” and the idea of offering everything, not luxury. And Charlotte O’Sullivan, Head of Group Online at Mulberry, reminds us to “think bigger than your online store.” Adding, it might not be sexy, but “my stuff arrived on time” is one of the best moments to engage the customer in a positive emotional experience.
A brief mention of CRM and linking the consumer experience in store and online alluded to some omni channel efforts, but there was a general evasiveness towards the technical questions that moderator Mike Butcher (TechCrunch) kept trying to steer towards. It feels that luxury is behind contemporary fashion in this regard. The conversation felt a bit old fashioned and manual in regards to personalization as well, the idea of hand written notes and brand ‘insider-ship’ via Instagram, which begs the question: How do you scale personalization? LYST seemed to have an answer in their staffing strategy: 30/50 employees are data scientists and engineers, providing them the knowledge necessary to personalize in new ways through tech, which is infinitely scalable. The argument: if the service is refined enough, tech strategies can feel as personal as a hand written note.
Imagery was credited in many contexts, from both the tech side and the fashion side, as a critical tool for brand engagement and customer retention. Because both consumers and brands create images, imagery becomes a dialogue rather than a brand monologue. Olapic, a disruptive, image-based content aggregator, enables brands to engage their consumers by gathering images from across the web for brands to then reintegrate into their communication. The power of the image has, thus, made it a full 360 degrees, just as we are moving into the 3D space becoming more prevalent in brand experience.
Lulu Guinness brought along a lip clutch, saying that as long as strict quality control is in place she would embrace 3D printing, using code as a distribution method. Leap Motion (control the digital world through hand gestures, rather than touch) and Inition (think Oculus Rift and the Topshop virtual reality live stream) are already offering ways to navigate online and move through the world, also providing access to the inaccessible through virtual and augmented reality.
Fashion struggles, understandably, to integrate these tools into their brand experience, but as the technologies become more affordable and adoption more pervasive, we can imagine the idea of going shopping in brick and mortar meaning something very different for today's youth and coming generations.
The prevailing issue of ecommerce affecting everyone from high-street to luxury, order returns, was addressed by four competitors in the fit technology space in a conversation that covered the importance of visualization, how they gather their data, and how technology can help companies “be more profitable in a more efficient way.” True Fit uses a comparative data system, taking specs of key body areas to put variable brand sizing in context; Metail bases their fit tech off of a physical body model of the customer; Virtuesize compares the specs of something you already own to something you want to buy.
Of the four companies, the only one not to use some kind of visualization is True Fit. The decision, co-founder Jessica Murphy explained, is that they don’t want to “oversell the client (brand)” whose imagery is so personal to their narrative. The fit tech visualization might break the spell and “get in the way of the Buy button.” She argues that the purity of their tool “gets at the subjectivity not just the utility” and thus does not interfere with the emotional connection brands work hard to create with the customer through to purchase.
The ultimate highlight for me personally was the panel led by Juliet Warkentin (Amazon Fashion UK), including Frederic Court (Advent Ventures), Daniel Bobroff (ASOS), and Ben Jones (CTO AKQA). Their cumulative experience in the tech industry across platforms, from gaming to investments, provided rich dimension and insight into how successful tech principles can be applied to fashion businesses, and how tech can be a powerfully scalable tool in building out service, experience, and using intelligence (i.e. big data).
While there was an agreement that mobile is a direction of the future (it is the main portal to the Internet in China, for example), Jones reminded us that mobile is not always right: “it depends on the context.” And that in regards to mobile and all other decisions, “everyone should take the approach of experimentation.”
The summation of their discussion came in the contradictory yet complimentary assertions from Frederic Court, “it’s all about product,” and Daniel Bobroff, “you need to provide a service,” after which he added: “the definition of a brand is going to change.” It doesn’t seem new that brands are defined by the identity narrated through their products and the experience of their service, but therein lies the enigma of tech: inventing totally new ways to systemize and aggregate, on a global scale, networks that already exist but are invisible – that is until an innovator manifests them through a platform or design and our world is forever changed.
This thought gets to the meat of the issue, which lies in the disparity between the concept of a brand in the experience-centric tech world, and the concept of a brand in the product-centric fashion world. It is only through these conversations, and much experimentation, that the two will find their common ground. Decoded Fashion has created a space for that to develop. What remained unanswered, although fruitfully explored throughout the day, was the question that concluded the summit, from William Kim, CEO of All Saints: “Why don’t fashion companies think like digital brands?” The aesthetics of front-end design (i.e. digital) are more easily compatible with fashion than the futuristic aesthetic pervasive in wearable tech (a term Liz predicts will evolve into something more fitting as the products themselves evolve) so in the meantime, the challenge goes out to fashion brands to embrace change, to experiment, and to be a part of this inevitable and exciting future of the industry.
Three of the five hackaton pitches included two runners up: Bespoky, a social media concept connecting shoppers to sales associates based on personal style profiles in the app, and Suffro, a fitting room browser to pull new pieces and different sizes without having to search for the sales associate while half dressed, respectively. Both proposed pushing brand content to the device while the customer waits. The winning team, Loop, enables the customer to create an active wish list, scanning products they want to purchase to receive alerts when stock gets low. The implications of the tool are great for the customer, empowering them to buy when they want, and for the data collection of the retailer. I love their 360 degree taglines: Helping the customer “stay in the loop” and the retailer “close the loop.” Well done.
“Let’s get geeky.” – Mike Butcher, Editor-at-Large, TechCrunch, reminding panelists to get to the tech-of-the matter: a little more geek, a little less fashionista.
“The words “big data” and “emotion” don’t really go hand in hand, do they?” – Mike Butcher
“Be fearless or you’ll be left behind.” – Lulu Guinness, Designer, on embracing technology
“Free consumer experience is eating your profit margins like a monster” – Jeroen Vanderhaeghen, CEO & Co-Founder, Hyghlyne
“The boring things will define the brands of the future…you build your foundation and then you build your castle.” – Ben Jones, CTO, AKQA
“We need to move to a stage where technology is more invisible…we are all still uncomfortable with the amount of time [the smart phone] is present in our lives…” Maybe wearables have an answer here. – Daniel Bobroff, Investment Director, ASOS
“It pains my heart to see people waiting.” – William Kim, AllSaints, on his desire to streamline the purchase process in store.
“Awareness creates intent. Forward thinking brands are catching on” – Alicia Navarro, Founder, Skimlinks