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Taking the Fashion-Tech Long View

Galileo showed the   Doge of Venice   how to use the telescope (Fresco by   Giuseppe Bertini  )

Galileo showed the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope (Fresco by Giuseppe Bertini)

Talking fashion technology has become a largely consumer oriented dialogue. Wearables, customer experience, personalization, are all buzzwords that come up across topics and up and down market. Fashion and Tech (from both sides) are wrapped up in being of-the-moment, which takes away from the efforts put towards long-term change and realignment. So many of the more deep-rooted operational issues remain un-discussed and unchanged while we endlessly discuss the newest round of wearable devices that will be abandoned in turn.

Deep change takes more capital risk, and more bottom-up operational auditing. But when presented with an opportunity like this moment of flux in the fashion industry, those are the changes that reap the most benefit. We should all take the long-view. 

So many of the press-oriented conversation pieces begin to feel like anecdotes for brands to become part of the discussion and to say they were among the first. The short-term gains experienced by certain brands are becoming too common for any brand to really stand out, but others are still wanting to participate for fear of being left behind. With all the transient and already outdated efforts we’ve seen in Fashion & Tech, it is that much more exciting when an idea or a project truly bringing us forward.

A couple of these bright moments occurred at the recent Decoded Fashion Summit in New York City, attended by an ever growing mix of fashion, business, and tech decision makers and innovators.

In a “fireside chat” with Symphony Commerce, a service for outsourcing certain infrastructure needs to get companies through their growing pains, the conversation shifted from product to back end. How can scaling business in fashion and retail make the leap in revenue growth without equally increasing their overhead? What does it look like when a five-person startup has the efficiency of a Yoox or an Amazon? These are the questions that lead to growth in an industry that needs to learn new ways of scaling while remaining agile.

 

Some examples of rock stars in the fashion and tech space growing their operations by scaling out their user experience are Rent the Runway and Rebecca Minkoff. Rent the Runway launched their subscription service which founder Jennifer Hoffman sees as her dream closet, constantly rotating. “Imagine there is a trap door in the back of your closet,” she suggested. “And it leads directly into the Rent The Runway warehouse.” The RTR philosophy of smarter consumption is also one of their great assets. It provides a compass for their business growth, and gives their customers a conscious alternative to fast fashion.

 

Image from the  WSJ 

Image from the WSJ 

Rebecca Minkoff’s new retail location might be brick and mortar, but there is so much embedded tech that the segue from online to off becomes seamless, to their benefit and the customer’s. They have the advantage of having participated, with great foresight, in the Fashion & Tech dialogue from the beginning, giving them the knowledge and the access to partnerships that made the dream of this store to a reality. Uri Minkoff, CEO, spoke passionately about the choices they made in building their brand’s retail embodiment. They key moments they looked at started with the moment of entry, through to discovery, the approach and interaction with the stylist, lighting, fitting rooms, the checkout, and even getting into post-visit follow up.

When we think of fashion, we obviously think of product. These examples speak to the fact that technology can really enable us to reimagine not only our products and our sales strategies but also our systems. As brands and business we should be thinking about infrastructure and logistics, becoming better and more efficient within our own walls. This will inevitably align with an improved experience for our customers. And this is a place where technology can certainly enable change within fashion companies, most notably amongst startups who are still nimble and who rely more on experimentation than big data to inform their decisions. 

While certain tech tools, including the media buzz generated by being aligned with tech, are enabling companies to make short-term gains, it is the companies that are looking at the long view who will get the most out of this mergence of Fashion and technology.

 

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The App: A Consumerism Accelerator

When fashion is your business, it is easy to take for granted the ease of putting together an outfit and then where to find that missing piece you are looking for, or knowing what is appropriate for a given occasion, or what will compliment your figure. As this article from Forbes points out, it's not something that many women understand intuitively and thus it takes time to figure out, and we all know time is one thing we are short on. Then there's style envy: the item you see on the woman on the street and covet and have to have. But where can you find it?

All of these problems, which for brands are missed opportunities to make a sale, have spurred many apps and brand services to bridge that gap from mystery and coveting to identification and sale. It empowers the customer, but it also loosens up their purse strings. 

As fashion brands and marketers, we're all about streamlining the experience–removing as many barriers as possible so you don't lose the sale. Facilitate the purchase with as few clicks as possible in the checkout. Yes, this makes for a better, faster customer experience, but it also encourages impulse buying which is a habit of consumerism I wish more brands would actually try to discourage (Patagonia being one leader in Need based consumerism). 

As far as the technology of the apps though, the concept is pretty fascinating that a computer could recognize and organize 2D images, or enable brands to collect customer generated content. But as much as they serve the consumer or give them a feeling of connection to the brands they love, these apps are also consumerism accelerators. They are businesses with a goal of making money, so the goal is to get high conversion rates and high engagement. The more you spend, the better they do. It is their prerogative to get you to buy things. 

ASAP54-Starkweather-Blog.png

This list of apps will give you an idea of some of the most highly populated such as: ASAP54, Bib & tuck, Covet, and Pose (one that was, according to Mashable, about dressing for the weather, but is now a closet trading app).

Much like we discussed with the uprise of shoppable video, these apps tend to promote emulation and aspiration rather than individuality.

What about an app that provides greater information to the consumer? A CNET for fashion to compare and contrast products to make a thoughtful and informed decision about your purchase. An app that makes fashion feel less disposable. 

We have enough ways to make buying easier. Let's start to come up with ways to buy smarter.


Side notes–

The way we're going: One day we will be able to see a killer pair of shoes on a woman who walks by while we're sitting having coffee downtown and think in our minds "I want that" and our brainwaves would communicate with our smart glasses through vibrations and a distribution center somewhere would get a signal prompting a drone to take off, item in tow, and deliver it in to your GPS tracked location.  

Will computers eventually develop taste? Preferences? That aren't programmed?

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Now that a 'hack' is a meme, does it mean anything?

The word "hacking" still makes me think of computer geeks sitting in windowless rooms with junk food and soda all over the tables, moms calling down to see if they want any milk and cookies, and periodic breaks to play in virtual realities with strangers who go by names like DarkDante or ninja69.

Or some more famous gents who started out as computer hackers and then became legit life hackers

Or some more famous gents who started out as computer hackers and then became legit life hackers

But if I put away the image that Hollywood put in my mind, I think about is as the business of getting into places you're not supposed to be or access to information you're not supposed to have. There is a sense of martyrdom in the term, a crusade for the greater good and the belief in open data and idealism. A damn the man kind of attitude that means disruption and chaos in a way that things could never go back to the way they were once that system had been hacked. 

So when hacking started to be applied to life in general, it had a double effect of a) making it feel less criminal but also less noble, and b) becoming a meme that devalues real innovation and disruption.

Case and point: When hiking in Crête last summer, I was inappropriately wearing really cheap flip flops (never intended to go further than the shower at the gym) which, of course, broke. Ingeniously I found some bobby pins in my bag, and created a lock to keep the toe hold from popping back through the sole making the things totally useless and leaving the soles of my feet naked against the sharp salt-bitten rock surface. I made it all the way back to the boat. Later I saw the flip-flop fix (different to mine but similar) on a list of 'the 50 (or so) best life-hacks'. Really? 


In the fashion sphere, and more recently in the fashion/tech sphere, this word has been coming up all over the place meaning many different things. They're called Fashion hacks. But so far it seems they fall closer to the bobby-pin-flip-flop-save than the change-the-way-we-do-things-forever kind of visionary hack.

Let's take a look at what we have so far:

You have the mini-fashion-emergency hacks, such as these on WhoWhatWear. And the since 2010 defunct (but still in the top ten of my google results for 'fashion hack') Guardian DIY fashion hacks, all of which are, factually, terribly unfashionable. There is literally a suggestion to bedazzle your perfectly good black sweater. 

How to update your trench every spring instead of buying a new one. Not fashion.

How to update your trench every spring instead of buying a new one. Not fashion.

You have fashion hackathons, like this Hearst Fashion Hack, which is a platform for pitching an app that has something to do with clothing or accessories. 

This runway show organized by the Paris branch of Freespace that was meant to hack fashion week. But what does that really mean? (After waiting for almost an hour for the show to start, this attendee left for another engagement- waiting an hour for a show to begin feels very much like fashion week un-hacked). We need to depart entirely from the existing model to call it a hack, and to make positive change.

And you have Fashion/Tech conferences embedded with hackathons, such as Decoded Fashion, which so far has been the most successful at bringing together some leaders in the disruption of the fashion industry as we know it. 

This site, Hacking Couture, puts it well, although their high volume content waned off after 2006. Still, I like their definition of what they do:

If Fashion Codes are the DNA of a brand, then Hacking Couture is the process that allows people to deconstruct something that is mass-produced into something hand-made and self-expressed. The idea is not new – its’ what open source code revolution is all about.
Starting in the 1990s, open source code software allowed users to exchange ideas and dialogs through free documentation and distribution. Not only did this create an open dialog between programmers, but it helped decode the nature of software as people shared how they hacked.  This opened a new world of communications and inspired the core of Hacking Couture.
This is how they mathematically break down the code of a designer. Love this.

This is how they mathematically break down the code of a designer. Love this.

So if we're talking about reconfiguring, reprograming, breaking down, breaking in and redesigning fashion, then what are we really doing? In all of the reading and the conversations and my own efforts to approach things in some way other than what I knew, looking for the back door, there is still so much troubleshooting and so much unknown. We're computers running an algorithm without knowing what we're looking for.

There are some real disruptors out there. It's just that, unlike in the tech world, they don't identify themselves as such. So maybe we should just be wary of the self-ascribed hacker in fashion. That's not the only dissimilarity between computer hackers and fashion hackers. Prison time, for example. And we don't need to lean too heavily on the integration of technology to make change. Computers aren't the only tool for revolution although they do help us achieve it at a great scale.


It is always tempting to wonder about what the future is going to look like and wish your way towards it without going through the experimentation that will get us there. But some group has to do the work, make the mistakes, and make the breakthroughs. It's more than changing the belt on your trench to feel like you have something new, it's getting away from the constant need for something new. 

Hacking is about turning industry upside down, and bringing transparency and empowering the people. Maybe no one needs to end up in prison to achieve true fashion hacker status, but let's not throw the term around nonetheless. Let's de-meme-ify it and give it back to those fashion hackers who really live up to the words origins and originators.

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On the blog here I'll be sharing short lists of those who make the ranks for real in fashion today. Make sure you check back for that. Or better yet, sign up for the Fashion Hacker Shortlist alerts below.

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Instead of Fashion House Musical Chairs…

Why not repurpose the resources expended when putting a new designer at the head of an existing design company? The idea is to empower them by making the collection their own, even until they grow old and retire, much like for the designers who created these businesses. While the existence of the major luxury houses was made possible by Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Cristobal Balenciaga, their names now keep a kind of shadow over the design world. To take this approach would be a bigger gamble, maybe, and there might be some precious years in between where the decision makers, head hunters, chess players, don’t get it quite right (any designer at Paco Robanne since 1999) or it goes terribly wrong (John Galliano at Dior) later on, those seasons will either become undesired vintage, or the museum collection's rarest of all gems.

Dior by Raf Simons

Celine by Phoebe Philo

Louis Vuitton by Marc Jacobs

Hermès by Whoever’s-After-Lemaire?

Etc.


When I first made this suggestion to a friend, I was a bit more radical about it. (Ditch the Dior entirely and just call it Raf Simmons, for God’s sake) but the re-branding that would require is too momentous for any business, understandably. So simply change the label and change the attitude and expectations. Consumers will learn from us, if we show confidence, speak of longevity, and write reviews that show excitement and must-haveness.

And it really does get tiresome, the goings on back behind the scenes and in the board rooms and calculating the bottom line. If you consider the designer a commodity, they will feel it and want to leave. But, my theory is that if you treat the designer like the creative genius that he/she is (or that you must believe he/she to trust them at the helm in the first place) and give realistic goals and realistic critiques and surround them with a team who understand how to bring out the best in them and make the machine run smoothly, they will want to stay. And they will make you money. Premium salaries can be sedated a bit and drama and law suits can be avoided and this confusion that is a melting pot of lost identity, on the part of the designers and the brands, can instead begin to define new and pure distinguishing factors. Otherwise, once the lineage of all the houses begin to look the same, we'll just end up with more cross-referencing, more archive replicating, and more firing and more hiring (with ever elevating salaries and expenditures) if something doesn’t give.

Not to mention it is TOO much to have designers splitting their time between their own design businesses while also acting as the head designer or creative director for a major global brand. This can be 16 collections a year, give or take a couple of seasons, endless travel, and two teams to manage...it's just too much. The two can be one and the same: their own label, for all intents and purposes, and the major global brand.

Also, is it ridiculous to anyone else that the most common metaphor for this shuffling around is that of a children's game? Musical chairs is fun and all, but it's not an exciting spectator sport, especially when the game is rigged by those who have money on the outcome. 


The most important things needed for this change:

New Main Labels. (I’ve already taken the liberty of creating a few. I’ll send the invoice later, thank you.) (So, Check.)

A handful of Designers who have proven themselves over and over again no matter the name on the roof over their head (Check.)

Design houses that want consistency in their image and trust in the loyalty of their customer (Check.)


The closest thing towards this new system would be the dramatic and controversial revamp of the Yves Saint Laurent label, now Saint Laurent, under Hedi Slimane (I was recently trying to find it under the ‘Y’s on Style.com…oh yes, the name had a face lift). There are so many different ways this brand redesign can occur, and the right designer with the right team could work a magic in the fashion landscape if we just let them create without restricting them. Phoebe Philo or Alber Elbaz could be considered close in second, as the Céline label, for example, was all but dead until she made it the most forward and coveted (and expensive) collection of the fashion season. Why in the world is it not called Céline by Phoebe Philo? And even if it’s not on the label, and she is much less in the public eye than, say, Alexander Wang, she certainly has come to personify the look that she creates each season. 

If Ghesquiere had been able to make Balenciaga his own, the story might not have ended like this.


This does negate the prediction that the era of designer as celebrity coming to an end. But, for real, when the departure of a head designer from a luxury company is still making all the major headlines is this really going out of style?

Then again I could get behind that movement, too…We can talk about that later, though.

Either way, let's quit playing games. 



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The Shot Callers of the Fashion Capitals

In each fashion capital there is an entity that orchestrates fashion weeks and upholds the standards of their country's position in the fashion world: The Council of Fashion Designers of America out of New York, the British Fashion Council out of London, In Milan the Camera Nazionale della moda Italiana, and in Paris, the Fédération Française de la couture, du prêt-à-porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode–That last one is quite a mouthful–And there's another chapter of the authority in Paris, The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, which presides over the Haute Couture classifications and organization of Haute Couture Fashion Week. 

While they act more like men behind the green curtains, they are arguably the most important decision makers in fashion in the big picture sense. These organizations are responsible for the image that is projected on a national level through this multi-trillion dollar industry and maintaining their respective nations' status at the top of the fashion totem pole. This means creating programs for cultivating new businesses and catering to the long established houses to ensure they have what I consider the respect due to the the elders. 

When fashion comes down to the bottom line, the goal is to ensure that the major companies on a global scale, like Louis Vuitton to France or Ralph Lauren to the USA, continue to thrive, and that new companies continue to open and find success to keep the economy dynamic and growing.

There is a lot at stake here, far beyond the spectacle of fashion week parties and runway shows. And because of the major publicity tool it has become, has fashion week outgrown its own reason for being? Or has it just taken on a new role? 

These are questions for the fashion councils, answers to which we might be seeing in the next few years. Or maybe ten. (For an industry that moves fast, fashion sure can move slow).


Logistically, it is hard to imagine how fashion week ever ran, or how these cities developed the fashion identity we know today without these groups to coordinate the schedules and uphold the creative and qualitative standards of the city's official calendar. CFDA was founded in 1962, The Fédération Française in 1973 (Syndicat de la Haute Couture, however has been around since 1868), the BFC in 1983, and the CNMI in 1958. Then again, the fashion week we know today is far from the private, no cameras allowed showrooms of couture and the early days of ready-to-wear, and is almost nothing like fashion week as it existed even ten years ago. Recent phenomena in particular, such as the internet, then bloggers, then social media, made sure of that.

Evolution continues, but within the unchanging structure of fashion week there is a feeling that fashion week has become too much. Too formulaic. Too crowded. Too messy. Too scene-y. But is that feeling shared across the board by the decision makers? There is little pressure to change when the establishment is so powerful that any challengers are quickly dismissed. Maybe it's a question of changing leadership, fresh eyes, that will ignite some kind of transformation. Maybe it's a question of time, and change coming from the decision of individual designers to break the mold. Think of Oscar de la Renta, for example, reverting to a private showroom presentation rather than producing a full-on runway show.

The recent appointment of Ralph Toledano to replace Didier Grumbach at the Fédération Française creates an oportunity for change, much like the installment of Jane Reve to the Camera della Moda. While Grumbach is a champion of many modernizing efforts to the French fashion industry, and has arguably witnessed and participated in the major moments that have transformed the identity of French fashion, any person in one position for too long can lead to stasis. 

Ralph Toledano, president FFCPAP

Ralph Toledano, president FFCPAP

Didier Grumbach, former president FFCPAP

Didier Grumbach, former president FFCPAP

Jane Reeve, chief executive of the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana

Jane Reeve, chief executive of the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana


While Fashion Weeks are popping up in other cities all over the world from Berlin to Beijing, they have followed the same model and thus add to the content without contributing to the modernization of the system. And so the aforementioned capitols still represent the four pillars of identity that explain modern fashion: Paris, the original fashion capitol, is the hub of the Avant Garde and the no-expense-spared creative artistry; London, the hip and edgy side with a dose of traditionalism and Savile Row heritage; Milan, the home of timeless, understated luxury and family run businesses; New York, the sportswear and street-savvy mega brands. 

Across all boards, France remains the city where international designers come in to show on the official calendar, while London, Milan and New York are more nationalistic. I think, in particular, of the Belgian and Japanese designers who represent some of the most exciting moments on the Paris calendar. 

It remains the most exciting of all the cities for that reason, as well. The diversity and the creative richness being unmatched & leaving it appropriately as a climax at the end of the long month of running around the globe to runway shows and showrooms.

The barrier for entry in Paris feels higher than in any of the other cities, maybe because of the showmanship required to be considered for the official calendar. In all cities around the world there are off-calendar events, many multi-brand showrooms, and boot-strapping efforts to gain visibility from the traffic brought during fashion week. But until a company is recognized by their country's fashion council, they have to fight that much harder for visibility. And that recognition has to be earned.


Natalie Massenet, centre, chairman of the BFC. Caroline Rush, right, CEO of BFC   

Natalie Massenet, centre, chairman of the BFC. Caroline Rush, right, CEO of BFC
 

While the leaders of these organizations share similar job responsibilities, the structure in each city is quite different, as are the initiatives that they develop to further their country's fashion industry. Among many other things, New York is celebrated for their Fashion Fund and incubator, and also for their legislative efforts in Washington to pass the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act, while Paris has recently introduced the Designer's Apartment showroom and the Mode et Finance fund to influx cash into promising young designer businesses. 

Although the Didier Grumbachs and Steven Kolbs, along with their teams, are the drivers behind these programs and the authority behind so many decisions regarding the fashion world, they are surprisingly under the radar for the larger fashion community. A broader look at the boards, however, and some more familiar names appear at the top of the list. In London the Chairman of the BFC is Natalie Massenet of Net-a-Porter fame with Caroline Rush as Chief Executive, and in New York Diane Von Furstenberg is the president of the Board of Directors–and is arguably the most prominent face of the organization because of her celebrity–while Steven Kolb acts as CEO.

Steven Kolb, CEO at CFDA

Steven Kolb, CEO at CFDA

Diane Von Furstenberg, President of the Board of Directors, CFDA

Diane Von Furstenberg, President of the Board of Directors, CFDA

What it comes down to is that these people behind the scenes create the space in which fashion is presented and received and born and grows and finds community. The inner workings of individual companies will ultimately determine their longevity and their relevance, but the way the greater fashion community, and public at large, understand fashion, national identity, big brands versus emerging companies, rally behind young designers and anticipate big shows as we count the days off on the official calendars is through the context of these shot callers. 

Having a structure does limit the flexibility for change because there are more approvals to seek and more rules in place, but change will come, as change is inevitable. These organizations are vessels for change, and for communication. Maybe the hold up is that we don't know where to go next. And until that question is answered, we assimilate where we should innovate. We continue doing what we know. 

A good place to start is for the larger fashion community to recognize the importance of these organizations and to communicate through them. As a centralized force, their influence is wide and the community reactive when that influence is applied. Sometimes it's good for the man to operate quietly behind the green curtain, but sometimes we don't see the big picture until he comes out and talks to us face to face.

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The Next Black: A Video

The Next Black, a documentary about the future of clothing, exemplifies the common goals of science and technology based advances in fashion and those of sustainability advocates. Sustainability is not a hippie notion, it's a side effect of technical and technological advancement, and is thus an inevitability. It should not be seen as a threat to luxury, or a demand for compromise, but rather as a way for us to be more efficient which is always good for the bottom line (the second most unsexy thing in fashion after the word sustainability). It's easy to brush off because it still seems so far from the reality. We have yet to even imagine the ways in which the industry will transform as our experiments and research in the textile development and manufacturing process become more advanced. 

"How did we end up with fast fashion? Where did this come from?" Rick Ridgeway, responsible for environmental initiatives at Patagonia, asks. The ability to produce fashion is the most likely reason. With that capability, manufacturers responded to the growing demand for new things at an ever faster rate. The desire from the consumer is driving it, and "that's where the change has to come from." So while it's technology that got us into this cycle, it's technology that will also get us out. 

There are some odd and likely un-commercialize-able ideas in the video, but oh, man, it's pretty cool to see how science-y fashion can be.

A conversation I had yesterday with a friend who was gathering perspectives on the future of fashion, particularly within fashion and technology, began much the way this video does. It is a train of thought that resonates, but also frustrates, because the answers still feel vague and far away:

While fashion moves faster and faster, the concept of clothing hasn't changed much in over 100 years...Maybe it doesn't make sense to disrupt a $1.7 T industry, but shouldn't there be something more progressive than design and style changes? Shouldn't there be innovation that alters the entire concept of clothing?

Shouldn't there? And if so, how do we get there?

"Fashion passes, style remains" Coco Chanel

Maybe we need to start selling style again, not fashion. Sell to last. Trust Patagonia when they tell you "don't buy this coat." Ignore the 5 "Must have" pieces in Vogue.

Every day that we continue to explore and experiment with strategies and innovations for the future of fashion brings us closer to a better, more healthy, and more sustainable fashion industry. It's anyone's move to make. 

Read more about the video here.

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