For any Chicagoans who missed our July 20 event, or anyone else curious about what we talked about: enjoy!
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It's a wrap!
Thanks to everyone who came out to hear the presentation and panel discussion and ask your great questions. It was a thrilling evening, with new ideas and wild examples coming from all directions. ( Read about it here.) Looking forward to the upcoming events, that promise to expand on this discussion through different lenses of professional and personal experience. Each city has a unique culture, and heritage, and our goal is to reflect that through the panel members and the conversation.
Up next: Boston!
Save the date: November 2, 2017 at the Boston Design Center.
Until then, keep exploring!
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 With all the transient and already outdated efforts we’ve seen in Fashion & Tech, it is that much more exciting when an idea or a project truly bringing us forward.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.
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.
We are witnessing a shift at this time in the fashion industry, a rapprochement to the tech industry, opening up opportunities in distribution and marketing models that were not possible before the internet. From the fashion industry side, we've barely tapped into the potential of this alignment. The challenge is finding a way to introduce the concept of endless possibilities to the fashion community in terms of technological tools and innovations, and the endless possibilities of branding through design (back and front end) to the tech community getting their toes wet with fashion companies.
Fashion companies are accustomed to the idea of "anything is possible" in terms of realizing a creative vision, but when it comes to compromise concerning industry pain points, there is a consensus that generally accepts things to remain the same. Why can't we imagine our businesses with the view that anything is possible– design our businesses with the same precision and care with which we design our garments?
Emerging product based technology doesn't need fashion designers for the time being because the most important and relevant innovations are in the health and fitness realms where tech-y looking things are ok. The innovation in online platforms is mostly coming from the tech and business side and acting as distribution models or branding 'basics' by adopting an existing aesthetic identity and ameliorating the experience through technology/online. There is an available space here for brands with unique and distinctive creative identities to step in, answer to a lifestyle and also define the direction of that lifestyle by carrying it into the future. That being said, there has to be a point of entry, a place for the consumer to connect with the product from where they stand, but for the brand to take the consumer away from the predicted trajectory–the rote of the fashion cycle, for example–and into a better and more highly designed, curated, and cared for experience.
What is the difference between a brand and a distributor?
A brand has to have a creative ethos & a specific customer they create products for a lifestyle. It's about the aesthetic and the narrative.
A distributor speaks to a specific lifestyle through its curated selection of products from a variety of wholesalers. It's about range and customer experience.
Naturally, a bridge of similarities exists between the two and the obstacle is the status quo of how products reach the end consumer. Technology offers the chance to create a model the benefits of both: reinforcing the brand identity through the methods of lifestyle curation pioneered by distributors.
What can the brand do beyond the creative ethos to add value?
A distributor focuses on experience, and hierarchy amongst distributors is determined by the quality of service and the level of personalization. Distributors take on characteristics of a brand when they capitalize on consistency. The narrative power of the distributor is in the brands they use to help tell their story. Again, rather than existing as two separate entities, the benefits of each to the other can be realized in one hybrid business model.
If the brand could provide a service that became a powerful acquisition tool, the product can tell a narrative that strengthens the ethos of the distribution model. It's something like a perfect storm of design, experience, online, offline, service, and communication. Empowering the business to prioritize all of these things through the use of technology. In places where digital can be more effective than brick and mortar, for example, the online experience will differentiate itself from the offline experience and already create two different demographic appeals.
That bridge between brand and distributor is as real as the bridge between fashion and technology, but we're still swinging across the divide one by one, and even then it's only a brave few. In many cases I believe the fashion brands of the future don't exist yet and what we know of the industry today will get stuck in it's own vicious cycle. We adventure and explore more easily with lighter loads, so if brands start experimenting while small and agile rather than follow the predetermined business model of fashion brands which seems more certain at the time, we'll see some exciting changes in the way consumers engage directly with brands to get their hands on beautiful things while sharing a beautiful experience.
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
It's hard to keep up with the wearables market, especially when every other article on the subject has a headline that contradicts the one before it. Here are some examples from recent news articles that sensationalize, dramatize, celebrate, and forebode the future of wearables.
Are they threatening to our security, or could they save our lives? Or both?
If anything, this erratic approach to news keeps us active in finding those articles that actually add substance to the discussion, rather than playing on our anxieties and weakness to click on any provocative link.
Better yet, we can add to those substantive headlines by making informed, productive contributions of our own.
There's also a lot out there about wearables as data gathering tools for brands, and ways to have round the clock immediate access to users. But the day wearables are ubiquitous will be the day the user becomes the main benefactor, not the supplier. Brands will never maintain an audience through wearables until users see and experience real value in their wearables. This means answering real needs, which seems, so far, within all these spasmodic headlines, to be the one element that still eludes both engineers and designers.