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Fashion Tech Forum Field Report

Someday soon, everything will be smart and we will live happily ever after. For now, we still need to collaborate and communicate the old-fashioned way: person-to-person. We face fundamental gaps in the relationship between fashion and technology. Technology and fashion live together and impact each other and yet these industries really speak different languages; look at the world, markets, opportunities and consumers differently; and not surprisingly, have different business practices and business models.

Let’s face it, technology has changed the things we do and the way we live, but it hasn’t yet changed the way we dress. We choose apparel and brands, principally for a number of emotional reasons, but the use of technology is still in middle school in understanding how to create meaningful brand attachments. Moreover, fashion appeals to an aesthetic sensitivity. If about 85 percent of your overall decisions in life are emotional versus utilitarian, the fashion industry has historically had a better innate understanding of the visceral connections that brands elicit that drive consumer choice.

Yet there is no denying that technology has its seductive magic and is getting even more magical as our expectations increase. Karen Harvey founded Fashion Tech Forum three years ago to address the interdependencies emerging between technology and fashion. This year, she brought together leaders from both industries who are navigating today’s digital, cultural and social tsunami. I attended the third iteration of the Forum along with 500 other attendees, mostly from the fashion industry — spanning designers and brand strategists to CEOs of promising startups and the old guard.

The big takeaways:

  • Fashion and Technology are different. We need to work together to fulfill the marriage of logic and magic. Successful brands have dealt with straddling these seemingly polar opposites. Lew Frankfort, chairman emeritus of Coach, and Andrew Rosen, CEO and founder of Theory and Helmut Lang, both addressed the importance of magic in product. Without it, everything would look alike. Magic is created when a designer captures the epitome of an aesthetic and nails it. But a good idea is only 5 percent of success. Execution is onerous with numerous pitfalls along the way. Business, like life, is iterative. From the tech perspective, Coach is well known for its data analytics and examining the minutiae of consumer surveys to best know how to delight her, which translates into demand, sales, profits, and a chance to do it all over again.

  • Cross Pollinate and all that Jazz. The connective thread among the 20 presentations was a willingness to learn, adapt, collaborate, and iterate to a better solution. Real partnerships can build the hybrid fashiontech companies of the future. Intel powers 85 percent of the connected world, and Sandra Lopez, VP at Intel’s New Technology Group, said Intel realized four years ago that it had to partner with the fashion industry to stay relevant and help create beautiful products that consumers want to wear. Connected sensors create data, which can provide insights in the responsive store: responsive to the consumer, what she is trying on and not buying and what she is buying and also considering. This data is actionable and has a tangible ROI in the hands of an organization that leverages analytics.

  • Not Tech for Tech’s Sake. Tech in fashion needs to add value for the consumer, otherwise it is just noise. Levi’s Project Jacquard displayed their new jacket, Commuter X Jacquard by Google, a collaborative effort by Levi’s and Google. Each a brand partner is a global legend in their respective field, and they collectively brought their expertise to this collaboration to move the capability of a digital connection from the phone to fabric, and more specifically, to the cuff. The tech is hidden away, as Paul Dillinger, VP Global Product Innovation at Levi’s said, “We didn’t want to create a gadget, we wanted to create a garment, a garment that becomes a technology platform.”

Dillinger spoke to the differences of tech and fashion, explaining, “At Google, you create over and over and over again. It is not about getting it right; it’s about getting it better. At Levi’s, you spend months, more, or whatever it takes to focus on doing it once and make it right!” These are radically different processes, developed within the heritage and norms of their respective industries, culture and flexibility (or lack thereof). Processes between the two disciplines are different: in tech, solving is concurrent; whereas in apparel, solving is sequential. No surprise it typically takes six to nine to twelve months or more to get an apparel product from inception to the selling floor!

  • Curate, bespoke or be meaningful to me! In a world of too much undifferentiated product, the consumer is overwhelmed with choice. The answer? Less is more. Know your customer, ask questions: relationships are bespoke. At Spring, CEO Alan Tisch is not following clicks and making intuitive suggestions. Not surprisingly to anyone who knows the value of social interaction, Spring sees higher repeat rates when customers call in. Tisch spoke to the notion of trying to replicate online the connective tissue that happens at retail stores and urged the audience to scale the human voice within the organization. At Verizon, chief marketing officer, Diego Scotti, spoke to its transition from telco to a consumer company with a direct one-to-one relationship with the consumer. The first thing that a tech company can learn from fashion is emotion.

  • Extreme Focus for Extraordinary Results. Sarah Robb O’Hagan, the author of ExtremeYou, was the provocative luncheon speaker whose CV includes Equinox, Gatorade, Nike, and Virgin. She used an example from Gatorade to hammer home the point to “play your specialist game” and narrow your focus, the sharper the better. Gatorade hiccupped on its target market of men when a 2009 $500 million sales decline allowed Sarah, then Gatorade North America president and global chief marketing officer, to take the brand to a very narrow focus of 13- to 17-year-old athletes and pivot Gatorade from a drink to a sports fuel company. Not only did they get the $500 million back in sales, they added another $500 million to $4.5 billion. The lesson: amazing teams coalesce around an extreme idea and the aspirational mass market will follow.

  • Advice Amidst the Tsunami. As Diane von Furstenberg said, “You can find everything at every price. We are all surfing a Tsunami.” How to cut through? “Think about who you are and your raison d’etre. Spend time thinking about what you want to do. If you practice the intention and clarity of where you want to go, the energy and power will come. Don’t look back. You don’t have to sell to department stores. To be small is good. Prune. There is too much of everything. Create desire and need; what women want and when, in season,” she added. Chip Bergh, CEO, Levi’s, said, “Sustainability and a culture of giving back count with employees and customers.” Ganesh Srivats, VP NA Sales, Tesla, added, “We spend almost no time talking about abstract concepts like luxury, we focus on the experience.” Laurent Potdevin, CEO, lululemon, explained “Unless we solve a problem, we don’t do the product. Design function with purpose.” And, “The future of retail is the end of wholesale,” according to Tamara Mellon, CEO, Tamara Mellon OBE and co-founder Jimmy Choo.

This article published on The Robin Report.


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