Today we’ve got a very special treat for you. Our latest Fashion Tech Insider interview is with Rachel Arthur, and it’s a good one!
Rachel is the senior editor of digital media and marketing at leading trend forecaster WGSN, as well as a contributor to The Daily Telegraph, Mashable and The Business of Fashion. She also runs the blog Fashion & Mash which is the place to go for all things technology + fashion.
Rachel was kind enough to answer our questions about fashion and tech, giving us some really great insights into how digital innovation is changing the fashion industry.
Read on to find out how luxury brands can succeed on social media, where beauty and fragrance retailers come in, what role mobile technology plays, and more!
– What inspired you to start up Fashion and Mash?
In my day job, I’m the senior editor of digital media and marketing at fashion trade title and trend forecaster WGSN, so I’m already heavily embedded in this world. I read endlessly – from tech blogs to fashion mags, but what I could never seem to find was a comprehensive site that just focused on this one subject; that being where the two combine.
I launched Fashion & Mash in 2011, with the tagline “Where designer meets digital”, on that basis. I wanted somewhere that was a quick, easy read, but also a very comprehensive round-up of everything that was happening in this space. Social media movements are a huge focus, alongside new brand films, ecommerce plans and latest tech innovations. Sometimes they’re huge stories covered in lots of other places too, sometimes they’re tiny bits of news I’ve sourced, or campaigns that rarely get to see the light of day otherwise, but it’s always digestible and it’s always on topic for relevance to luxury design houses through to high street retail stores.
As a result, it’s actually also become a resource for myself in a lot of ways. I use it constantly for research for my larger strategic insight pieces for WGSN; diving back into an archive that’s continuously getting richer with timely information. It’s now become a go-to place for understanding where this exciting part of the industry is moving.
– What do you think are the biggest challenges for fashion brands in trying to mix fashion and technology?
It depends on the brand. At a luxury level it might be working out how best to maximise everything social media brings without losing sight of who your true consumer is, and where they exist. At retail it could be the silos that such big operations exist in – their stores, their mail order catalogues, and now their websites for instance – just think of the different data that each of those hold, and then how many of them have managed to streamline that effectively.
For others the greatest challenge might be getting buy-in or budget from senior management. This is slowly starting to change, but there’s no doubt that one of the biggest gaps for several years in our industry was a lack of belief that this was a necessary move. Burberry achieved great things because Angela Ahrendts and Christopher Bailey got behind it early on.
Fashion is an inherently risk adverse industry, which doesn’t sit so well with the ‘fail fast’ mentality that comes from Silicon Valley. There are innovators in the space now – start-ups, young designers and investors who are helping to shift this, but in my opinion it could still do with being truly disrupted.
– How big is the impact that digital innovation is having on the fashion industry? Will we see regular Fashion Weeks and seasonal collections becoming less relevant in the new digital age?
The impact is enormous, there’s no denying that, and with more of these disruptors emerging it’s only going to continue and from multiple different angles. The biggest issue is that digital innovation from a communications stand point, and technology from the consumer delivery or operational angle, are severely misaligned.
We function in a world where consumers now get to see what hits the catwalk at the exact same time as buyers and editors; we push exciting campaigns around the whole affair and build up huge hype online, yet that product isn’t available to buy (in the main) for another six months. Does anyone remember them by then, do they care? Or are they already thinking about next season due to the fact that’s what our comms model is then throwing at them?
A handful of brands and start-ups have tried to address this, but largely it’s still just seen as acceptable. When you hear about the success of pre-orders, or even stats like sales of current season Belstaff increasing by 50% on its website on show day, it’s proof that shifting these two closer together will impact sales. Having said that, one of most interesting things coming out of fashion weeks of late, is the data being sourced from consumers that can then be used to inform product buys, merchandising and the like, meaning that gap is actually useful.
Ultimately there are huge pros and cons to all of it. I don’t think fashion weeks and seasonal collections will become less relevant; there will always be a place for them in some capacity, it’s just a matter of working out how best to change, and what direction to take. It’s no mean feat to do so in either direction.
– On Fashion and Mash, you track the latest innovations in fashion and social media. Can you name any brands using social media particularly effectively?
Burberry is of course the obvious one, and Topshop is the latest Brit brand doing big things. I live in New York but London is my home, so those two are automatically my go-to examples. You can add Net-a-Porter and Asos into that mix too.
Otherwise, I love Dolce & Gabbana from a content perspective – what they did was so visually strong for autumn/winter 2013/14, I raved about it on Fashion & Mash. Kate Spade always seems spot on in terms of being on-brand. Warby Parker nails customer service in an innovative, fresh way, teaming it with multiple real world / offline initiatives that make you fall in love with it even further. Calvin Klein sometimes gets overlooked in this space, but does a great job with integrating its advertising initiatives through social. Its placement in the Super Bowl was huge this year, but that didn’t get as much attention as it should have from the fashion industry – especially for the way it used Vine (which had literally just launched) alongside it.
Rebecca Minkoff had a little hiccup at NYFW recently, but does social so well from a personal perspective otherwise. And Zac Posen spoke at the Decoded Fashion Hackathon in New York about his Instagram; it’s beautiful. Bergdorfs’ integration of New York City is incredible strong, and its blog is superbly written. And Chanel is always one my favourites to point out – it might be much quieter about it, but there’s a ton of mainly video content to discover.
I think it’s interesting to consider what might come over the next couple of years when the people working at these brands start to move about. The greatest asset in this space is its people – they’re young for one thing, but they also started these departments and have really grown with these brands. Inevitably there’s a fair amount of musical chairs beginning, and it’ll really shake things up.
More importantly there’s a definite recognition of the value of social / digital coming from up high now, and I expect that’s going to impact too. Take someone like Paul Smith, for instance, who has such a strong brand personality – I imagine that will really start to come through online as investment comes in behind it. Or Matthew Williamson, whose digital strategy is run by a good friend of mine, Rosanna Falconer – she’s doing an incredible job at getting an established designer to realise the value and potential of it to help grow his brand. He hit 20,000 followers on Instagram within two weeks of starting his account, thanks in part to a great supporting campaign via Net-a-Porter.
– Do you think there’s a danger that luxury labels could dilute their brand by sharing too much information online?
In a word, no. But I do think now is the time that they’re really starting to figure out how to do it properly, i.e. realising it’s less about putting everything out there, jumping on every new site or app, and more about working out what works for their specific consumers. So which platforms, not all platforms. Or if all platforms, then approaching each with a different strategy.
For some this will also likely mean less in the way of the gimmicky headline-grabbing work – and more of the smaller campaigns that actually hit the right target. Call it a bit of a bedding-in process, if you will. At WGSN we titled this ‘social sophistication’, which focuses on producing more effective campaigns with higher engagement and longer-term consumer loyalty.
This will likely hit home over the coming years at some of the big brands especially – like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger or Marc Jacobs in the US for instance.
Beauty and fragrance are interesting areas to point out in this regard too. They’ve always been money-making parts of the business, but they’ve got a new lease of life with the advent of digital, and some of the better campaigns are surrounding them. Oscar de la Renta is one of the key examples – its voice is extremely strong on social media thanks to Oscar PR Girl Erika Bearman, much like Aliza Licht at DKNY. But its followers are a much more aspirational consumer base, meaning when it comes to sales, its various platforms are particularly suited to its fragrance business (the company won back its fragrance licence just in 2010, and launched Esprit d’Oscar via a Facebook campaign in April 2011). It also releases nail polishes around each fashion week season to try and capture this audience too.
A similar move for new product launches, or certainly a readdressing of the importance of beauty lines, can be seen at the likes of Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, Tom Ford and Topshop too.
– What part do you think mobile technology plays in bringing fashion online?
Everything, there’s no doubt this is the next frontier. But it’s still largely ‘untapped’ in terms of brands truly working out how to capitalise on it. We’ve been saying it’s the year of mobile for years, and everyone laughs about that, or groans. But actually that’s the point, it has been for all these years; each year it progresses, each year the brands progress on it. The big question used to be whether to launch an app or a mobile-optimised site, now it’s almost a given you need both, especially if you’re a big retailer or brand. Mind you, it’s surprising to me how many still don’t have functioning websites on mobile, especially when there’s been numerous examples of campaigns linking to those sites via social media and such a high percentage of consumers engaging with that content is doing so via smartphone these days.
As an active social consumer myself, I’ll flick between Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, WordPress, text messages, email, whatsapp, Skype, and my web browser at the speed of light sharing information with friends and colleagues, and on occasion also shopping. It’s totally natural behaviour, but it’s also still all quite new. Brands therefore need to help facilitate the process as much as possible, which means making it more straightforward to access their stories and their products.
But we have to remember too that a lot of the developments on mobile come down to the devices themselves, or the operating systems – that’s what has evolved how brands use them the most – and that’s what will continue to help the shift. Remember when Twitter or Facebook weren’t really on there? Those app releases changed the game, then iOS became more integrated with all of it for instance, moving the dial again.
Where the significance of mobile is moving also depends on what level of the industry you’re at. For most it’s still a search, discovery, sharing tool, which is why it’s so relevant for retailers especially. Department stores need to be on top of it in terms of ‘showrooming’ or risk losing out to the competition. For luxury brands however, it’s perhaps a different story focused more on content than ecommerce in terms of the consumer base at this stage.
– Any predictions for how fashion and technology will mix over the next few years?
Safe to say it will continue to do so across the board. In terms of specifics however, content is still key for me, especially of the video variety – brands sussing out how to use Vine effectively in terms of longterm strategy for instance. It’s that buzzword ‘storytelling’ that counts – it might not be new, but it’s important, and a lot of where we’re at with digital strategy is repetition, especially in an industry like fashion that needs the encouragement to take leaps.
I’m always particularly watchful of the fashion week seasons too; the big trend to emerge from there of late is partnerships with tech companies for instance, as evidenced by Topshop and Google this February. Expect a LOT more of this to follow. Other keywords include co-creation, and things like 3D printing, not to mention wearable technology.
But for me, it’s the social sophistication one that will matter the most. We’re at a good time with the industry – it’s been about experimentation but now it’s about that bedding-in and cementing what works to find ROI. While there are always new start-ups in the space, and there’ll continue to be more, nailing how to work with the ones we’ve already got is a pretty good starting point, not to mention the basis for a watertight digital strategy.