At the distinguished address of Vogue House in Mayfair, London, the journalist Mark Russell received us for a gentle and honest conversation about the future of fashion and technology. Mark is Managing Editor at British Vogue, and we met during the Web Summit 2019, in Lisbon. His thoughts on Fashion Tech, and his kindness in our discussion, led us to request another conversation. This time we caught up with each other over a cup of coffee, and imagined what the future of our beloved fashion industry will be.
Among the topics you will read below, we ask, is there a future for fashion? How are heritage brands introducing technology and digitalization? What are the challenges ahead in implementing technology in the fashion industry? How will our consumption forever be changed by new technologies?
It is important to note that this conversation started in a different and distant moment, before the current global crisis caused by COVID-19. Still, some remarkable insights from Mark made us realise how some changes were already happening in the fashion industry, especially in consumer behaviour. The current crisis is a catalyst for the definitive integration of technology into the fashion industry, and in the next paragraphs we begin to explain how and why.
My very first question to Mark was about wearables, and the concept itself: what does British Vogue understand as wearables and fashion tech? His answer led us to a discussion about how far apart the areas of fashion and technology are as industries and related to people, as if the public of one and the other are completely different. By “the public,” we mean consumers and talents as well.
“It has been slightly confusing establishing this concept, because wearable tech is a little different from fashion that uses tech. Some would argue it doesn’t have to be, that wearable tech should be so good to wear that you would wear it anyway. But for some people, wearable tech, like smart watches, puts people off, fashion-wise.”
The distance between the fields, technology and fashion, is what is making it hard to connect and develop true wearables together. For Mark, “It probably does not help the fact that the fashion industry is, generally, so far away from the tech industry, in terms of the people who work there. The culture of the industry is totally different. It’s no surprise that it’s taken a long time, for fashion, to really utilise tech in the correct way.”
And why is that?
“I would say that the fashion industry can have a reputation for moving slowly. Some of the big fashion houses can have really quite old fashioned work cultures. It’s just how they work. They have a huge heritage in history and they are incredibly proud of it – and in a lot of cases, it’s still good business. So there’s the temptation of not thinking too much about going tech. But we know that it won’t last forever, because the whole topic of sustainability is also coming into view. Companies know they can’t produce in the same ways, because it’s highly likely that consumers will not put up with it forever, even in luxury. People will start to turn their back on fast fashion. And likewise, at the luxury end, people will want to know the provenance of their luxury items. I think that is why the fashion industry is now starting to look at that more seriously, in the manufacturing process, in particular.”
As an example of how fashion is properly adopting new technologies at the manufacturing end, Mark reminded us of 3D design at Tommy Hilfiger, as we saw at the WebSummit 2019, “At a very obvious level, if tech is used properly in fashion, the profit margins could be better. From that point of view, as a business owner, that makes sense too. Daniel Grieder from Tommy Hilfiger, I was with him at the WebSummit 2019, and he explained how they’ve really embraced the level of 3D design in the whole process, from factories to the showrooms.”
For Mark, “Fashion is about many things, like keeping you warm and clothed. We don’t want to walk around naked. But it’s largely about how you present yourself, as well. And if you present yourself digitally, then why not? Why should the fashion not be digital as well?”
When we discussed how different the audience for fashion and technology seems to be, the editor reminded us of something else: we are only one generation away from being the same market. For example, his son is still just a child in school, but he spends a good part of his day online playing Fortnite and existing as his digital self.
“If you live a lot of your life digitally, that’s how you present yourself to your friends 50% of the time, in some video game or in some online interface, social media, whatever. Maybe there’s a way to produce things that you could call a fashion item that only exist in those platforms!” Mark said.
He mentioned a recent study claiming that by 2025, around 50% of luxury consumers will be millennials or younger. If you’re representing a luxury brand, it immediately leads to a need of figuring out how to target the new consumers. “You also want to lock in their loyalty and your reputation over the next 5, 10, or more years. And if that means looking at your design teams, bringing in expertise, then you’ve got to do that. You’ve got an amount of your population that is millennial and growing in wealth with an appetite for luxury goods.”
There are some fashion houses, such as Louis Vuitton, who have created luxury digital items that you can purchase on games like League of Legends or Fortnite. “Would you spend a lot of money on a luxury item in a game where you are spending most of your time? It doesn’t need producing. The consumer still might be prepared to spend money on it because they would be buying an item and wearing it in the game.”
But what about ownership, and not only in the gaming industry? We discussed another project we met with during the WebSummit, one that we’ve also already talked about here: The Fabricant, and the world’s first dress sold by blockchain.
“Blockchain just gives that security for people, because it can’t just disappear into the ether. I guess that’s the advantage of blockchain: it feels like there’s a lot more security around it, they could keep it and it could gain in value. It’s built on digital artwork”, states the British Vogue editor.
Mark refers to a recent piece published by British Vogue, from the November 2019 edition, about fashion getting into gaming and some notable projects in the field. One is Drest, an app from Lucy Yeomans, a former magazine editor and Net-a-porter.com. The app allows the user to dress up an avatar using in-game currency, training the users styling skills, letting them to purchase the items in real-life on Farfetch. Another app is Ada, named after Ada Lovelace and co-founded by Alexia Niedzielski and Elizabeth von Guttman, both fashion veterans. The main story behind the app is to create your digital self, at your fashionable digital house, decorated with 3D luxury design items from Armani/Casa, and a wardrobe designed by Dior and other high fashion brands. “The interesting thing is the two examples here are from the fashion industry, so they are fashion insiders, not gamers who are trying to get into fashion to find it,” says the managing editor.
On the retail end, the British journalist believes that the experience will continue to be most valued at the purchase process. “I believe we are going to see much more of those flagship stores integrating technology to the retail experience. It could be in a way that you have bespoke shoes using technology. You might have one or two flagship stores that are huge, and they will offer not just the products but an experience. If you’re paying good money for luxury, you also want an experience to go with your product. That experience could be walking into the retail boutique on Bond Street and having a glass of champagne when you enter, sitting down and flicking through iPads with the various items in them, or it could be going into a special private room to look at their 70,000 pound pieces. That’s an experience. And that’s something that people will pay for.”
Technology can be an excellent partner for fashion to provide these new experiences. “It could be anything from designing your own shoes on some amazing tech wall. It could be just simply the way you view the collection or order it, or perhaps communicate with other people who are part of a super club of brand fans and you’ve got your own little social network that the brand set up,” suggests Mark.
On the other hand, in resale, there are some excellent projects already going on, like Depop, a marketplace for users focused on upcycling. Our interviewee was able to make a proper bona fide community on an app for fashion consumers:
“Depop has created a community. It’s people with a passion for upcycling their clothes and for sustainability. There you can upload pictures saying, ‘Hey, this is my new outfit’, show off, and still make some profit. I think that’s really exciting. In luxury, for example, they could have any sort of network or an app where they can share their favourite designs and their investments, or maybe even selling something, or showing where to get it, as insiders,” says Mark, inspiring new business ideas for brands or consumers.
And what about the future of the traditional brands? We asked Mark about Vogue’s big advertisers, the heritage brands. Are you seeing some changes, as the main players in fashion business are changing?
“The main part of advertising still comes largely from the big brands with great heritage, Chanel, LVMH, Kering. Those are often the first pages of our magazine, they invest good money on that and it’s still important to them, and us. But I think they’ll see it as their duty to utilise tech in the right way to make sure their profits are such that they can keep growing. Sometimes you get some new brands coming in, but often they’re affiliated to larger fashion houses, like Off White from Virgil Abloh”.
Here we can understand the magazine advertisements being used as a permanent strategy for heritage brands. Is a symbol of status occupying the first 20 pages of Vogue’s all over the world, and it makes sense for the traditional fashion houses that, as Mark said, have this duty to keep building heritage.
But what about the fashion weeks, do they still make sense?
“I think here we may see real change. At the moment, houses still design and produce two collections a year, minimum: Spring/Summer, Autumn/Winter. Maybe they’ll do a couture collection, maybe they’ll do a cruise collection. It is a lot and it is quite hard to make brilliant profit upon all this, if you’re starting everything again every six months. It’s a lot of man hours of production. It’s a lot of stock that was wasted. I can see that changing. A critic could also ask, do we need editors to fly around the world, twice a year to different cities to see the same thing as they could see online?”
And Mark completes: “It’s a lot of money being spent all the time. And if you run those businesses, I’m sure you’d look and say, ‘well, there’s a good reason for that’. But I think there’s so much opportunity to scale that back, save money to improve the speed that the product moves. New tech can facilitate each and every one of those junctures.”
Our interviewee finished our talk saying: “The nature of consumption is changing”. Today we know that never before has this urge to scale back been so important. This article, based on a few hours of conversation, ideas, and laughs before we had any knowledge of pandemic, brought to light topics that now are an absolutely must-do in the fashion industry.
So, humbly, I am updating Mark’s quote to “The nature of consumption has changed”. It’s time to overcome technology as a challenge to fashion and do it for real. The future of our industry depends on that.
Thank you, Mark Russell, for generously sharing your thoughts and having us at your “home”, the Vogue House. I am pretty sure that we are already building the future we discussed together.