Merging Fashion and Tech

Across the room, a svelte young model with plump lips conjures a sultry stare. It appears that she’s wearing nothing more than a raincoat. The effect of the seductive pose is amplified by the fact that it’s emanating from a massive video screen.

A moment later, the model dissolves and words appear: Burberry Body. The room — a tastefully renovated 19th century theater — pulsates to the sound of The Jam’s “News of the World.” Welcome to the new home of Burberry on London’s Regent Street.

The luxury British clothing retailer, which was founded in 1856, has gained repute in recent years for its use of digital technology to promote its fashions and brand.

At its September launch, the London flagship store attracted headlines for blurring the lines between physical and digital worlds, weaving Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) technology into garments and its physical store, allowing shoppers to see a bespoke piece of multimedia content pop up on a changing room mirror explaining the story behind the item they’re trying on.

Chief Creative Officer Christopher Bailey, who is fond of calling Burberry a “young old company,” explained then that the dynamism of the store was an attempt to replicate the experience of the company’s website.

Fast forward five months, and Bailey is once again generating buzz with the launch of Runway Made to Order at its London Fashion Week show for the Burberry Prosum Autumn/Winter 2013 womenswear collection.

The service takes the company’s Runway to Reality concept one step further by offering custom-made editions of items from the collection through Burberry.com for two weeks after the show.

Journalist Eric Sylvers contributed to this report.

 

The story of Burberry’s digital metamorphosis has been well documented, and justly so. The 157-year-old trenchcoat specialist has done as much as any company to demonstrate that you don’t need to be a technology company to reinvent and reinvigorate a business through technology.

The infusion of technology into the core business of big corporates and the willingness of those companies to bring in innovation from young start-ups is key to ensuring a vibrant start-up community and economy (for more information see the story on pages 1, 4 and 5). Like New York, London is succeeding in doing this in several areas, including advertising and financial services. (For more on these topics see the stories on pages 10, 11, 12 and 15).

In the fashion sector London-based retailers like Burberry have pioneered the blurring of physical and online stores. Web companies like ASOS and Net-A-Porter have built large businesses by harnessing the Internet to disrupt the fashion industry; the traditional retailers are now leveraging the talents of the next wave of young entrepreneurs to find new ways to integrate technology into their core offerings, helping to build out London’s fashion-facing start-up ecosystem even further.

It is no surprise that London is helping lead the way when it comes to the merging of tech and fashion. It is home to famous stylists and a fashion week that is well attended by important designers and fashionistas. The city also hosts one of the world’s best-known schools for fashion designers, Central Saint Martins, which continues to churn out a throng of twenty-somethings with an itching desire to find a way into the industry. Notable alumni include John Galliano, the late Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney.

Over the last 12 years London has proved to be a vibrant environment for online companies as well, with start-up founders like Net-A-Porter’s Natalie Massenet (see photo) becoming fashion industry stars in their own right.

“In the past decade we’ve really seen London emerge as a magnet for a new generation of companies at the intersection of technology and creative industries such as fashion,” says Frederic Court, a general partner with Advent Ventures Partners, which has invested in several London-based fashion start-ups, including Farfetch and Business of Fashion. “ASOS and Net-A-Porter could have been created anywhere in the world, but there was a spark in London that made it happen. There is a concentration of technological and creative talent.”

A new generation of London-based tech fashion start-ups, such as Farfetch, a fast-growing global online marketplace for independent fashion boutiques, is showing promise. Farfetch, which was founded in 2008 and splits its headquarters between England and Portugal, has raised a total of $24 million in funding from Advent Ventures, Index Ventures, and eVenture Capital Partners.

It is currently present in 15 countries and plans to add new languages and new localized services, namely in Asia, in 2013. The company also plans to start rolling out an omnichannel strategy, which founder Jose Neves says he sees as a big underlying trend in retail in coming years. In this new omnichannel world — which Burberry and other retails are just starting to embrace — merchandise and promotions will not only be consistent across all retail channels, adapting to consumers who want to use different channels simultaneously, the offers will be personalized according to a specific consumer’s purchase patterns, social network affiliates, website visits, loyalty programs and other mined data.

Other London-based start-ups gaining traction include everything from specialist software developers through to social shopping platforms and media sites. F2iT, for example, provides online business software for clothing, footwear, accessories and jewelry designers and is used by British designers including Christopher Kane, House of Holland, Louise Gray and Jonathan Saunders. F2iT was built by Marcia Lazar who after 20 years in the fashion business was determined to find a software package that dealt with the needs of a small design company. She bought a book and wrote the F2iT software which has now gone on to benefit over 200 designers and production houses in more than 20 countries.

There are also an increasing number of social shopping and curation platforms growing out of London. They include Lyst, winner of Best Culture Start-Up at the recent Europas awards in Berlin, a site that allows users to collate updates and items from thousands of leading brands, boutiques, stores, bloggers and stylists; Stylistpick, which for a fee sends monthly picks of shoes, bags and accessories to customers based on their “style profiles”; Boticca, which groups little-known designers of jewelry and other fashion accessories; and Nuji, a social wish list site that allows users to collect items from people and stores and earn exclusive rewards for shopping at favorite retailers.

Tracking all of this activity has become a business in its own right. In February Business of Fashion, a London-based blog that follows, well, the business of fashion, got $2.1 million in seed investment from Index Ventures, LVMH and other investors including Advent Venture Partners’ Court. Funding is being used in part to improve the site, founded by former McKinsey consultant Imran Amed, and to hire more reporters.

Hacking Solutions For Retailers

There is bound to be plenty to write about. If the latest crop of start-ups have their way coding will increasingly become integral to catwalks and the corporates behind them. On a recent Friday night at Google Campus the back room was pulsating with an air of caffeine-fueled possibility. Over 100 hackers were settling in for a weekend of creativity at a February ‘Seedhack’ staged by the European accelerator program Seedcamp. They did not came to weave technology into catwalk fashions like Hussein Chalayan, who designed a series of laser LED dresses in collaboration with luxury label Swarovski, but rather to help some well-known companies think up new solutions to stubborn problems.

“The premise behind Seedhack in general is that we’re trying to create an environment where people can focus their energies around sectors that have needs or growth opportunity,” explains Seedcamp Managing Partner Carlos Espinal. “With fashion, there are a lot of different components of that value chain which would benefit from increased efficiencies or disruption or better processes.”

For young companies, like male-focused shopping service BRANDiD, the event offers valuable insight into the real world protocols behind some major brands.

“One of the nice things about Seedhack is that they have the draw of getting all these big companies to open their APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) to us. Google, ASOS, Net-A-Porter are all here,” says BRANDiD co-founder and CEO Ankush Sehgal.

Lovell Fuller, a development manager at the popular online fashion site Net-A-Porter, explains what’s in it for his business. “What’s one of the biggest problems we face as a retailer? Not just an online retailer but all retailers face the same problem and it’s returns. People returning products,” he says. By providing data and insight into the company’s API, he’s hoping to inspire the next generation of start-ups to come up with a novel solution.

Countless pizzas and Dr Peppers later, 21 new start-up ideas for fashion and other sectors were introduced by Sunday — the most ever for a Seedhack event. Espinal concedes it’s too early to tell how many will become viable businesses and whether any eventually deliver the sought-after breakthroughs for big companies.

But as a nexus of fashion and technology, the UK capital is sure to create future sensations in both style and code.

 

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