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Farfetch & Fashhack: Innovation In Luxury Fashion; A Night For The Ages In A High-End, Hipster Paradise

You might imagine that the world of high-end fashion; from the Beckhams to the Burberry’s, Mulberry’s to Manolo Blahnik; is a little geek-phobic…could there really be a place for unruly, disruptive, technology in such refined company? Indeed there could, and its hipster home is in the heart of Old Street, London.

One week ago the offices of FarFetch, a designer fashion catalogue that exists online only, and is such a good bet that it has attracted nearly three quarters of a billion dollars of venture capital investor money, held a discussion about the role that innovation can play in Luxury Fashion.

Organised by Fash-Hack creator, one-woman FASH-TECH PR machine & celebrated tech-enabled innovation evangelist Marina Atarova, and chaired by FarFetch VP of Innovation David Grunwald, it was a chance for a glam crowd of fashionista fanboys and girls and post-geekdom tech impresarios to gather and debate the burning issues of the day.

Fashion and tech. Tech and fashion. Will this odd couple – a marriage of business acumen and inspiration, impulsiveness and big data management, ephemery and accountancy, mindfulness and mindlessness, last? Or is there a conscious uncoupling on the horizon? In other words; can you still have the Goop, without the Geek?

Our panel consisted of grizzled high-end fashion guru and Head of The Fashion Innovation Agency at LCF Matthew Drinkwater; Burberry Global VP of Technology and erstwhile ASOS boss Rajeev Aikkara; Lyst Investor and Felix Capital decision maker Sasha Astafyeva, Augmented Reality platform Holome founder Janosch Amstutz, and FarFetch Growth Initiatives Senior Manager Eva Neumann.

Innovate or die? FarFetch threw a party for the future of fashion.

Innovate or die? FarFetch threw a party for the future of fashion.

What went down? Read on…

Our first question from the unflashy but insightful and accomplished Grunwald concerned the point of innovation….

For example, Matthew was of the opinion that the internet, at times, and where high-end fashion is concerned, has “made things boring”. That is not necessarily the internet’s fault, but the challenge for retailers now is to try to “recreate the magic” using the tools at their disposal, Drinkwater observed.

It’s not that tech is too geeky or “easy”, in danger of diminishing the impact of a thoroughbred brand’s mystique, or chic, but it is high-end fashion’s responsibility to make the marriage of “bricks and clicks” more enticing to the shopper.

Sasha felt that she had seen too many “tech for tech’s sake” style startup plays in the recent past. Fashion must always “move the needle”, digital or otherwise, and many founders fail to innovate enough. Like fashion, tech can be a game of smoke and mirrors at times. “So sew me”, she might have added.

Rajeev reminded the gathering that Innovation is not an option – especially for a brand as big on tech as Burberry (witness the flagship, IoT enabled Regent Street store), whilst Jan opined that after a decade of digitalisation – from Tinder, to Uber, personalisation was the new X-factor. Consumer education is achievable on new, non-gimmicky levels thanks to the power of binary.

So, innovation is as important to the bottom line as hard won, historic reputation, sales and marketing nous, business acumen, and an eye for beauty?

Indeed it is. For Rajeev, innovation, on the tech side, helps Burberry understand where their customers are, and what they want to see. In other words, their clients may want to know when they are walking past a store that is selling their favourite brand at a discount, or offering an exclusive deal or garment. A possible, nay probable, innovation for any burgeoning tech enabled brand.

For Matthew Drinkwater, innovation is often driven by KPIs, and ROI. To achieve something innovative, brands must see way beyond the gimmick, and adjust the mindset to a more forward thinking one accordingly. Apps are still “on trend”, but they won’t be for long unless they are consistently, and meaningfully, reinvented. The same applies to any tech tweak, just as it does to hem lines, hemp fades and big boots.

Jan, being an AR man, spoke about the shift in how we consume technology. 1 billion smartphones (now in circulation) can’t be wrong…and nor can $210bn of revenues in AR-technology derived products. Those trailblazers who played Pokemon Go everywhere from the streets of Tokyo to the beaches of Marbella, are today’s luxury shopper demographic, Jan insists…upwardly mobile in a whole new sense.

Times are a changing – so is reality – it is becoming augmented….which will please Rajeev, who insists that “expectations are getting higher but we can still delight…”

As for FarFetch itself, Eva Neumann stressed that innovation can be outsourced; searches, platforms, and the kinds of analytical techniques (be they big data or AI driven) that enable firms to deliver another Fash-Tech trending buzzword – Personalisation.

How big will Personalisation become? To illustrate, let’s refer to it by its proper name…Hyper-Personalisation. Here’s another nickname: Dream Assembly. Which also happens to be the name of FarFetch’s FashTech startup incubator, which has spawned numerous hot to trot, pret a porter, VC funded companies with Go-Faster stripes. An AR-driven foot scanner was mentioned, with the power to find you the perfect fitting shoes – try that on for size, innovation?

But how does a niche, boutique industry like high-end fashion fight the incumbents, the emergent Fash-Tech behemoths such as Amazon, eBay, or Alibaba? Classy they may not be…technically accomplished, they most certainly are…

Sasha says high end Fashion Innovation may need a miracle to take on the likes of Amazon, with its “if you bought that, you may like this” algorithms and robot-infested warehouses.

“You can’t compete on range, and (referring to the game of dropships), how do you sell something you don’t have? How to differentiate while running the supply chain? And how big is the opportunity?” There’s money to be made in fashion logistics, seemed to be the message, but how do you prise the half-million-a-year data-engineer brigade from out of the clutches of Bezos, et al? The art of persuasion is still, perhaps, the most deadly poison arrow in the boutique fashion brand’s velvet quiver.

The panel taking FashTech to task, led by Burberry’s Rajeev Aikkara

The panel taking FashTech to task, led by Burberry’s Rajeev Aikkara

Let’s look ahead – where will we be, innovation-wise, 10 years from now?

Sasha again, Two words (or is it one holistic whole word?): omnichannel. Oft misquoted, underused, and not easy to pull off, omnichannel is the Manish Arora onesie of the Fash-Tech world.

But wait, what’s this? Could it be that panelists, Sasha included, do not even consider online a threat? Now those are the words of a bona-fide fashion purist…

Look to China, say’s Eva. The orient knows how to innovate, thanks to a test bed of some 1-2bn people, getting richer by the day, dictated to no longer by an autocratic, didactic government, but by a natty app for everything known as WeChat. Tencents for your thoughts, readers?

Look to Gen Z, Millennials and the customer, Eva adds – no more arrogance. No more filibuster. Just good, good things. Just so long as they’re swipe-enabled?

And yet, Rajeev insists, the fundamentals remain the same. Omnichannel has value, but we are still digesting its impact – it’s dangerous to draw conclusions ahead of time. Better to address the balance between customer and brand. And ask where the product is going. West, or East, or in circles, or up, up and away? A Mary Poppins umbrella, anyone? Uber are chasing the patent for their snazzy aerial taxis.

Matthew Drinkwater articulated the future in buzzwords: Super-Personalised, Hyper-Luxury. Our presenter Grunwald argued for the impact of live-streaming: Fortnite, for example, or is that now last week’s news?

Jan says that in 10 years time online will have finally caught up with in-store. The authenticity of each experience will be no different. But the way that “fashion is solved” will. Social media, fast fashion, influencers, software…no ceiling. Some hugging. Some learning. It’s not the nineties anymore. Not even the naughties. The teens are nearly all grown up, and the future of fashion belongs to them. Plus several billion million-class Easterners?

And that concludes our whistle stop tour of the world of fashion, innovation, luxury, and technology. From geeky un-bedfellows to Rajeev’s Burberry balance of “scale and uniqueness”, innovation in fashion means survival, even progression, certainly change, and most likely, chaos. Fashionistas, doubtless, would not have it any other way.

There was still time for questions: again, the impact of China? 90% of luxury brands are there, and even Chinese beggars have their own QR codes. Much to learn, concluded Rajiv.

The fashion resale market? Are third-hand diamonds anybody’s best friend? When we reach critical mass, and there is more 24 carat overground than underground, we’ll be left with little choice. Possibly. Spawning a thousand mini-eBay apps, no doubt.

And what of co-creation? How big a role can the consumer play in the development of new high-fashion items. Not much, or not enough?

Customers can be overwhelmed by the pace of change, Eva warned us. Thank goodness the likes of FarFetch are here to entertain, inform, and, yes, thrill us with Lux-Tech.

We await the next Dream Assembly cohort with bated breath, and hope we did enough to earn our place at the top table at the next Fash Hack event. We’ll see you there!

What do you think?