In the Internet era, designers can be the architects of the conversation with the customer, putting them in control and freeing them from fashion’s closed loop of sameness, argues Lawrence Lenihan.
NEW YORK, United States — “Nobody knows anything.” That famous line from the two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter, William Goldman, was his summary of the movie industry’s inability to predict hit films. He pointed out that while some guesses about box office success were a little better than others, they were just guesses and the actual outcomes were often quite different from what was expected when it came to predicting public reaction. Nobody knew more than any-one else or had better skills at predicting the future. Once a movie was unveiled to the public, free will of the people determined the outcome and created both blockbusters and box office flops.
Over the past twenty years, fashion has not really had this problem. Indeed, the fashion industry has become an axis of power shared among large brands, large retailers and large media. Because of the control wielded by this axis, predicting trends in fashion is not nearly as difficult as in other cultural industries, simply because all of the parties involved can influence the outcome and, essentially, stack the deck in their favour. True, their ability to control outcomes is not perfect, but like a brilliant card-counter in a casino, the odds increase greatly.
Combining the closed-loop of industry relationships with vast amounts of available computing power, which can now be harnessed to run incredibly sophisticated algorithms to analyse and predict product and style trends, fashion brands and retailers can further increase their likelihood of success by identifying patterns of consumer behaviour earlier and earlier, feeding into these early market signals and driving a sameness across the industry as fashion businesses try to reduce their likelihood of failure.
But if you remove controlled access to product and diffuse influence across thousands of points, prediction becomes a very hard business because we, as consumers, don’t know what we want, nor do we have any idea about how we will react to something we have never seen before — the brilliant and beautiful discontinuity of the unexpected, dreamed up by talented creators across the creative industries, be it film, music or fashion.
Controlled closed-loops are designed to eliminate the unexpected. Publicly-traded companies are supposed to be predictable, so they play the odds of the stacked deck they are able to deal themselves. Creators, by contrast, take chances. They see what we can’t and manifest it from their imagination and skill to deliver an experience that surprises and delights us. Over the years, the fashion industry has become more and more systematised and worked to eliminate variability and surprise.
Last year, I wrote a piece entitled “The End of the Billion Dollar Brand” in which I argued that the Internet, by enabling universal connectivity, would create a force that would enable consumers to find creators who connect with them more clearly and deeply than in any manner previously available before. Brands of the future will be Internet-first because this connectivity begins to eliminate the need for broad media and mass-retailer gatekeepers to connect creators/designers with their customers. Creators control the conversation, the timing, the experience and the relationship with customers. Internet-first does not mean online-only. It gives creators/designers freedom to orient their businesses around genuine customer conversations in a format that is authentic to both the brand and customers, rather than tied to geography or a mass-marketing campaign.
We are entering the golden age of the creator/designer. The barriers to establishing a new brand are lower than they have ever been. An explosion of blogs and social platforms enable creators to connect directly with their customers without having to participate in fashion’s closed-loop, taking chances to deliver real surprise and delight.
Examples have come in many forms, some of which you might not know precisely because they don’t play by the rules of the fashion industry game.
Black Milk, for instance, was started by a guy who sold his guitar to buy a sewing machine to make stretch pants. They have branched out into selling leggings and dresses and body suits and a bunch of other things with themes like “Middle Earth”, “Hogwarts” and, my favourite, “Space Invaders.” Sound stupid? It doesn’t matter what you think, because the million people who follow them on Instagram think they are amazing.
Chubbies Shorts resurrected the old Ocean Pacific shorts from the 70s and have built an incredible ‘bro’ brand’ with a passionate customer base who view Chubbies as a lifestyle decision, not just a product choice. You think, bros are stupid? It doesn’t matter because they don’t care what you think and there are many of them out there.
Each of these businesses are very focused on a deep and personal connection with their customer. They don’t need the mass media to anoint their value. Their customers already know. They don’t need a gatekeeper to distribute their product to generate revenue. If they do use a retailer, it is for brand building and customer connection. Finally, they don’t need mass amounts of capital to open thousands of stores. True, these are very focussed opportunities and even the successful companies will struggle to reach $500 million in revenue, but these businesses will be so strong because they are so meaningful to their customers.
In this new age, the creator/designer will be in control since the creator is the architect of the conversation with the customer.
As fashion steadily became industrialised, the creator/designer became a widget in a machine. In this new age, the creator/designer will be in control since the creator is the architect of the conversation with the customer. Rather than the creator/designer existing for the industrial machine, this machine will exist for the creator. The business will have only two functions: to amplify and deepen the connection that creator/designer has with his customers and to multiply the number of customer connections with whom the creator/designer’s vision resonates.
This is not to say that the fundamentals of business and value creation no longer exist: they do. But the business structures created and the successful outcomes realised will not be achieved by stuffing a creator into a traditional business structure. Rather, success will be realised by modifying the business structure to exe-cute against the vision of the creator and enhance the connection between the creator and his or her customer.
I want to see brands that are fearless, brands that mean something to someone. They delight as many as they repulse. They are not “on-trend” necessarily because the path they follow is their own and might not match the path everyone else is following. Fashion is not what the industry says it is, it is what it means to you and how it enables you to express what you mean to the world and where you fit in it.
Many fashion industry executives and large brand designers have lamented the fact that young designers all want to start their own labels. Their wisdom counsels that the industry needs fewer brands, not more brands. But their counsel is based on an industry structure that worked yesterday and won’t be in place to-morrow.
In the closed-loop where everyone hopes that change never happens, this is sound advice. But change is inevitable and the Internet is driving that change. Business structures will change and companies will succeed who embrace these changes. I hope more creative people who have something to say have the courage to say it on their terms, in their voice and in their context.
What is exciting about what I do is that I never know what will walk through the door next. I don’t know because I know nothing. Neither do you. None of us does. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.