As Farfetch shows, the future of fashion lies in technology

In 2014, the British Fashion Council brought together an exclusive group of leaders in the global fashion industry, including entrepreneurs, politicians, CEOs and the brightest stars of British fashion, to create a think tank. Its aim was to identify ways to accelerate growth, generate investment opportunities and debate big issues in the sector.

BFC chair Natalie Massenet reeled in Brent Hoberman and Jonnie Goodwin, co-founders of the groundbreaking Founders Forum, to help bring their concept of a curated network of the highest calibre guests to the fashion world. The result was the Fashion Forum, an invitation-only event that enabled invitees to connect with the best and brightest among their peers and build new relationships.  

People like Natalie and Jonnie, as well as BFC investment president Sian Westerman and CEO Caroline Rush, know how to pull in the best speakers and attendees from all over the world. With such impressive figures at the helm, who better to take British fashion into the digital age?

Fast forward three years and we are in The Ned – where else could we be? – for the latest edition of the Fashion Forum. Nick Jones’s beautiful club, hotel and group of restaurants is a most suitable setting for 140 industry leaders and opinion formers to gather and debate the central question of how the fashion industry can ensure it is ‘Fit for the Future’.

Big names and talent were everywhere you looked – not least iconic designer Tom Ford and Louis Vuitton’s men’s artistic director Kim Jones, who delivered the keynote presentations. There were big and critical topics up for discussion, including the investment landscape, international expansion and how to approach future talent requirements, a session I was privileged to run with Gena Smith, SVP of human resources at LVMH.

Of course, another big talking point during the day was the ever-growing role of technology.

Caroline Rush believes there is now a clear focus within the industry “on putting digital first and ensuring seamless integration both in supply chain and for customers”. In summarising its key learnings, the BFC highlighted the importance of understanding “what, when and how” customers interact or buy from a brand – whether that be in a physical store, on an ecommerce site, or while using the latest technology like AI and virtual reality. The forum featured a dedicated ‘tech space’ where ten disruptive technology companies demonstrated their applications for fashion businesses.

All of this got me thinking about the wider industry and the brands that are really exploding right now. Luxury online retailer Farfetch has barely been out of the news this week after it was revealed that the British company is considering a public listing in New York. The business achieved a $1bn valuation two years ago and has not let up in its momentum, having this week agreed to buy the inventory and database from Condé Nast as part of a new ecommerce deal with the Vogue publisher.

Farfetch is thriving thanks to its ability to build partnerships right across the fashion world. Consider the bold and visionary ambition of its founder and CEO José Neves, who in April unveiled the Farfetch Store of the Future concept.

Due to launch in Farfetch-owned Browns in London and in the flagship Thom Browne store in New York, the concept involves using in-store technology to collect shopper data and deliver an enhanced customer experience, such as through emotion-scanning software, virtual reality and innovative payment options.

“Physical retail accounts for 93% of sales today, and even with online growing at fast speed, it will account for 80% by 2025. Retailers need a way to collect information about their customers while they are browsing in-store, just as they collect data from online searches.” – Farfetch founder and CEO José Neves

Farfetch is simply ahead of the curve, but other tech brands are starting to catch up. There is now much talk about the huge growth potential of Amazon’s fledgling fashion division and the challenge that this could pose to more established fashion businesses. Indeed the technology giant showed its intention to turn itself into a true fashion player when it announced the appointment of former Ralph Lauren global brand president Christine Beauchamp as president of Amazon Fashion last month.

In light of this heightened competition, traditional fashion houses are taking steps to improve their digital offering. Mulberry this week announced that online sales had grown by 20% in its last financial year as overall group revenue rose by 8%. Similarly Ted Baker reported a 35.9% jump in online sales in its latest trading update. Matches Fashion, which began life as a group of stores in Wimbledon, still has retail outlets but has taken the shop experience to the digital space and now makes 95% of its sales online.

These are encouraging signs at a time when many fashion brands are having to scale back their investments in bricks-and-mortar retail. In March Forbes compiled a list of 29 US retailers that are planning to close over 3,500 stores this year, including American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch and Macy’s. You can add to that list fashion group Michael Kors, which recently announced plans to shut 100 to 125 stores over the next two years.

All of these trends suggest that the fashion industry is at something of a cross-roads, but it is not as simple as saying “invest in digital above all else”. Luxury fashion depends on having a presence in the real world where creativity, theatricality and art has the space to breathe. You only have to track the work of the brilliant image director Faye McLeod (pictured above) at Louis Vuitton and Dior to see how important the window and in-store journey is for customers.

The are other stories out there like Farfetch, Matches Fashion and Chinese ecommerce group, which recently opened its own physical stores. We at The MBS Group are definitely tracking the potential that is unleashed when brands bring together the online and offline worlds and will be continuing to watch the talent that emerges in these organisations.

In this way, fashion businesses can ensure they are truly ‘fit for the future’. | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup