NEW YORK, United States — I’d bet that almost every senior executive in the fashion industry who has overseen the development of a brand website in recent years has met James Gardner at least once. Indeed, James is one of those rare creatures in the business who has managed to serve brands from all three of the major luxury groups on their web presence, which speaks to the scarcity of the skills and the quality of the services he and his team provide.
After leaving a successful career in investment banking in 2004, together with Chief Technology Officer Allen Kung, Gardner founded CreateThe Group (CTG), a digital creative agency focused squarely on luxury brands, sensing a gap in the market that had not been properly addressed. Fast forward six years to the ongoing digital revolution in luxury and Gardner’s foresight seems downright prescient. And, while there are now many other competitors nipping at CTG’s heels (and plenty of business to go around), you can be sure that James will keep pushing his CTG team to stay on the cutting edge. First up is the relaunch of the Marc Jacobs website in September, as well as several other top-secret launches, the details of which Gardner is holding close to his chest.
But Mr. Gardner isn’t all business, all the time. Like a constantly on-the-go ball of kinetic energy, he also has an alterego persona — Subversive Glamour,recently profiled by Dazed Digital saying he “might very well be the best connected photo blogger ever”— which provides an outlet for his always on antics and is a fertile personal experimentation ground for the social media presence he advocates for his clients.
I spoke to James to learn more about his perspectives on digital fashion and to get some top tips for emerging designers and fashion brands who may not have the budget to hire James and CTG. Only on BoF, we’ve got insights and advice from the industry’s leading internet operator, free of charge.
BoF. The major fashion brands are putting more and more emphasis on developing robust digital strategies. But what opportunities in digital media do you see for emerging fashion businesses?
JG: The digital channel presents amazing opportunities for highly creative emerging talent and in some ways levels the playing field with more established fashion brands. The Web is by its nature democratic, anyone can now build an audience and start a dialogue with prospective consumers, even with limited resources. Digital media, especially social media, reduces costs of marketing a brand and E-commerce can reduce costs of retail business.
BoF: Indeed. Smart brands are now focusing their digital strategies on earning attention, rather than paying for it. How does creating digital content fit into this shift?
JG: Brands can reach more people, more powerfully by creating digital content that inspires and by enabling consumers to voluntarily share it. Emerging brands can use digital content to build a fan base who will carry their brand and content across the internet for free, reducing the need to spend money on a traditional media buy online and offline.
BoF: Is there a recent project at CreateThe Group that young fashion brands can learn from?
JG: NOWNESS.com, an intelligent, digital publishing platform that we are co-developing in partnership with LVMH and Kamel Ouadi, NOWNESS Digital EVP, is really demonstrating the power of unique and engaging content integrated with social media to drive awareness and build a brand from the ground up. Key lessons are: make sure you tell the influencers and taste makers about the amazing content you are creating, involve them in the content creation process, and have them help you spread the word. Also really think about building your digital presence as an iterative process. Start small, learn from the results and gradually evolve.
BoF: But unlike LVMH, emerging brands have lean budgets. When setting up their digital presence, what free or off-the-shelf digital platforms or services can they leverage?
JG: Establishing a strong voice in social media channels such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter can be a powerful way to build a new brand. Blogs & visual micro-blogs such as Tumblr are a great place to start. Tumblr can be highly customized to reflect the design aesthetic and personality of your brand and is inherently social in nature – with easy ability to follow, love, reblog and integrate with Twitter for example.
From an ecommerce point of view there are some off the shelf packages targeted at small businesses such as Yahoo!, eBay’s ProStores, and Amazon’s WebStore, enabling online sellers to build and operate e-commerce sites at low cost. There are great social commerce and affiliate shopping resources emerging designers could tap into like Etsy.com, ThisNext.com, Polyvore.com, ShopStyle.com and StyleTrek.com, a new platform focused on helping emerging designers.
We love Twitter Founder Jack Dorsey’s latest technology venture Square. Square turns the iPhone and now the iPad into a cash register. Emerging designers could set up a pop-up shop during Fashion Week and use Square technology to start selling right there and then!
BoF. How does a young fashion company find their ‘social media voice’ and start to generate positive conversations about their brand and products?
JG: As a starting point you need to be there, actively participating in conversations already taking place. Then finding your social media voice should in some ways be easier for emerging fashion talent…you are creative and its your personality! Activate your personality online by being open and honest. Consumers and fans want to know who you are, your inspirations, they want insider access.
BoF: But how can brands ensure these conversations translate into conversions?
JG: Social shopping is a powerful business driver. JuicyCouture.com for example, a site which enables consumers to create and shop each others’ looks has resulted in 150 percent increase in time spent on the site and a huge 162 percent uplift in e-commerce conversion rates. If consumers are willing to take the time to have a conversation about your brand and products they are highly qualified to purchase, so let them. Find a way to connect the conversations to shopping and make it quick and easy to purchase.
For emerging designers without their own online boutique make sure that the conversations don’t lead to a dead end. If products are sold online elsewhere ensure there is a call to action and appropriate link. If not, make sure lead to information about where to purchase or how to contact you.
We are excited about Facebook Storefronts, which will become a powerful social shopping tool for emerging designers and established brands alike. Go where the consumer is, to the heart of the conversation in Facebook, let people engage in a dialogue about your brand, your products and let them shop right there!
Finally, an emerging brand should really listen to the conversations, feed them back into the marketing and product development strategy. Let the consumer see you are listening and taking action on their ideas and comments and convert them to brand ambassadors.
Imran Amed is Founder and Editor of The Business of Fashion
CEO Talk is BoF’s forum for in-depth discussions with the fashion industry’s global decision makers, conducted by founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed.