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Inside VOICES 2017: 4 Key Themes Shaping Fashion and the Wider World

Global anxiety, the power of cross-industry collaboration, the inclusivity revolution and technology-driven innovation were the top themes at VOICES 2017, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers.
Imran Ahmed on stage at VOICES 2018 | Source: Getty Images
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This week, fashion industry leaders joined economists, scientists, activists and other experts, as well as innovators and catalysts, at Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire for VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate. Prefaced by daily one-minute sound meditation sessions, a robust programme sparked conversations that often stretched into the evenings, at intimate salons and other informal exchanges across the countryside property.

Dries Van Noten tackled the thorny topic of cultural appropriation and Colette's Sarah Andelman revealed her next move following the closure of the beloved Parisian concept store: a new consulting company called Just An Idea. But the agenda stretched well beyond fashion, covering topics like technology-driven innovation, the power of community and the backdrop of the macroeconomic and geopolitical currents shaping the wider world.

Many of the discussions were live-streamed to the world. Others were private and followed Chatham House Rules. The conversations were rich and varied, but a few key themes dominated, both on and off the VOICES stage: global anxiety, the power of cross-industry collaboration, the inclusivity revolution and technology-driven innovation. What follows is a short summary of the key takeaways, exclusively for BoF Professionals.

The Age of Anxiety

Today, for the first time since a brief rebound in 2010, all of the world's major economies are growing again in what has been called "synchronised global expansion." And yet geopolitical risk has never been higher. "It's North Korea, it's Iran, it's Mr Trump and his Twitter feed," said Economist Intelligence Unit analyst John Ferguson, taking the stage at VOICES. "We have never known a period of greater global risk." The upshot of this apparent contradiction was the source of much debate. Would geopolitical turmoil derail global economic growth? Opinions were divided.

The IMF predicts global growth of 3 percent next year. But Ferguson made it clear he was “not as optimistic as IMF, due to risk around the world.” Second Home co-founder Rohan Silva, on the other hand, saw a positive side to today’s choppy waters. “Unpredictability is also creating immense opportunity: there’s a huge amount of job creation, investment, optimism. Paradoxically, because of unpredictability, innovators are flourishing,” he said, citing the $5.5 billion investment by venture capitalists in the UK’s technology sector — roughly three times Germany — despite Brexit.

Equally anxiety-inducing was the "retail apocalypse" which is decimating traditional retailers, especially in the US where Amazon is set to become the top seller of apparel by the end of the year. "Amazon now dominates the book business; Amazon would like to dominate the fashion business too," noted Jonathan Taplin, the author of "Move Fast and Break Things," a polemic on what Taplin sees as the destructive monopolisation of the internet by Google, Facebook and Amazon. How to fight back was the topic of a talk by retail futurist Doug Stephens. "Media is becoming the store," he said, pointing to the explosive growth of online sales. "As a result stores must become media. Stores can't be just about distributing products. They need to be about distributing experiences — less stores, more stories."

Cross-Industry Collaboration

The power of cross-industry collaboration also emerged as a key theme at the event. One year after casting director James Scully took to the VOICES stage to issue a plea to end the "cruel and sadistic" abuse of fashion models, LVMH's Antoine Arnault joined Scully to discuss the drafting and enforcement of a landmark charter on the health and safety of models, developed in a highly unusual collaboration between LVMH and arch-rival Kering. Speaking on the enforcement of the charter, Arnault was clear. "We have no problem at all not to work with modelling agencies who don't meet this charter no matter how big they are in the industry," he said. "If they don't comply, we will not work with them anymore."

Marie-Claire Daveu, the group’s chief sustainability officer, spoke on behalf of Kering. “For us, it’s a huge topic and we have been working on the wellbeing of fashion models for a long time, but this year, we felt the need to formalize this. So that’s why we wrote our principles in a great way with LVMH,” she said. “But it’s important to have other brands join us.”

BoF’s Imran Amed, praising the rare collaboration between competitors Kering and LVMH, then issued a call to action to other industry leads to embrace the charter: “Who will join them?” he asked of the attendees, challenging other major groups to step forward.

The charter also underscored an important wider truth: for the fashion industry to tackle large sector-wide problems and drive systemic change on issues from models to sustainability to the rise of Amazon, companies must break longstanding taboos, adopt a more open approach and start to collaborate with competitors, developing collective standards and sharing both data and best practices. “How to not get killed by Amazon? Band together,” is how a participant at one of the evening salons put it. Others said fashion could learn from the openness of the technology sector.

The Future Is Here

Futurist and science fiction writer William Gibson famously said: “The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.” And indeed the future was made present at VOICES, where attendees were exposed to revolutionary new technologies set to redraw the fashion landscape.

"Welcome to the age of biofabrication," announced Andras Forgacs, the co-founder and chief executive of Modern Meadow, a venture-backed biotech start-up that has managed to "biofabricate" leather without animals, attracting the interest of major players in the global leather goods business, worth over $100 billion a year. Quoting Apple founder Steve Jobs, Forgacs said the next phase of innovation would come from "the intersection of biology and technology," giving rise to what Forgacs dubbed "little biological factories creating a whole new world of materials that blur the distinction between what's natural and what's synthetic." For the fashion industry, there are tremendous potential benefits, including speed, efficiency and "a limitless design space" where companies could develop their own branded materials.

BoF and Google also announced a partnership designed to explore and demonstrate the potential applications of artificial intelligence in fashion, and begin a dialogue between the industry and one of the global leaders in machine learning. In its first instance, the partnership has prompted a series of experiments with data sets from BoF's Fashion Week coverage, the early fruits of which were unveiled before VOICES attendees. Representing Google was Amit Sood, who, alongside BoF's Imran Amed, shared the results of applying Google's machine learning algorithms to over 70,000 runway looks from BoF's coverage of fashion shows.

Just how to embrace the future and adopt a culture of innovation in the face of radical new technologies, as well as attacks from the likes of Amazon, was the topic of a talk by Airbnb co-founder and chief product officer Joe Gebbia, who explained his "duct tape philosophy" on innovation, recounting the story of Vesta Stoudt, the inventor of duct tape who turned her wartime fear for her military sons' safety into an idea for strong, cloth-based waterproof tape.

"Turning fear into fun is the best gift of creativity," said Gebbia, who had his own "duct tape moment" at his San Francisco apartment 10 years ago, when, almost broke and facing a rent increase, he noticed a design conference was coming to town and all the hotels were booked. Gebbia decided to rent out his flat to those who had come to town for the event. "This was our improvised duct tape solution and it evolved over time into the design solution that became Airbnb." The takeaway? "Take opportunities to innovate." The need to turn challenges into opportunities, take risks and experiment was echoed by 21-year-old venture capitalist Patrick Finnegan: "Instead of putting five decks into a plan of how to win the market, go out there and experiment."

The Inclusivity Revolution

The need to bridge perceived divides and be more inclusive was another key theme of the gathering. Teen Vogue's Phillip Picardi challenged fashion leaders to respond to the gender revolution and make their companies more inclusive, starting with simple things like bathrooms. "In your companies, most of you hold esteemed positions, you need to go and fix the bathroom rules and the HR rules to makes sure you are more inclusive of various gender identities and not just binaries," he said. "It's on us as cisgender people to help advance the equality of trans people."

Picardi issued the challenge alongside model Hanne Gaby Odiele and activist Laith Ashley at a panel discussion on the gender revolution that was prefaced by a presentation by Dr Shazhan Amed, who explained that gender isn’t binary but exists along a continuum. “Gender identity is not a simple psychosocial construct of nurture, but rather it’s the complex interplay of environmental, biological, hormonal and cultural factors,” she added.

Meanwhile, Karlie Kloss made a case for including girls in technology education and model Halima Aden, in conversation with Carine Roitfeld, said the industry needed to take modest fashion more seriously: "A year ago, I couldn't pick up a magazine and see someone wearing a hijab. The only time I ever saw someone dressed like me was on CNN. All the time we're talked about, but we're not given the opportunities to speak for ourselves."

Sinéad Burke, a Dublin-based teacher, PhD student and fashion blogger who is 105 centimetres (or three foot five inches) tall and an advocate for little people, recounted her challenges with fashion where her clothing options are severely limited and she faces countless obstacles when shopping for clothes. For example, she finds it impossible to reach rails on the shop floor or see shelves of accessories. At the cashier desk, she is often unable to pay. In a rousing talk, she said it was "goddamn time" for the industry to better serve a full spectrum of consumers.

Visit BoF to read more about VOICES and watch the sessions in full.

THE NEWS IN BRIEF

BUSINESS AND THE ECONOMY

PVH Corp beats market forecasts. The company, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, reported third-quarter earnings of $239.2 million and sales of $2.36 billion, up 5 percent from the same period last year. The results topped Wall Street expectations, earning investors $3.02 per share (adjusted for non-recurring gains), up from analysts' $2.91-per-share predictions. Shares have climbed 52 percent at PVH since the beginning of the year.

Unilever acquires Sundial brands. The cosmetics maker is acquiring Sundial to expand its offering of hair and skincare products aimed at black women. The New York-based company makes brands such as SheaMoisture, Nubian Heritage and Nyakio, which have garnered a following among young African, African-American and other black women, whose spending power is being increasingly targeted by consumer giants.

Tiffany's third-quarter sales and profits beat market estimates. Global net sales at the New York-based jeweller were $976.2 million, up 3 percent from the same period a year ago. Sales in the Asia-Pacific region rose 15 percent, owing to strong demand in mainland China. Shares at the company rose 2 percent to $96 on Wednesday. However, sales in directly owned stores open for at least one year declined 1 percent. The company's new chief executive, Alessandro Bogliolo, began his post on October 2.

SMCP reports double-digit growth. Third-quarter sales were €218 million ($258.50 million), up 18 percent year-over-year. The results were the first the company had published since it listed on the stock market in October, when the business was valued at €1.7 billion ($2 billion). Majority-owned by Chinese group Shandong Ruyi, SMCP's brands include Sandro, Maje and Claudie Pierlot, which together have 1,223 stores.

Nike and Zara's clothing suppliers build their own brands. Several South Korean-based companies, including Sae-A Trading Co. and Youngone Corp., are seizing on their own manufacturing capabilities to develop brands that command a higher price. The move comes amid a push to increase margins, as unsold inventory in the US led to a drop in US garment imports since the first quarter of 2016. Youngone, which manufactures for Nike and Patagonia, suffered an 8.8 percent decline in 2016.

PEOPLE

Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos | Source: Courtesy

Jeff Bezos' fortune hits $100 billion. The milestone makes the Amazon founder, 53, the first billionaire to build a 12-figure net worth since 1999, when Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates hit the mark. Bezos' fortune rose $32.6 billion this year, as Amazon's shares jumped more than 2 percent on optimism around Black Friday sales.

Victoria Beckham raises £30 million to boost fashion brand. The pop star-turned-fashion entrepreneur raised new funding from growth equity firm Neo Investment Partners in exchange for a minority stake in her namesake luxury label. Market sources say the deal valued the business at £100 million ($133.4 million). The brand, however, is not yet profitable.

Si Newhouse is memorialised. The Condé Nast owner, who passed away in October, was remembered for his robust curiosity and genuine passion for the family business. "He believed in editors even when they lost trust in themselves," said Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. A great deal of Newhouse's success was rooted in his appreciation for the industry, and trust in his editors that allowed the magazine publisher to flourish.

Designer Lisa Marie Fernandez claims Emily Ratajkowski copied two of her swimsuits. A day after the actress and model launched her swim line, Inamorata Swim, Fernandez sent her a cease-and-desist letter regarding two styles which the designer says closely resemble two of her silhouettes. Since Inamorata Swim ships internationally, Fernandez invoked two European Union Community Design Registration certificates that she registered in May 2015. The registration grants her a monopoly to supply, import, export or deal in products incorporating the designs within the EU until 2020, after which she can apply to extend her registration for a maximum of 25 years. She has 21 designs registered in the European Union and 20 registered in Australia.

Fashion brands come together to advocate for children's rights. H&M, Kering and VF Corporation have joined a new network to address the plight of children in the garment production industry. There were about 152 million child labourers in the world in 2016, or almost one-in-10 children globally, according to the International Labour Organisation. Just under half of those worked in hazardous conditions.

TECHNOLOGY

Macy's suffers technical glitch on Black Friday. The hiccup prompted a flurry of complaints from social-media users online. The American department store struggled to process credit and gift card payments on one of the busiest shopping days of the year — a painful setback for the retailer, as it struggles to get back on its feet following 11 consecutive quarters of store sales decline. Nike's website also suffered similar problems, where customers were greeted with error messages upon payment.

Alibaba seeks majority stake in AI startup SenseTime. The Chinese e-commerce giant is in discussions to invest around 1.5 billion yuan ($227 million) in the Hong Kong-based company, which is one of the most advanced players in machine vision technology. Valued at more than $2 billion, SenseTime raised $410 million in a series B round in July. If confirmed, SenseTime would be the second facial recognition startup Jack Ma has invested in after Megvii Inc.'s Face++, which operates a "scan your face to pay" function on Alibaba.

Amazon and Walmart trial offline payment for online purchases in Mexico. Less than half of all adults in Mexico carry credit cards, and the companies have responded to customer demand for cash payments: Amazon's customers can pay at convenience stores, while Walmart has set up kiosks at megastores that operate in a similar way. Retail in the region is worth $168 billion, but e-commerce was only worth $17.6 billion in 2016. The system is being spearheaded by Oxxo, the convenience-store chain that has over 15,000 locations across the country.

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