SAN FRANCISCO, United States — When I lived in New York, I met with a diverse range of talented fashion designers every week. Many of these individuals were actively working to launch or grow a new brand, and it was staggering how each one would, without fail, tell me that they were doing something “nobody” else was. This always made me laugh. If you are a fashion designer, there are actually a lot of people doing exactly the same thing you are — namely, designing and producing non-essential clothing or accessories for people with finite disposable income and near infinite choices.
For the past 18 months, I’ve been working in Silicon Valley, where I am the chief executive of a retail technology company. Though I still actively work within the fashion industry and continue to mentor young designers through the CFDA Fashion Incubator, I now spend most of my days meeting with Sand Hill Road VCs, managing highly technical engineers and reviewing software and product roadmaps. Not surprisingly, this has changed my perspective completely on how to build both great products and successful companies. And while there have been many eye-opening lessons, the single most impactful thing I’ve learned is the power of what is commonly referred to as “design thinking.” This straightforward philosophy involves two simple steps: define a problem and then design a product that solves the problem. It has been championed for years by the Stanford School of Design, and has been successfully utilised by tech entrepreneurs and innovation experts like IDEO.
From my very first weeks working in tech, I started to experience how design thinking helped tech leaders approach building their companies and operating on a day-to-day basis. A tech entrepreneur might present their new company by identifying a multi-billion dollar solution to a problem or pain point in the world. A chief executive would challenge a proposed company strategy by overtly asking their team what problem it solved. A chief technology officer would build a product roadmap that first identified the meta problem and then prioritised the team’s work into short “sprints” to help build testable solutions within the larger framework that could be iterated from minimum viability into market ready product.
At the same time, as I continued to meet with fashion designers and executives at all levels, I started to see a stark difference between the two industries. Fashion people continued to describe to me how their dresses or handbags were “different” or “better.” They didn’t identify, let alone solve, any problems. For the record, women don’t have the problem of not enough dresses to choose from and they certainly don’t lack for handbag options.
But this is not to say there aren’t problems that fashion can solve. Juicy Couture is actually a surprisingly poignant example here. When this brand hit the market, women clearly had a problem finding comfortable leisurewear that still made them feel sexy. Whether it set out to solve that problem or not, Juicy Couture succeeded because it convinced enough customers that it was the best solution available in the market. Companies like Spanx, Lululemon and Seven For All Mankind could all be said to have solved real problems in the fashion market.
It’s also important for fashion entrepreneurs to look for opportunities that exist beyond delivering great product and think about solving problems with how fashion is discovered and delivered. I can vividly remember attending one of the annual CFDA Fashion Incubator “business plan pitch contests” a few years ago. One of the judges patiently sat through all 10 presentations and then proceeded to admonish the designers for all doing “the same thing.” They were all talented and smart, and their products were beautiful, but nobody was presenting an innovative business model that solved a problem for the industry or consumers. Companies like Stitch Fix, Trunk Club, Birch Box and even Amazon are all great examples of companies that have solved real problems in retail and fashion. They are creating models and products that solve customer problems related to discovery, convenience and customisation.
Brands with a social mission also work within this framework. TOMS identified a problem in the world (lack of shoes in developing countries) and created a brand that lets customers be a part of the solution by buying product. In fact, it’s actually a double solution. The brand addresses the customer’s desire to help those in need and also their wish to feel good about the purchases they make. You can see this pattern taking hold with companies like Everlane and Warby Parker as well.
It’s no secret that fashion, just like any other industry, needs real innovation. Tomorrow’s leaders will need to adopt an empathetic approach to see the situation clearly. Instead of simply launching traditional product companies that they think are “better” than what already exists, they should be looking hard at what problems exist in the world. They must then focus their attention on creating both products and business models that aim to actually solve these problems for customers.
Ari Bloom is the CEO of Avametric, a San Francisco-based fashion & retail technology firm.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.