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In London, Front Row I/O Accelerates a New Crop of Fashion-Tech Start-ups

As the worlds of fashion and technology continue to collide in and around London's Silicon Roundabout, accelerator Front Row I/O is supporting a new crop of start-ups.
'Silicon Roundabout' in London | Source: Wikimedia
  • Ashma Kunde

LONDON, United Kingdom — The worlds of fashion and technology continue to collide in London, especially around Silicon Roundabout, the East End hub characterised by its gritty architecture and critical mass of young companies. Front Row I/O — a new fashion-tech accelerator programme conceived to nurture conversation and new enterprises at the intersection of design and digital innovation and partnered with the likes of London College of Fashion, Index Ventures, ASOS and Lyst — hand-picked several London-based start-ups for a three-month mentorship programme. Here's a snapshot of the six start-ups that participated.

Giacomo Summa, co-founder of Stylect, claims he has finally found a way to make women happy: a mobile app that feeds the female footwear obsession. Dubbed ‘Tinder for shoes,’ Stylect utilises the addictive swiping motion of the hit dating app to let women instinctively earmark their favourite shoes.

The app runs on an affiliate revenue model, aggregating product from leading e-commerce players such as ASOS, Yoox and Zalando. Users can filter their search criteria and receive discount notifications when one of their 'liked' shoes goes on sale. The app uses the binary data output (hot or not) and a social clustering algorithm to sharpen its recommendations to users with each swipe.

The proof is in the pudding. So far, the average user swipes through 560 shoes over one month, with one record-setting user clocking in a total of 51,000 swipes. As of June 2014, the app had 60,000 downloads, with an average engagement time of 7 minutes.

Women’s footwear itself presents a compelling opportunity. According to Euromonitor International, the category was valued at $186 billion in 2013 and is set to grow by an incremental $1.5 billion over the next five years. Add to this the growth of m-commerce, which Stylect predicts will add a further $62 billion. At the same time, the startup is working on developing its desktop site to service consumers who remain more comfortable shopping through this platform.

Bomb Petite aims to become the ultimate shopping destination for petite women, officially defined as 5'4'' and under. Founder Yuliya Petryk, herself of petite stature, laments the inextricable loss that petite women face: either through time searching for the right product, money on tailoring, or simply trading up on style.

The brand estimates the UK petite womenswear market to be valued at $3.7 billion, but with no single authority on petite products teamed with style advice, the playing field remains remarkably wide open. Like many before it, the e-tailer will combine commerce with content, providing shoppers with guidance on trends, brands, and inspiration from other pint-sized fashionistas such as Miroslava Duma and the Olsen twins.

While the startup currently operates an affiliate model, it aims to eventually shift to a higher margin retail model, using existing information gathered from the affiliate model to influence stock buying decisions.

With a mere $850 investment, Bomb Petite has already racked up a fan following of 3,200 fans across all social media platforms. Customer acquisition will be a key priority following further investment, as it continues on its quest to match Lululemon’s cult following and Net-a-Porter’s impeccably curated edit.

“The fashion industry is our bread and butter. Innovative technology is our crack cocaine.” Kovert’s manifesto says it all.

The designer jewellery and wearable tech brand has managed to pin down a credible answer to the somewhat elusive question of how exactly wearables can add value to a consumer's life in a way a smartphone cannot. The brand targets millennial consumers who are constantly living life through the lens of their smartphone screens, encouraging them to digitally detox (at least, as much as possible).

Kovert’s jewellery is embedded with electronic sensors that connect to a mobile app via Bluetooth. Users are able to customise the settings to ensure the jewellery vibrates only for important notifications, essentially limiting the need to have their phone out during social scenarios like dinner and meetings.

Most importantly, aesthetic appeal plays an integral role in Kovert's aim to reset the balance between the digital and physical worlds. The brand shuns obtrusive space-age gear for sleekly designed jewellery that would not look out of place on Net-a-Porter (where, incidentally, a collection will be launched this winter). The brand wishes to build fashion credentials on par with the achingly cool likes of Acne and Isabel Marant.

Agorique is a digital B2B showroom for the independent wholesale fashion market. The service aims not to replace the traditional trade show circuit, but to complement it by providing a more cost- and time-effective means of connecting buyers and sellers around the globe.

It corners the niche of mid-premium priced independent labels, defined as between 2-10 years old, placing it between the likes of Joor and NuORDER, who target established premium brands and retailers, and Modalyst, which caters to emerging designers. Brands pay a subscription fee of €50 per month (about $68), as well as a 5 percent commission on orders placed through the platform.

As well as providing international exposure for brands and streamlining the discovery process for retailers, Agorique tracks a number of backend metrics on profile and product views, orders placed and communication made. The site has already witnessed a stellar growth trajectory, having garnered close to 700 members across 55 countries in less than one year.

Alive Shoes has lofty ambitions to radically re-invent the shoemaking process. The site essentially builds upon a conversation that social media has begun: giving everybody a chance to create and promote their own brand.

Unlike branded product customisation options like Nike ID, or customised one-off pieces like those offered by Milk & Honey, Alive Shoes’s USP lies in its ability to make anyone a designer and entrepreneur. Users can register to design a product, create a webshop, and start selling within minutes.

The company does all the backend work, like managing production, logistics and customer care, enabling consumers to focus solely on creativity. The website currently offers 50 front-end templates, a number set to expand to 500, and will eventually allow consumers to upload their own sketches for true creative freedom.

Products are manufactured in the famed region of Le Marche in Italy, where the crème de la crème of 'Made in Italy' footwear is produced (including the likes of Prada and Tod's). By bypassing the middlemen and selling directly to consumers, Alive Shoes is able to offer highly competitive prices (between €99-199 including shipping) without scrimping on quality.

Shoes are made to order, put into production once a minimum of seven pairs are sold, and delivered to customers in less than four weeks. The company quotes an average return rate of 3 percent on the 1,000 shoes they have already shipped, impressive compared to 25-30 percent for the online shoe business.

With a global ‘menaissance’ in full swing, a number of online startups have been looking to cash in on the $440 billion menswear market. The internet itself has been a key driver of the category’s growth due to how well it suits the shopping habits of male consumers. Simplicity is the name of the game, and the most successful players enable male consumers to make well-educated purchases with minimal fuss, time and effort.

Menswear styling site Suits You Sir very much so follows this philosophy. It harnesses the power of e-commerce aggregation and crowdsourcing to cut through an often overwhelming number of options available on traditional e-commerce sites and provides personalised, need-based solutions.

Aside from becoming the most male-friendly online shopping platform, Suits You Sir also hopes to solve the problems of stylists themselves. It enables them to provide styling services from the comfort of their home, build a working portfolio, and reach and maintain clients. Suits You Sir also sees a compelling opportunity to broaden its geographic remit by connecting Western stylists with Chinese male shoppers.

Ashma Kunde is a senior apparel and footwear analyst at market research firm Euromonitor International.

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