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How to Tackle Fashion’s Tech Deficit? Hire the Right People

At a time when e-commerce and digital marketing are mere table stakes, fashion companies are locked in a race for innovation. The first challenge? Recruiting tech talent.
Source: Shutterstock
  • Cathaleen Chen

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NEW YORK CITY, United States — When MatchesFashion set out to transform itself from a modest brick-and-mortar chain in London to a premier online fashion retailer, the company knew a website alone wouldn't cut it.

That's why last year, even with 95 percent of MatchesFashion's revenue now coming from e-commerce, it opened its fifth real-world location: a "townhouse" that marries the physical and the digital experience, one that now features some of the company's latest innovations in technology. For instance, the retailer is developing a form of artificial intelligence that will allow store associates to be notified when customers arrive to the townhouse, record their footfall, analyse data about where they are browsing and for how long, measure interactions with product displays and deduce whether these displays drive conversion.

This particular activation is just one way the retailer is utilising artificial intelligence, according to MatchesFashion chief technology officer Kim Hartlev. He points to how machine learning has enabled buyers and merchandisers to access years’ worth of data on buying patterns and product trends.

Today, integrating technology means more than just selling products online and tracking customer data, he said. “We are releasing new features and functionalities at an ever increasing pace… and have continued our heavy investment in development teams over the last five years.”

As digital continues to reshape both consumer behavior and back-end supply chains, fashion companies are increasingly locked in a race for innovation on everything from omnichannel experiences to lightning-like speed-to-market. This means that having the right technology is as important as hiring the right designers, with the need for tech-driven advancement impacting results across the entire value chain, from automated manufacturing to data-driven demand forecasting tools to AI-powered personalised marketing campaigns.

From the runway to the racks, technology has impacted every element of a fashion company — and the speed of which this is transforming the sector is "gaining ground by the day," said Manjuri Sinha, the global lead for technology talent recruitment at e-commerce retailer Zalando. "From the frontend to the backend, whether you are a brick-and-mortar retailer or an e-commerce platform, you have to have tech to enable yourself."

But enablement starts with finding and nurturing talent. And that means hiring the right people and cultivating the right culture, explained Karen Harvey, a veteran recruiter who has worked for companies including Versace, Ralph Lauren and Farfetch. Harvey is also the founder of Fashion Tech Forum, an annual conference that explores the intersection of fashion and technology.

“In terms of bringing in talent that understand omnichannel from a tech standpoint and what the best technologies are to integrate, there’s just a dearth of real understanding,” she said. “And sometimes companies will reject technologically driven individuals when they arrive… there definitely are culture clashes.”

While the technology is one of the most attractive fields for top talent, fashion and retail are simply not top of mind for software developers, engineers and data analysts. Indeed, aspiring technology workers don’t necessarily see the sector as an appealing option — and certainly not over the promise of working at tech giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon.

It’s a “war to fight for talent,” Sinha said.

Many are less inclined to join traditional fashion or retail companies because of a widespread belief that they are less innovative, according to Juliette Lim, founder of recruitment firm Opus, which primarily works with millennial talent and has recruited for the likes of Theory, Macy’s and J. Crew. “Most candidates want to know that there’s openness to change, that there’s innovation going on,” she said.

Companies like Target have made recent strides, creating chief digital officer positions and hiring thousands of engineers in-house. The Yoox Net-a-Porter Group employs 1,200 across its development teams — or a quarter of its total workforce. But the industry overall has a long way to go. To hire the foremost talent in tech, brands and retailers must first prove to candidates that they’ve fully integrated technology into their business models. This begins with making sure that tech positions exist in tandem with other parts of the company.

The mere existence of a role called “chief digital officer” or “chief innovation officer” will not suffice, Harvey said. “The first thing I tell [my clients] is that they have to carve out enough space within the organisation for the chief digital officer to have impact… The technology needs to flow across every discipline. They need to make space for technology to exist within a company in order to really become innovative.”

At Target, for instance, product teams introduce their work to the rest of the company on “demo days,” during which member of the C-suite can learn firsthand how to incorporate their developments into the company’s business strategy.

At Zalando, different units of the company routinely collaborate on projects through its open-source culture. The e-tailer uses coding collaboration program GitHub to open up its projects to not only the wider company beyond its tech team, but also to the public. “If anyone is curious about what’s going on in our tech space, they can [find our projects] and contribute,” said Sinha. “This is something that techies find very appealing.” It’s a two-birds-with-one-stone setup: Zalando receives help on its projects while also having the opportunity to scout potential candidates.

When a company doesn’t fully utilise the work and recommendations of its tech teams, employees in these roles may feel undervalued.

“We had a candidate from traditional retail who came to us because she felt like she couldn’t change the company and its dated ways of doing things,” said Lim. “She wanted to look for an opportunity in the retail startup space and was willing to take a pay cut.”

Big companies like Gap and Macy's can't compete with tech startups when it comes to demonstrating the impact of technology within the company, according to Lim. Especially among younger candidates, there's "a real ownership mindset" — not only do they want literal equity in a company, they crave ownership over the work that they do.

For some, the answer may lie with dedicated innovation arms. Walmart, for instance, launched its incubator program Store No. 8 last year and hired Rent the Runway co-founder Jenny Fleiss to run its first portfolio company, Code Eight, within the incubator. Topshop and Asos also operate startup accelerators. Having explicit tech verticals makes for a selling point for tech applicants who may not otherwise consider a retail company as an innovation-driven workplace.

“Having an innovation arm is the easiest way to show that you’re working on new technologies,” Lim said. “Most candidates want to know that there’s openness to change and fast-track growth. When I see people get excited about opportunities, that’s what they’re looking for.”

Editor's note: This story was revised on 12 October, 2018. A previous version misspelled Manjuri Sinha, the global lead for technology talent recruitment at e-commerce retailer Zalando, as Manjuri Sinah. This is incorrect. 

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