OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — “As a kid in Indiana who was into skateboarding and punk rock and fanzines, the Internet made immediate sense to me,” said Ian Rogers, the unlikely but enlightened appointment to the role of chief digital officer at LVMH, taking the stage for a question and answer session with Imran Amed at VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers.
Before joining LVMH, Rogers spent years in the music industry as it faced a major digital disruption brought about by mp3s, file sharing and the rise of cloud services like Spotify. At first, the recorded music industry resisted change, losing 50 percent of its value before finally moving from denial to growth, recalled Rogers. So what can fashion learn from music as it faces a digital revolution of its own that is reshaping everything from media to retail?
“Like music, the fashion business is fundamentally a culture business,” said Rogers. “We sell culture as a prerequisite to selling a product. If you don’t buy the culture of the brand, you are not going to buy a $3,000 handbag. You’re buying what that communicates in terms of cultural value,” he continued.
This is not a technological revolution, it’s a cultural revolution. The way culture is transmitted has fundamentally changed because of the internet.
“At the same time, [fashion] doesn’t suffer from same fundamental value loss as music,” he observed. That’s because — at least for now — luxury clothing and accessories can’t be digitised in the same way as music or other media content.
“So you have these products that are made traditionally (and I think there is more value to handmade products in a digital world) but you sell culture as a prerequisite to selling those products and the way culture is transmitted has fundamentally changed because of the internet,” he continued, adding that “the same lessons from music about how culture has changed” are applicable to fashion.
“This is not a technological revolution, it’s a cultural revolution,” clarified Rogers, who was previously the CEO of Beats and a senior director at Apple Music. “It’s not about digital. We never talked about digital when I was at Apple. It’s like talking about oxygen all the time; it’s just the world. This is about something much more specific: the internet and the way human beings are connected.”
“The luxury business is in a great position relative to where the world is going,” he continued. For one, the internet is pushing the world “from mass markets to niche markets, which is good for the luxury business, which is actually a mass of niches,” he said, contrasting the hyper-specific identities of luxury fashion brands to the likes of mass-market giants like Wal-Mart and Gap.
Secondly, “because consumers have unlimited choice and the customer's voice is so loud, we are moving from a world where marketing has hyperefficiency to a world where quality has hyperefficiency,” favoring brands that are genuinely high-quality and willfully disseminated across networks, added Rogers, referencing Umair Haque’s mantra “The Snowball is the New Blockbuster.”
“For luxury brands, the wind is blowing in the right direction: you just need to raise the sails,” he said, advising companies to “get digital inside your organisation as quickly as possible” but “stop using the word digital and replace it with the word 'internet,' because connection amongst people is what’s really changing.”
After the question and answer session, Rogers was joined on stage by music artist will.i.am for a discussion on what he called “pattern matching in pop culture” and the possibility that “a tech company is the fashion of tomorrow.” Will.i.am spoke about his experiments at the intersection of music, fashion and technology, describing his incubator-like facility in Hollywood, where a cross-disciplinary team of software engineers, fashion designers and content makers are exploring how the rise of voice interfaces and artificial intelligence can be harnessed for future devices.
“iPhone 27 will be smarter than a 27-year-old,” said will.i.am. Encouraging the audience to dream, he suggested that someone in inner-city America in 1997 would never have believed in the coming of now-ubiquitous digital services like Uber and Airbnb, or devices like the iPhone, adding that “in the next 10 years, we’ll see the emergence of something that we’re all missing that will help us “maximise time and serve me up stuff" based on personal nends and desires.
iPhone 27 will be smarter than a 27 year old.
“I am my data,” said will.i.am, predicting that a personalised AI would live “in your ear,” get to know you and your needs and communicate via audio, much like the artificial intelligence Samantha in the Spike Jonze film Her.
Recalling a meeting with Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault, will.i.am said he told the luxury executive that: “Fashion should prepare for tomorrow because tomorrow is totally different. It’s possible that a tech company is the fashion of tomorrow.”
“Fashion doesn’t have technology,” he warned. “But they should build it, don’t collaborate. I’m a believer, and I believe in putting teams together. I like dot connectors, problem solvers, people who try to solve riddles.”
But ultimately, preparing for this future means starting with education, said will.i.am. “We’re not protecting the youth by investing in their education,” he lamented. “Every school has basketball, football, baseball — but not computer science. It’s about inspiring kids to dream down this path of tech.”