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Op-Ed | 4 Anxieties Keeping Fashion CEOs Awake at Night

From an outdated business model to artificial intelligence, fashion is struggling to evolve with the times, argues Tim Noakes.
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  • Tim Noakes

LONDON, United Kingdom — On the surface, fashion's global impact shows no sign of waning. But look closely and you'll discover an industry struggling to evolve with the times. In December, The State of Fashion report by The Business of Fashion and McKinsey revealed that 67 percent of fashion executives believe conditions in the industry had worsened in the previous year. But, nearly a year later, are the seams still unravelling?

The Future Laboratory has identified four major anxieties casting long shadows over the industry. If you want to know how to future-proof your fashion brand, read on — and then act:

Anxiety #1: An outdated business model. Caught between long-standing traditionalism and increasing numbers of digitally native consumers, designers and brands are struggling with the fashion calendar's production demands. Factor in the prediction by the World Economic Forum that people won't own anything by 2030, and it is clear that companies quickly need to move from high-price, one-off ownership to a more fluid subscription model. Platforms such as Rent The Runway are taking significant steps towards access over ownership, with the added benefit of creating a continual, long-lasting relationship between consumer and brand. Then there's Higher Studio, which lets consumers borrow archive pieces from designers such as Prada, Maison Martin Margiela and Vivienne Westwood for a monthly fee, also giving people a chance to enjoy brands they might otherwise not have access to.

Anxiety #2: The rise of AI. By 2020, the market for machine-learning applications will reach £30 billion ($39.5 billion at current exchange), according to the International Data Corporation. Yet the fashion sector has been too slow in harnessing it. "There is a great deal of urgency in these things, particularly for large organisations," says Wojtek Tusz, interim director of the Digital Anthropology Lab at the London College of Fashion. "Digital innovations can be built relatively quickly, but it takes a long time to implement them, particularly if organisations lack digital infrastructure. We're talking years and millions of pounds in terms of investment and returns."

A smart way to start embracing AI is through data design. Combining data with artificial intelligence will become a powerful tool to pre-empt consumers’ needs. For the launch of K/Lab, department store group Kohl’s created collections made following two weeks of data-gathering from Trendalytics, Google Trends and Instagram. By analysing available data in real time, it offered an opportunity to produce designs that actively responded to consumer demand.

Anxiety #3: Human resources. From reports of bullying and sexism to the lack of diversity on catwalks, HR and inclusion still appear as afterthoughts. With Brexit looming and economic uncertainty felt around the globe, fashion brands will have to re-adopt a long-term, people-before-profit ethos to attract and retain world-class talent. The industry will also need to up-skill its workforce and move to a blend of human creativity and data-driven intuitive decision making. According to Essential Retail, UK fashion will need 60,000 new technology roles by 2020, particularly in digital content creation, CRM management and systems analysis.

Employers in the fashion sector need to embrace neurodiversity too. Although diversity across the industry should be promoted regardless, brands should pay extra attention to how they encourage creatives. Unemployment within the neurodiverse population can be as high as 80 percent, according to Harvard Business Review, despite the fact that neurodiverse teams can be 30 percent more productive. Microsoft, Ford and UBS have all started to reform their HR processes to better cater for neurodiverse talent, so why is the fashion industry still falling behind?

Anxiety #4: Environmental sustainability. With so much talk of brands being eco-friendly but still no notable progression, it is imperative to rethink the strength of commitment to the environment. At a time when 31 percent of Generation Z have boycotted a brand for unsustainable practices, according to renewable energy company Masdar, harnessing new technologies is key to fortifying long-term success. Luxury conglomerate Kering worked with global innovation platform Plug and Play to launch the accelerator Fashion For Good. They offered grants to 10 textile startups, who then followed a three-month programme to help fast-track their sustainable innovation to the luxury and apparel industries. As Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs at Kering, says: "We cannot advance alone. This collaboration is one solution, among others, to reach our sustainability ambition by bringing disruptive innovators to the table."

These are all huge issues to solve, but they are not insurmountable. With the right planning, the fashion industry can plot a path to becoming future fit. Chief executives that don’t will find their brand’s consumer base diminishing quickly as they are overtaken by those that can plan far beyond next season’s must-have collection.

Tim Noakes is the editorial director at The Future Laboratory.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
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