This week I attended Magic, known globally as the most comprehensive fashion marketplace and exhibition of apparel, footwear, accessories, and manufacturing in the industry. The "tradeshow experience" that is Magic not only fuels the business of fashion, but also provides the larger retail industry with insights into the future of business. Who knew footwear trends could tell us so much about the reality of robot-to-human interaction in the years to come?
During the convention, brands both big and small sell to some of the world's largest retailers, while simultaneously learning about where the industry is going, how to prepare for the rapidly shifting climate, and how they fit into the overall landscape. As someone who has watched Magic grow and change over the years (I attended my first show in 2009), I saw a palpable shift this season: Digital and physical are colliding as retail is figuring out innovative ways to embrace technology while remaining human at its core. E-commerce will certainly comprise an even greater share of retail transactions in the coming years, but brick and mortar experiences will be seminal to a brand's growth.
Whether you're an emerging designer, a growing brand, or an entrepreneur looking to break into the fashion world, here are several trends to get you thinking about the future. Beyond that, all of us can learn a tremendous amount about the overall business environment through the lens of fashion retail.
Trend #1 - Bottom up as a viable business model
Not so long ago, the goal of a small fashion label was selling wholesale to a large retailer like Nordstrom or Bloomingdale's. The initial order would be big enough to capitalize the first shipment of products with enough left over to re-invest back into the brand for future design and product manufacturing. It was a top-down approach that kept the power in the hands of the retailers and left the designers at the mercy of a handful of large organizations. In essence, it was a traditional business-to-business model.
"In the past, many brands were ill-equipped to actually enter the lane of wholesale, even if they were showing up at trade events," remarked Leslie Gallin, president of footwear for UBM (parent company for Magic).
In the last decade, with the invention of the Internet storefront (think Etsy or eBay), the entire model was flipped on its head and the direct-to-consumer revolution began. Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter exponentially increased the probability that early-stage designers could secure funding to jumpstart their businesses. Then, through digital selling platforms, many could build a solid business in just a few years, if not months.
"Now brands who launch direct-to-consumer can build brand recognition, get the kinks out of their product and production process, and begin to generate revenue without the wholesale channel," added Gallin. "However, in order to grow and scale their business, they eventually need to expand their distribution channels as part of their core business strategy."
One example is Dallas, Texas-based footwear company Floafers, whose tagline﹣from the beach to the boardroom﹣landed them squarely amidst the hottest men's shoe brands of the season during the FN Platform footwear show at Magic.
"We launched a Kickstarter campaign in February 2017, where we sold Floafers into more than 41 countries worldwide," said CEO Hayes Brumbeloe. "After our initial direct-to-consumer launch, we raised a significant amount of capital through private investment, which has since allowed us to grow our brand recognition and loyalty through various social media platforms."
After building the company via the direct-to-consumer channel, Floafers expanded its reach by partnering with a few major department stores, resorts, country clubs, and outfitters.
"Through the more traditional business-to-consumer channels, we've learned who our customers are, what colors they like, and what sizes are most popular. All of these data points allow us to be a better partner on the retail and wholesale side. The show has given us the exposure we needed with large retailers and global distributors to discover the Floafers brand, and will poise us for national and international growth moving into 2019."
Trend #2 - Showcasing as a path to immediate purchase
Traditional brick and mortar businesses often bemoan some consumer's proclivity for "showrooming" ﹣ visiting a physical store to touch and feel products and compare prices, then eventually purchasing those products online. But if you're a retailer or a brand, this concept of being able to "test" or get a small taste of something before committing is actually quite appealing, and it's often a less risky form of transaction.
Today, the demand for brands to meet the buyer's needs (whether a consumer or retailer) in near real-time has placed a tremendous amount of pressure on the creative and operational process. To meet the demand of smaller brands, WWDMagic partnered with FashionGo to create On:Line﹣a 3,000 square-foot space on the showroom floor curated to include brands like Active Basic, Blithe, Comme USA, and Fashion Wildcat.
Kelly Helfman, VP and brand director of WWDMagic, explained: "Many smaller brands were expressing interest in our tradeshow experience, but they just couldn't afford to bring an entire staff and a full collection; but they could manage a couple racks of clothes and one or two employees. Many of these brands had digital storefronts, so we came up with a concept that ultimately converged the offline and online experience and lowered the barriers to entry."
"A large part of the fashion business has shifted online, but brands and buyers are increasingly feeling the need for an experience offline," added Daniel Lee, CEO of FashionGo. "This partnership will bring an omnichannel experience that has not yet been done in the fashion industry. Retailers can see samples, then place an order for a full collection via an iPad on the spot."
Ultimately, On:Line is a response to how brands and buyers are doing business. Its inaugural success signals that it's a solid blueprint for how brands and retailers will interact in the future, particularly as technology becomes a wholly integrated part of the customer experience.
Trend #3 - Technology enables personalization and convenience
While it's certainly true that automation, artificial intelligence, and machines have displaced many aspects of repetitive, task-related work (which has critics arguing that robots will destroy jobs), the stark reality is that the consumers of today expect on-demand, personalized experiences. The fashion industry, historically reliant on human capital and overseas manufacturing, is a leading indicator for how quickly and widely the use of robots will be adopted. It allows brands to manufacture products in new ways, taking into account shifting consumer demands.
Uneekbot by Keen Footwear, touted as the "world's smallest shoe factory" and quite an attraction at Magic, is a prime example of what's coming. The system contains two robotic arms, several custom fixtures, and a tablet which serves as the robot's controller, allowing users to start and stop the shoemaking process or input important variables. The entire shoe is held together by a single cord that weaves its way through both the sole and a lightweight upper. This year, Uneekbot is traveling to universities across the U.S. to create custom shoes for students based on university colors﹣in less than 10 minutes.
Beyond personalization, technology also offers consumers a new level of convenience. Until recently, mixed reality (MR), virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR) have been mainly confined to entertainment. But the broader application of AR is particularly relevant in fashion, where technology can be used to enhance the customer experience, rather than manipulate it or act as an intrusive agent.
Alibaba.com's Magic Mirror, showcased as part of this season's tradeshow, leverages AR technology to transform the shoppers' experience and give them a 360-degree vivid display of a variety of fashion products. The animation function, which features a model on a virtual runway, allows consumers to preview a specific brand's products in a more interactive way. Recently, Alibaba has been focusing on leveraging technology and innovation to transform the user experience across platforms in various industries, including fashion, apparel, and beauty.
Overall, throwback makes a comeback
We are continually repeating history. While the 90s is certainly influencing fall 2018 fashion trends, the business of fashion signals more than just throwbacks to former, popular looks. Humans want touchpoints, like the good old days. They want the convenience of shopping on Amazon for the latest tech gadget or Thrive Market for their organic food choices, and yet they also crave in-person experiences.
Fashion brands that leverage technology, while also understanding the psychological behaviors of consumers, will win in terms of market share. They will streamline the customer buying journey from in-store to online while eliciting feelings from the good old days. Humans are at the forefront while working in tandem with tech to create memorable, convenient, personalized experiences.