You wanna be on top? Be a fashion tech start-up. Pitch to raise 3.5 million pounds. Forget about 300k LVMH sponsorship prizes, because the real money is in tech (apparently…). The fashion-tech hook-up reads like a Venn diagram of big-money industries- look at Burberry’s Angela Ahrendts defecting to Apple, and both Amazon and Google poaching key-players in accessory design. it’d seem ignorant not to consider the advantages of having a hand in both. Put it this way: if you started a fashion company, do you think you would you survive without an online presence?

Fashion tech doesn’t only mean e-commerce and wearables (i.e. Nike devices that count how many calories you burn, or dresses made of Samsung phones). It’s still a field we’re getting to grips with, so what we know only comes from the big-names with money, interpreting fashion-tech through the lens of coders, and designers with the impetus on utility. But it can be anything. It’s a bit like a CSM design brief for a collection based on ‘love’. Some will choose to explore ‘Stockholm Syndrome,’ while others will think ‘chastity’ and the Virgin Mary. Fashion tech needn’t be so black and white, with a cordoned-off area of glasses-wearing ‘geeks’ across the room from a black-clad fashion mob. Bring the drinks in, and knock-heads, because the future is in both.

Iris van Herpen

The first ever London Technology Week kicked off on Wednesday, and we decided to explore the fashion side of things- or at least hoped there’d be something to look at. We started with a start-up event, hosted by Front Row Academy in Hoxton Square, where six diverse start-ups presented ideas to investors. The ideas on-offer ranged from wearable tech (Kovert), e-commerce (Suits you Sir / Bomb Petit), iPhone apps (Stylect), online wholesale market-places (Agorique), and instantly-shoppable custom shoe design apps (AliveShoes). We leafed through the brochure and were pretty awe-struck by the amount of money that participants asked for. Considering the fashion world was wetting its pants over the six-figure LMVH prize (won by Thomas Tait), you’d expect a few to faint when seeing the start-ups on show here were looking to raise ‘between 3.5 M – 4.5 M.’ Hollywood figures. It makes fashion-tech start-ups seem like a lucrative field to get into, especially when, fresh out of studies, you’re faced with over £50,000 debt.

So, what’s the road to success? Is it about brilliant ideas? Here’s what we gathered from the event…

Be boring

Investor and strategy consultant Andrew Lockley told us he looks for companies that are typically boring and sticky. “I’m looking at businesses that have a reason why you can’t use somebody else. So once you’ve built it, your customers don’t have any choice than to stay with you.”

Trend forecaster Gwyneth Holland agrees with that, emphatic of the sustainability of an idea. “I think that when things come from the tech place first, and you then put fashion on top, it needs to work seamlessly and do something functionally,” she says. “Possibly quite boring ideas that would make the life of the fashion consumer easier.”

Pitch perfect

You’ve got a boring idea, then what? We know Anna Wintour can’t stress the point of selling yourself enough, but what makes the pitch perfect? Well, we learnt what doesn’t…

“Worst pitch? One that you don’t understand; about 40%-60% of the time, you don’t understand what the fuck they’re talking about.” Explaining what might be a better approach, Andrew added, “most pitches come across in 140 characters – all you need to do is say it 57 times, and you fill up a 5 minute pitch, right? Then people at least understand what you do, [though] they might think you’re a bit strange and got Tourettes.”

What would he suggest young designers should do? “So, they want someone to shout and tell them their business is shit? Send them to me and I’ll tell them why their business is shit. People just need to be ripped repeatedly and they get better and better when they’ve been ripped a hundred times.” Nice.

The younger people who are just starting out would advise you to keep your eyes open. Be wise to upcoming hackathons and events- and, go to them, obviously– to immerse yourself in the start-up community. “The community is very helpful; they put you up and help you out without wanting anything in return,” Xiaoting from Suits you Sir says. Her colleague Patrick added that many people don’t realize that you can do your own thing, as there aren’t that many jobs for graduates anymore.

However, the problem is that in fashion, we do actually realise that, and there are perhaps a few too many fashion graduates eager to start their own company, and failing. So, with that, the inevitable caveat is not to let your ideas and practice follow the same dictum. While “novelty is the new long-term solution,” as told by tech consultant Libbie Chan, think long-term, and approach start-ups with a more sustainable strategy.

But, what do we know about business? We’re art students.

Isn’t the constant issue of art students’ lack of business skills worrying?  Art schools don’t seem keen on properly ‘launching’ fashion students into the real-world (ed note: but that’s a point that’s contentious, because some of us are here for that- an arts education. If we need to learn business, we’re well aware of how and where… although, obviously that doesn’t mean we’ll be good at it). “The problem with CSM [is that] they’re not giving enough business education,” said Emma Cheevers from Global Blue. She noted the simple things that you’d learn at business school, like making a Powerpoint presentation or an Excel spreadsheet. So, why should we really be making an effort to educate ourselves on the business side of things, and building our own start-ups? Again, it comes down to the bottom line: money.

“Innovation is slowly replacing heritage as the new attribute of luxury.” Yuli Ziv writes in Season of Change. She seems to be right. If you look at recent articles published on Business of Fashion, you can tell that there’s a growing interest in technology, under the assumption it translates into supposedly ground-breaking innovation. Be it improvements in e-commerce customer service, in-store tech, fashion in venture capital or the idea that companies with the best technology will lead fashion, the relationship between fashion and tech is a hot-topic. A FashTech talk showed the potential there is in the field, for example, mixing knitwear with radiology to create fabrics (each pixel in a brain scan is a stitch in the machine), or a platform that allows you to do a body scan to improve the fit of garments– which works for both designer and customer.

Why isn’t this area of fashion sufficiently supported at the group that shows most potential to lead this industry change? If this is what will be most profitable, then why don’t universities teach more business- or technology skills? Is there a lack of fashion tech education, because art school teachers don’t have a clue what’s happening? Is it ultimately about young creatives growing the balls to get in touch with tech-folks for advice (or collaboration) in a part of the industry that’s still in developing stages. Is it really up to educators to be the leading hand? Or is art-school exactly that: about art and design, with its place being to educate us as creatives? In all honesty, we wouldn’t want sit through a two hour session of spreadsheets. It didn’t work when we were sixteen, and we doubt it would now. But, what do you think?

by Jorinde Croese

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