Olya Kuryshchuk: Thank you so much for finding time for me today. It is an interview but I almost see it as a brainstorming session. There is so much excitement around digital fashion. To take NFT’s and gaming as examples, we’re all wondering how fashion can be a part of all of these things. Everyone speaks about the possibilities, which all sound very positive, but I do wonder if we are missing anything here. We are entering a world where the winner takes all. I always felt that one thing that made our industry so different from all other entertainment areas is that we have a physical product, so that means it is more protected from theft than music, for example, which can easily be streamed without revenues going to the creator. In music, streaming was always presented as a democratization of the arts, music became more accessible, but in reality 94% of songs on Spotify are never listened to more than 100 times a year and something like 85% of those songs are listened to by the same five people. So the idea that there is all of this diversity in music tastes and movies doesn’t work, because the winner, the blockbuster, the top talent, take everything.
So if we start digitizing fashion, how will this affect the designers and creators? It can’t all be as positive as we’re all making it out to be. Can we brainstorm some of those negatives so that hopefully, we’ll be more prepared?
Robert Triefus: The pandemic has accelerated certain things that were underway already. The two things that it has particularly accelerated are digital – the notion that our lives can be virtualized, digitized – and our concern about the planet’s sustainability. And by the way, that isn’t just in terms of our planet, but also people, etc. As we’ve all been locked in our respective kind of cubicles, the world has come into a sharp focus, because without the power of digital, we would have been shut off completely. Of course, the tech industry wasn’t born yesterday. But what has happened in the last year is that it’s brought our comprehension of what digital means to a very personal level. So far, fashion has been defined by a physical experience. Not just in the materiality of the product but also in the experience, going to the stores, etc. So, what has happened in the last year is that we have wrapped our minds around the idea that digital has to be the way that we exist and connect with each other, at least for the time being. Within that context, gaming can mean a huge amount of different things. It can be an experience, a digital product, digital assets, an NFT,… Gaming is becoming intersectional, just like music, fashion, or art, because it is a function. It’s a way to do things, to express yourself, to engage with other people, authentically. So, what are the negatives? There is no doubt that one of the biggest negatives of the moment is that we all think that we’re very connected because of Zoom and Teams and social media platforms. But in reality, we’re incredibly disconnected. We’re disconnected from our friends, our families, and most importantly, we’re disconnected from ourselves, because we’re living in a kind of rabbit hole.
When we connect online, you, like anyone, end up going down these tunnels and you don’t know which channel you’re going to go into or where it’s going to take you. At that moment, you’re not really in touch with yourself, you’re not engaged with your own emotions, you’re kind of living vicariously through other people. I think that when we come out of the pandemic, we’re going to need to retrace our steps and find equilibrium again where real human emotion, real connection with people is part of the life experience. Humans are incredibly adaptive and very agile. If you think about what’s happened in the last 18 months and in the way that we’ve all adapted, there are silver linings.
“Digital can be a great democratizer if you are fortunate enough to have the hardware that allows you to become digital. In a way, that is the ultimate way to be inclusive. And yet, the luxury world is just starting to determine how you can provide a luxury experience.” – Robert Triefus
Olya: I totally agree. You mentioned how important sustainability is, not just in terms of product, but also the values that we’re looking at. Inclusivity is the word that we’re all using now and everyone is aiming to be inclusive. This relates to value creation, and more specifically, value creation for a digital product. How can a luxury fashion brand set up the value for that digital product and justify an exclusive price while remaining inclusive?
Robert: That is a really interesting question. Of course, digital can be a great democratizer if you are fortunate enough to have the hardware that allows you to become digital. In a way, that is the ultimate way to be inclusive. And yet, the luxury world is just starting to determine how you can provide a luxury experience, what that means and how it is defined. Ultimately, once that is defined and you attribute a value to it, how do you ensure that that value is substantiated, that it’s realisable? It’s something that I think all luxury brands are looking at now. Over the last five to six years, for example, Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s Creative Director, has kind of hijacked some of the preconceived ideas about what luxury has to be defined by and found a way to be an aspirational brand while still being inclusive. So, it’s an interesting moment, but I don’t think that all the answers are here yet.
Olya: Do you think there will be a need to create digital artificial scarcity? If not, is there a risk of over saturation of the digital market?
Robert: You can be assured that scarcity, like exclusivity, is an important aspect of the luxury experience. The challenge lies in how you create it in a justifiable and equitable way. And once again the question remains, what is a value that you can attribute to such experience or scarce product? Can we justifiably replicate the value system of the physical world in the digital world?
“New businesses with disruptive ideas have always come into the world and created new jobs. We can be reasonably confident again, going back to human agility and innovation, that there will be a constant pipeline of new ideas that lead to new opportunities and skills.” – Robert Triefus
Olya: What do you think the impact will be for designers? Do you feel that it will allow a bigger pool of designers to step in and have well-paid jobs or make money from their creativity? Or might it mean that instead of one creative director, brands will have a team of ten with no one underneath? I’m trying to grasp what this digitalization might mean for the new generation of students that are graduating. How can they be prepared?
Robert: Look, the perceived idea that the digital revolution puts everyone out of work, or at least changes the dynamics so that there are fewer opportunities, has been proven time and time again to be wrong. New businesses with disruptive ideas have always come into the world and created new jobs. We can be reasonably confident again, going back to human agility and innovation, that there will be a constant pipeline of new ideas that lead to new opportunities and skills. In terms of the ways of working, companies are changing. At Gucci, for example, our digital team, the one that oversees gucci.com, is structured in what is called an “agile way methodology”. That means that there are none of the traditional hierarchies, it’s a completely flat organisation. Teams come together and work on projects for two to three-week periods at a time. That kind of agile approach is something that we’re considering for other parts of the company too. I do think that there will be new ways of working and that students coming into the working world won’t necessarily be confronted with the old hierarchies of management. These structures might become very much the old way of doing things. It can be daunting because digital brings such rapid and significant change. But at the same time, I think that it leads to tremendous new areas of opportunity and exciting new skills that young individuals wanting to get their foot on the ladder can wrap their minds around.
Olya: I’m so excited about this time. I just kind of want to make it bulletproof for everyone we work with.
Robert: Unfortunately, life is not bulletproof!
Olya: You know, I was reading something the other day and realised that in professional tennis only the top 100 players can make a living out of the sport. For everyone else, it’s just a hobby.
Robert: That is very interesting. Actually, I am a little bit of a fan of tennis and that makes a lot of sense. As spectators, we’ve become quite connected with some of the top players and gaming teams. They earn very well. But again, once you go beyond the top 100 players in the world, suddenly you fall off a cliff.
Olya: It’s the same with music. You have Lady Gaga’s and maybe a few 1000 top artists. But after that, you need to have a full-time job to support yourself, and music is seen as a hobby, something you do in bars or little venues, together with your friends. In design, people are venting all the time and complaining about how bad the industry is, but there is a structure, graduates are getting jobs.
“Fashion houses are themselves having to go through incredible disruption and change.” – Robert Triefus
The question remains, is digitization moving design into the hobby area, where it is considered fine art and you need a full-time job to support it? Maybe it will no longer be considered a profession and becomes something that you can only make a living from if you are very, very lucky, something for a very small pool of people.
Robert: You have to bear in mind that fashion houses are themselves having to go through incredible disruption and change. The pandemic has put a huge amount of pressure on some parts of the industry. We will only realize the full impact once we emerge from it… We’re definitely in a period of flux. I see some of the young designers coming up today, some of whom Alessandro recognised in his Gucci fest last year, and I look at the way that they’re embracing digital to showcase what they do and I find it incredibly exciting. Nothing in life is ever bulletproof, so the risk is always there, but I do think those that are brave and creative and willing to go for it, they’re always going to be the ones that are most successful.