I attended the second annual Fashion Tech Forum on Thursday, a confluence of fashion notables interested in how technology affects the making and selling of fashion. I felt like I was having a peek into a whole other world. Impossible chic and professional women and men swanned about the two warehouse-sized, white floors, hugging each other and talking, while Lana del Rey and Haim played over the speakers mounted thirty feet above our heads. Editors from PAPER Magazine, ELLE Magazine, WIRED Magazine, and Yahoo! Style were there. Creative directors and designers from Creatures of the Wind and Kate Spade, The presidents of Jimmy Choo and Bergdorf, the CEOs of Peter Som and DVF were seated in the vast sea of chairs.
The program ran the entire day for 9 am to 6 pm, with 20-minute-long session exploring topics from wearables to “contextualized commerce,” which I will discuss later. Each speaker was introduced by a awards show-worthy blast of uplifting music.
And what speakers they were: Francesca Amfitheatrof, Design Director of Tiffany & Co.; Tom Kartsotis, Founder of Shinola; Livia Firth, Founder, Eco-Age; Andrew Rosen, CEO of Theory; Emily Weiss, CEO of Into The Gloss; Lisa Gersh, CEO of goop; Christene Barberich, Editor-in-Chief of Refinery29; Amy Smilovic, Founder of Tibi;Yael Aflalo, Founder and CEO of Reformation; and Laurent Claquin,Head of Kering Americas; among many others.
“Consumers have no problem with you making money, just be honest about it.”
I felt like an interloper, somewhat. I’ve always been wary of conventional fashion. However accurate The Devil Wears Prada might have been, I’ve found the hyper judgmental energy of conventional fashion to be in sharp contrast to the warm and welcoming vibe of sustainable and ethical fashion events. (The Founder of RewardStyle was there, and I was tempted to tap her on the shoulder and say, “Have you Googled the term rstyle and seen what comes up? Just try it.” And then walk away.) However, you’ve got to hand it to the people on stage speaking and many audience members: They are killing it, and the sustainable fashion community could learn a few tricks on marketing and selling your product.
Fortunately, the sustainable and ethical fashion community was there, too, albeit the luxury ones who already seem to have this game mastered: the CEO of EDUN Julien Labat, the jewelry designer Pamela Love, the co-founder of A Peace Treaty Farah Malik, and Steven Alan were in attendance.
After the opening remarks, a zen teacher came on for a 15-minute meditation, which seemed to clear the room of bad energy. That was a moment that really added to the proceedings.
Yes, there were a couple of disappointing moments. But overall, I came away feeling somewhat positive about the direction of the luxury fashion industry. (No, Forever 21 was not invited.) They seem to be grasping the importance of making changes to the way clothing, jewelry and accessories are produced. And where the luxury market goes, the rest will follow.
Quyhn Mai, the founder of Moving Image & Content, gave a very short presentation that skimmed over her themes, but these remarks stood out, even if she didn’t dig deeper into them: “It’s about encouraging dialogue and true partnership,” she said of building a trusted community. “Use transparency as a marketing tactic.” She cited Warby Parker as an example of a company using transparency to its advantage. Warby Parker has a one-for-one model, plus has transparent pricing strategies, in sharp contrast to the glasses behemoth Luxottica. “Consumers have no problem with you making money, just be honest about it.”
Lisa Gersh, the CEO of goop, on the other hand, advocated for breaking down the barriers between media content and commerce, creating a close relationship with the brands and editorial.“It’s clearly what customers want,” she said. “They want to read about something and then go buy it.” This makes me a little bit wary. Have we completely shed the old model, where Good Housekeeping would stringently test models of products to choose the best one, thus saving the consumer money and stress, and lifting up companies making high quality products? Instead, is it really going to be about only showcasing products that we can directly make money off of? Perhaps that is why goop espouses a sustainable philosophy, but showcases so much conventional fashion and other products in its fashion editorial.
“I think it’s the age of inconspicuous consumption. Maybe it’s more about who’s making it and where it’s coming from.” – Shinola CEO Tom Kartsotis
Then the message swung back the other direction, with Apu Gupta, the CEO of Curalate. “The brands that are doing it the best are recognizing that you can’t control the message, and you can’t have a completely manicured message,” she said. This was heartening to hear, as I sometimes get brand representatives trying to to edit my stories after I’ve published them. If it’s the truth and I believe it, it stays!
Meanwhile, Poppy Harlow, the Correspondent & Anchor of CNN, moderated the panel on storytelling, and highlighted the millennial paradox: “Millennials want to know the story of where their products come from; that’s not to say they won’t buy fashion fashion, as well,” she said.
“I think it’s the age of inconspicuous consumption. Maybe it’s more about who’s making it and where it’s coming from,” Shinola CEO Tom Kartsotis said. Then Harlow turned to Victor Luis, the CEO of Coach, and asked him about how Coach showed how their purses were made. He danced around her question, deftly avoiding talking about the ethicality of Coach purses (which I’ve heard from an inside source is actually quite good), and instead talked about social media and cute in-store activities. In the Q&A period for that panel, I asked Victor whether he would in the future message the quality of their international factories more, but again, he went back to Coach’s legacy of quality. Why? I have to surmise, without being able to ask him directly, that like many luxury brands, he is afraid of tarnishing his brand with the granola flavor of ethical fashion.
Then came the panel I was excited to see. Celebrity and consultant Livia Firth and Iain Renwick of the sustainable fashion consulting firm Eco-Age took to the stage to give a rousing speech on the necessity for fashion companies to plan ahead of the inevitable scarcity coming to us. Firth, you probaby know, started the Green Carpet challenge, to encourage sustainable black tie dress on the red carpet.
“It’s an industry that relies heavily on human capital, and natural capital. There is more and more poverty in our supply chain because production happens far away. Your garment workers, your supply chain workers are starting to unionize and ask for living wages. Things are started to get complicated,” she told the audience. “We all know water is getting scarcer and scarcer. Raw materials, how are we going to make sure we can keep sourcing them at the source we are sourcing ghtme today? The truth is we can’t. The system is not in equilibrium, and a system that is not in equilibrium will collapse. Your business model is going to be finite. It’s not going to be profitable anymore. If you don’t have a 10-year timeline, you’re going to be screwed. Pardon my French.”
The work that Eco-Age has done is quite incredible. They converted Chopard into a zealous advocate for Fair Mined gold. (This is the alternative.) They pioneered the world’s first zero-deforestation certified leather with Gucci. Why deforestation? Because the single largest cause of deforestation is the raising of cattle.
“We used three of their most iconic profiles,” Renwick said, showing off pictures of the luxury leather purses, “and they completely sold through.” Gucci is a subsidiary of Kering, a luxury conglomerate who has shown itself to be passionate about sustainability across its brands. Laurent Claquin, Head of Kering Americas said, “At Kering we believe that sustainable business is a smart business. It’s a business of opportunity, it brings innovation, and then it’s helped us to attract and retain talent.” Kering publishes a sustainability report discussing water pollution, water consumption, land use and other measures of environmental damage that results from the manufacture of its goods.
The thing that stood out most to me was that Kering has come up with a leather tanning process that is free of chromium and heavy metals for all its brands, then shared the process online so other companies can use it, too. I cannot believe this wasn’t reported on more, because leather tanning is so massively toxic. They also have made publicly available a library of over 1,500 textiles and materials that they have deemed sustainable.
“We’re a private company and of course we want to make money,” Claquin said in response to a question from the audience on how they make money if they share information. “But when we talk about sustainability, we don’t do that to sell more bags. It’s about quality.” He cited the triple bottom line – people, planet, profit – as a guide. “There’s a lot of things we don’t share. For the leather tanning, we want to share that because we think it will be a game changer. We were still the first to do it, so we hope it will be a competitive advantage.”
Sophie Hackford, Director of Wired Consulting & Wired Education, shared ways in which technology can drive sustainability. Leather grown in a lab is one. “There’s someone who is trying to make rhino horn in the lab to drive down the price,” she said. “The ability to create materials that have never been seen before, and that can have a huge impact on sustainability. Also, the ability to manufacture with zero waste. The ability to overlay data on the complex supply chain. For 3d manufacturing, instead of shipping items around the world, which is incredibly carbon intensive, you’re able to zap a digital design of that product and start manufacturing nearby.”
In a panel about gaining credibility with connected consumers, I was pleased to hear some real talk from Hanneli Mustaparta, a “fashion influencer” and photographer. “There is so much fake content out there. Scrolling through Instagram … everything is staged. There is no reason for that person to be there at that time in that outfit. It bothers me. It needs to be authentic,” she said.
Yael Aflalo, Founder & CEO of the sustainable (and sexy) fashion brand Reformation, was a fascinating person to hear speak. I always point to Reformation as a brand that is making eco sexy. “We don’t actually try to publicize it that much,” she said. “I think people should buy Reformation because Reformation makes good products. If people want to learn more, it’s available to them. It’s on the site and there are different places to look for it.”
“You can’t tell people, those jeans you love that make your butt look great, they use a thousand gallons of water. How can I shift people’s perceptions without using terrifying information? You have to do it slowly, little by little. We think of it like a friendship. You’re not going to meet someone and be like, ‘Hi, I’m Yael. Here’s everything you need to know about me.’ Meet us, get to know our clothes, and we’ll take you on a journey to teach you about sustainability, show you little things you can do every day for the world.” – Yael Aflalo of Reformation
Even the discussion of Google’s new smartphone-connected microfiber textile involved sustainability. “There’s a race to the bottom to make clothing cheaper and cheaper, which makes it harder and harder to be sustainable,” Paul Dillinger, Vice President of Levi’s, said. “I think this is the thing that will create a real sense of stewardship for the clothing when you have all this value in it. It could get people to pay a little more, and hold onto it for a little longer. All these things we want to have happen will happen, but not because of the sustainability argument.”