By Kenneth Richard | The Impressionist
The word ‘revolutionary’ is nowhere nearly strong enough to describe what CEO and founder of Fashion GPS Eddie Mullon has brought to the fashion industry. With the exception of the screen you are reading this on, there isn’t a technology that has impacted more people than Mullon’s launch to market tools that have helped every designer, buyer, public relations personal, editor, and blogger navigate fashion weeks, samples, and lookbooks. Every runway show invite, seating assignment, event check-in, sample sent, and often lookbook have been modernized due to the technology he developed. We sat with Mullon recently to discuss his humble beginnings, a chance encounter with KCD, Marc Jacobs, the craziness before a show, inventory management and becoming the go-to technology for brands launching to market around the world.
Eddie, thanks for sitting down with us. Fashion GPS has touched almost every fashion editor in the world which is quite remarkable. How did it all come about?
The idea for the company happened very naturally. When people ask me, “How did you come up with the idea for Fashion GPS? Why did you build this?” It’s really the industry that built it. My role was really about the execution.
Things actually started from humble beginnings. I didn’t know anything about fashion shows or designers. I was actually working for an agency, KCD as their IT consultant. At the time I had a company called Laptop M.D. that serviced computers; if you had a virus, your hard drive had broken, you needed an email account setup, or you needed Linux set up, I was there to help. I’ve done software development and engineering since I was about twelve years old and was making video games back in the 80s. On Sunday afternoons, I would distribute flyers around the neighborhood and in a turn of fate, one of the publicists from KCD grabbed my number and called me up. She had a virus on her computer and even her IT team couldn’t resolve the problem. I did it within 10 minutes. Next thing I know, I’m fixing everyone’s machines at KCD’s offices in New York.
After a while, they said, “Look, we have this wardrobe and it’s full of samples. Can you build a system to manage it and track it?” I ended up building a system that would later become Fashion GPS, and it took me a couple of weeks. It allowed them to print barcodes, scan them, and organize their samples. This was around 2002 and at the same time I was working on a video game with Virgin music. I created this full-blown 3D game that had three levels and featured on the single; in order to play the rest of the game you had to buy the album. I felt like this was it! This was going to be my business. I spent about a year building that video game. Eventually the artist ended up going to Vegas, overdosed, and died. It was pretty sad.
Who was the artist?
The artist was Rust Epique. I actually became really good friends with him. During that time I wasn’t really thinking about the little database project that I had developed for KCD. It was about two years later that I got a call from KCD saying, “One of our clients, Marc Jacobs, is interested in purchasing the software you built for us.” I didn’t know who Marc Jacobs was but I said, “Okay, sure, I’ll take the meeting.” Half an hour into the meeting, I begin to realize that there’s an entire industry here that has a desperate need for sleek and effective software. I worked out a deal with them where I gave them the first version source code and then spent six months building it out in order to sell this on to other brands. Meanwhile, I focused on learning about them from a brand perspective and understanding what they needed for effective sample tracking. The original version was made in FileMakerPro. Then, I decided to build a web-based application that can be multi-departmentalized and you can have hundreds of users using it. I feel that web based applications like this were really the birth of software as a service. I didn’t even realize that I was doing it.
Meanwhile I was still out there doing multiple other things. I was running Laptop M.D., I had another company called Visionary Interactive that did bespoke software, I had projects going on for Disney and various others as well. I actually ended up becoming a ‘computer doctor’ for a bunch of celebrities as word spread. I was fixing computers for Seal and Heidi Klum and many others. It was actually a really incredible time. Being a computer technician in New York City, at that point, if you navigated the right way then you could meet just about everyone. Once you fixed their computer, you’d be best friends! I did become and remain very good friends with everyone that I met during that period.
I had a good friend who always said to me, “Eddie! You’re so good at software development and you can make all these things. You’ve got this thing, Fashion GPS. Why are you doing computer repair? I just don’t get it.” I said, “I really love all these things.” He said, “If you really want to succeed you have to focus on just one thing.” I listened to that advice. I stopped doing everything and I made a conscious decision to focus entirely on Fashion GPS. It wasn’t even called Fashion GPS then, I think I called it ‘Track 12’ or ‘Tracking Samples’ or something along those lines. That is really when I made that decision. I came up with the name, registered it, incorporated, and that was it. This was all in 2006.
It definitely wasn’t easy though. I had about five clients at the time. Nobody wanted their data in ‘the cloud’, the concept made them nervous. I kept on pushing. All I kept thinking was, this is the right way of doing it, monthly service fees, no software installations etc. I started to grow the business from the ground up. Interestingly, as I started to sign up new clients like Donna Karan, I began learning how different luxury brands like Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan were operating. There were different needs and therefore different features that we started to build, like a ‘request manager’ to help the PRs keep on top of their incoming sample requests from journalists and really diving deeper into PR management on a sample level.
Next came fashion week. You had about a hundred freelancers, answering the phones and sending invitations. I can’t even explain how crazy it was as an outsider looking in. It was like a zoo. It was just so busy and there were a lot of manual processes. I said, “What if I tackle this events solution and build a whole platform that allows you to do everything from sending invitations to seating to conducting check-in.” I spent about 8-9 months with my development team and built the first version of GPS Events. This could even tie back to the sample management. In my mind, it was all about the life cycle of a sample. It starts with the prototype, which eventually has to go through a fashion show or a trade show, and finally ends up with the consumer. That’s really what I had been building. For a long time, I actually didn’t even realize that I was building a platform to service the whole industry from beginning to end. The more clients we started to bring on board, the more insight we got and we just kept on building based on this feedback.
With the event management platform, we partnered with Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and currently, our platform is used to manage around 90% of the fashion shows at Lincoln Center. We began to understand the reasons for putting on a big runway show, everything really tied back to the collections themselves and it was about showcasing and interpreting that to the widest audience.
From here, we developed GPS Radar, which is really focused on capturing the whole Fashion community. My investors, at the time, replied simply, “We don’t need another community. There’s LinkedIn, there’s Facebook.” But to me it was clear, there are all these people that attend these fashion shows every season and they are already using our system to register and check-in. If I build a community, which would connect both sides, it’s going to be very simple for them to accept and be apart of it. Today, we have over 25,000 of the world’s most influential editors, buyers, stylists and fashion bloggers from 57 different countries. The aim is to collate and digest the information that our clients are sharing with these people. Gone is the day when you receive 20 fashion week invitations in the post and you’re fumbling for them while running around all over the whole city. Now, everything is on your phone. One app, very simple. We continued to discover these things and as we started to learn more we developed more as a reaction.
So it sounds like you’re focusing in on pressure points. Have you identified any other growth areas?
I’m now beginning to consider things from a broader view-point. With Fashion products, as with anything, there’s a point of conception, an initial idea is refined and tested and evaluated, multiple materials are selected in order to complete the final product. For this jacket as an example; the designer had to sketch the initial design, go and find the materials, components and trims and then showcase the design in a fashion show, press day or trade show in order to truly understand its market viability. I speak to a lot of these designers, and one of the biggest issues they face is that they don’t know what is or is not attractive to the end consumers. This really all boils down to a severe lack of data available to them when they launch a product.
So for me, the next step is to establish how can we help and empower long-standing and emerging designers. How can we use technology to help them become really efficient and well informed?
Many people forget about basic things like inventory management as well as the ways in which they are engaging with the Fashion community. The future of Fashion GPS will be about helping them to maintain these efficiencies, and ultimately their successes.
Additionally, for the last six months I’ve spent a lot of time in East-Asia. We have recently opened our fifth office in Hong Kong and there is a huge amount of activity in Hong Kong and Japan right now. With the incorporation of the Hong Kong business in addition to our other offices in New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris we are now a truly 24/7 business.
The interesting thing for me, after spending more time there is that local designers in say, Shanghai, are really keen to reach the international press, which clearly we can offer them through GPS Radar. We are beginning to explore these relatively untapped markets in order to establish how Fashion GPS can help them to reach a much wider, global audience.
How open is fashion today to these types of technologies and where do you think they are in their life cycle?
I feel like the fashion industry is finally starting to understand that there are two sides to it. Blue Cherry and CGS are the big systems that brands use to do their ERP. You’ve got RetailPro and so on. I feel like a lot of the brands and designers understand that there is a need for technology, of course they’ve been using technology, but there is a new type of web based software technology coming out that they need to embrace in order to take things to the next level.
It was really difficult about four years ago when we were trying to pitch software as a service. With browsers and operating systems at the time, there were so many limitations. Today, with high-speed internet and better IT infrastructure, the world is just ready and everyone is prepared for the next phase of technology and innovation. We work with ASOS, who are an industry game-changer in their own right. A big mass-market brand like that will typically be moving tens of thousands of samples through their businesses each month. Now, we are fully equipped to deal with those volumes but four years ago, it would have been nearly impossible. I feel like a lot of the technology is now catching up. What you can do today on a handheld device, even taking digital pictures, was literally unfathomable ten years ago. Now you’ve got mobile technology and all of these legacy technologies are finding it hard to catch up because they are forced to change their fundamental infrastructure. Two weeks after the iPad was launched, we wrote the code so that the events platform could be used to check-in on the iPad; we were the first to do it. I think that is what you have got to think about consistently, technology, just like Fashion is continually changing and evolving. The game is all about staying ahead of your competitors and keeping you clients happy.
Is the fashion industry on the cusp of peaking underneath the hood at their own operating systems that aren’t consumer facing?
Yeah, that’s what’s happening. A lot of these companies are making decisions and starting to understand what’s really going on with technologies that they’ve had in place for years. You have this whole ecosystem that moves from inspiration all the way through to the consumer and it happens consistently throughout the year.
So when you think of the fashion ecosystem there are segments within the industry: you’ve got textile merchants, suppliers, manufacturers, buyers, marketers and PRs. There are all these transactions. It was kind of a eureka moment to me when I started to look at the industry and look at what we are doing, and then the competition out there. I felt like I needed to build a company that really tied into the whole ecosystem, through all of these segments in order to really encourage efficiencies all the way through. That is when there will be the biggest developments and redefinition of age-old industry ‘standards’ in my opinion.
If Brand X puts on a fashion show today, a good bet is that after the show a large proportion of the processes the products go through are manual. It is so hard for them to make decisions because you do the show, wait for the media to respond, and it’s just so slow. Wouldn’t it be great if you do a fashion show and a ‘Bloomberg for Fashion’ gives you analytics? Letting you know what’s happening right now with the audience that you invited or perhaps the wider consumers watching the show on live-stream or viewing the images online. This data should be telling you who they are, what they focus on, what they liked/disliked and within an hour or a week, you will better-understand your audience. Based off of this, you can then communicate back to the design teams and manufacturers and tie the industry together so that the demand is clear and apparent and you can make informed decisions, based on solid data.
Do you think that the data is inevitably going to end up with 80/20 rule though? I can foresee a CEO saying, “Listen, last year you spent x amount on the development of samples to produce 50 looks for a runway show but only 8 of them are making us money. Wouldn’t it be better to just show the 8 and not waste everybody’s time?”
That could be the case, but in reality it’s like music. There is a gut decision when you produce something. The wisest decision is to combine the two. We don’t want to get rid of the creative. What we want to do is provide buyers the data on what the media is thinking so that they can use our information to make better decisions on what to buy. Package that in the right context because buyers don’t really talk to the media and now they can say, “We are about to buy this,” the brand can then make the decision to push that more to the media.
These are the kinds of thoughts we are looking at, but you can only achieve this if you tie the whole ecosystem together from conception all the way to consumer. But big is good, just look at something like Google; if you look at what they have achieved, it is big and today we can’t live without it. The technology is ready and the brands are thinking about this now. They are saying “how can we really take the fashion industry to the next level?”
The other thing is education. We’re in this day and age where it’s an old industry and there are a lot of people still stuck in their ways and it’s all in their mind. When I first did the sample tracking, and we even still have brands that we talk to now, they would take 3 hours to send samples to other offices or to publications for shoots; using Fashion GPS, they can do the same thing in 2 minutes. Three hours adds up, it’s expensive and here we are and we can do it in 2 minutes and it’s going to cost you $X to sign up and they still reply with “Oh that’s a lot of money”. This is why communication of ROI is one of our biggest challenges, because each brand is so different from the next it makes it harder to demonstrate a clear ROI upfront. This all takes time though and the best approach and strategy varies in each of our markets. There’s no hard-and-fast rule of thumb. We’ve been successful despite these challenges, we have learnt to adapt. A great example is Continental Europe. It’s really taken 4 years to conquer the market and now brands in the region are finally coming around because we’ve executed countless shows and received the backing of some of the larger, well-respected brands that were open to taking the risk with new technology, which is fantastic. It’s been a long journey and I’m sure it will continue to be as we grow and expand further. We’ll focus on maintaining our momentum; keep on listening, keep on building.
What are you looking forward to in 2015?
Next year is all about mobile for us. We’re working on making GPS Samples available on mobile. We’ll also be focusing more on Android development so that our tools are truly accessible for everyone. No matter the device, everything you have on your desktop can move to your phone.
Our other focus, which is really important I think, will be a commitment across the board to continue to engage and listen to our clients and partners, using their feedback in order to continue to understand and cater to the ever-evolving needs of the industry most effectively.
Eddie, thanks again for sharing and we wish you much continued growth in 2015.
Thanks and you too!