By Kenneth Richard | The Impressionist
Liz thanks for sitting down with us to share all things Decoded. First things first, what is Decoded?
Decoded is the largest fashion events series about technology in the world. We have summits in Milan, London, and New York. Those summits are rolling out to new markets like Asia next year. We also will do two pop-up events, one at SXSW and the other at Art Basel that we are launching next year.
We also have a networking tech fashion community with meet-ups pretty much every week somewhere in the world. Next week is in Venice and then Toronto and then Singapore and then Paris, Australia, Moscow, and the Netherlands. In each of those places we have brand ambassadors we’ve met before who become local organizers hosting three events a year. Each event starts with a panel and then there are three demos of new businesses no one has seen before.
You’re a bit of an anomaly having come out of news and journalism. How did you and Decoded start?
I get bored really fast! (Laughs) After a few years of indentifying stories and trends and reacting to them, I saw an exciting story that was about to rise but it was moving slowly. I didn’t want to wait to watch it slowly happen. I wanted to react to it and grab it and kick it in the butt! (Laughs) I wanted to be the agent that accelerated it. The catalyst. But as a journalist I knew that there is a line and I couldn’t cross that line because the moment you become part of the story, you can’t cover the story any more.
I saw this story rising in 2010 and in 2011 I was poached by a tech CEO that I had featured on CBS News to be his head of global communications and in charge of Tel Aviv, London, New York and San Francisco. During this time I was exposed to so much tech including entrepreneurial tech. Tech that was untested. Tech that was two guys saying ‘I have this idea for fashion. My wife likes fashion,’ but if you looked at what they built it was quite idiotic. But these guys were quite brilliant. So I said, ‘Hold on, there is a problem here. You have this ability to build amazing things but you don’t know what the problems are so you can’t build great stuff. What if we can put the people in the room who have the true knowledge and the problems but no ability to solve them and we put them in room with people who just like to solve problems for fun? Then we could solve real problems and build real things that speak to B-to-B needs. What would happen?’ And that was the idea that kept haunting me.
So at the end of 2011 I couldn’t sit on that idea and I left the company with the CEO’s support and launched a pilot at General Assembly called Assembled Fashion. It was a working title as I was trying to figure out a title for the company.
The event was very tech heavy with only one brand. It was really about fashion tech entrepreneurs who were about to hit the market and me trying to predict who were going to become the big players. So we had little people like Rent the Runway, Tumblr. Who the hell knew what a Tumblr was then? If you look back now at our roster I kick myself for not having launched a VC fund instead as that would have been insane! (Laughs) We had 80% of those companies go on to be quite a big deal with only 1 company going under.
So after that I thought it was time to bring the brands into the conversation. It became very clear to me what was lacking as New York was very social at that time and everyone was stuck on that. It was Polyvore, Tumblr, flash sale sites and when you said tech everyone thought of that. But in Europe they were thinking a different way and they were thinking about mobile before we did. I thought it would be interesting if we started to think about this globally.
So I wanted to do an April event at Lincoln Center and was a complete outsider at that point in time. It really came down to having the entrepreneurial spirit because I thought I had the right idea despite everyone telling me that I shouldn’t do it because it sounds crazy. I knew that to do fashion right I had to make a statement and have a point of view. So I thought that going to Lincoln Center in 2012 was making a huge statement. But outside of needing a lot of money you have to have a reputation as there is a whole vetting process in place that scrutinizes every fashion presentation in Lincoln Center.
So I went in and started to sound like those crazy tech founders I joke about! (Laughs) I started explaining the event “is like this, and does this, and they were like who the hell are you?” I can look back at it today and laugh as a lot of people I presented to were pretty big people but I didn’t know who they were. And it helped me not to know them and what they meant to their world. My tone was like ”You need me and I’m here to help you. You’re very lucky I am here at this moment. We can do amazing things together. It is not a favor to me and you should believe in this!” (Laughs) It wasn’t said with arrogance as I truly saw a story and I was like “Can’t you see this?” So that’s how the event came to life.
I really have to thank Aliza Licht from DKNY, Rebecca Minkoff, Kate Spade, and Alice and Olivia. We had so many “no’s” for that first event. It really wasn’t because the “ask “ wasn’t done properly; it was because it was too scary. Some brands were insulted by the “ask” which I thought was interesting. I don’t hold a grudge and am happy to invite them again, but they were a bit insulted because at that point in time there was the perception that you don’t ask a fashion designer or the head of a fashion brand to sit next to a tech founder as that was thought of as demeaning. And obviously it isn’t like that anymore. Look at David Karp from Tumblr, that’s a celebrity. But he was just a cool dude back then.
Sounds like you have a lot of drive and perseverance. You’ve mentioned that Decoded is about first; can you share what you mean by that?
So for us I created a series of milestones. They were all new “first” for fashion. So if you looked at the evolution of the fashion industry, the first could all be a little bleeper on the timeline. So in 2012 we had the first event where we had a fashion tech founder sitting next to a fashion designer. It was the first time it happened in the world. So after that we did an event in London and it was the first entrepreneurial tech competition for fashion where we gave a winner $50k of investment for a fashion tech startup. We also gave an award to Natalie Massenet of Net-a-Porter at that event; she later went on to become the head of the British Fashion Council and she, of course, came from fashion tech and from a start-up. That is a huge milestone for the fashion tech industry.
Then after that we came back to New York and we did the world’s first fashion hack-a-thon. That was a huge milestone for us because when anyone says “fashion and hack-a-thon” in the world today it is because of that event. That event was a pain to put together because no one understood what it was. I had covered the financial meltdown and it was my job to explain something complex so everyone could understand it. So we explained it all and recruited everyone involved using very plain English and terms that made him or her feel non-threatened by it, but compelled to be a part of it.
Now when I look back and I see Rachel Roy there and Zac Posen there I feel such an immense sense of pride because they are not people who position themselves as tech being a core component of their brands. But they both made such a difference that day. Rachel inspired the winning idea that Zac also really wanted which is now something launching that got funding and has great global potential.
What was that idea?
It was about sourcing. This is something that I do over and over with my events. Often when I’m speaking with a fashion company that isn’t techy, which mainly happens with brands rather than vertical retailers, I want to know about their eco system, their friction points, and what areas need improvement. Because what happens in tech is you have so many hungry hands to build but there is a scarcity of great ideas so they just start to mimic each other. Then all the sudden you have all these start-up that do the same thing.
So that day we had 600 registered people for the challenge which is a huge amount of people for a hack-a-thon to have in the same room as most hack-a-thons of that size have people in many different cities but I wanted them all there because I wanted them to meet these fashion people. So we told Rachel she didn’t have to talk tech at all she just needed to explain her problem. Rachel said, “ I wish” and it always ends well when someone says, “I wish” because most of the time tech people can build it within a matter of days. So Rachel says, “I wish there was an app in which I could communicate with all the sourcing points; textiles, trimmings, hardware or anything, and we can use it to negotiate exclusivity or change colors. Plus who approved what is also documented. I don’t know how to do it but I wish there was a way to do that.” So the room was like “wait a second, that’s a great idea.“ And now there is an app that is beautiful that uses a lot of images and there we go.
Invariably whatever we are in discussion about we tend to see in the news stories six months later.
So what is it that you see happening next?
Funny that my answer changes every six months! (Laughs) I think that there are low hanging fruit.
So site experience is extremely important and there are certain things you can do on your site now for very little money that can increase your revenue by 30%. For instance any type of tool that gives users a sense of fit lifts sales 30% and diminishes returns. Also any type of tool that shows user generated images, which is tricky for luxury because they need to visualize in a very luxurious way but it can be done, but for contemporary it is a no brainer. For users who see a snap of someone else out there wearing it, it is much more powerful than a model picture. Conversion just jumps up.
What I love about the industry now is how everyone needs to be looking behind the curtain. Yes tech has been used as a pr tool up to now but now tech is a necessity for the health of the business. I love when Uri Minkoff talks how he created a company that is a lean machine and he sounds like a tech start-up. A lot of his stuff is on the cloud and he doesn’t have big servers to pay for it and a lot of the software he uses is lean and agile easy to move to another thing if something isn’t working out. Right now most fashion companies don’t work like that. Right now the B-to-B space is about to change dramatically. A lot of CEO’s are telling me that they are looking to change their POS systems and willing to do things in a new way.
In 2015 every brand needs to have a wearable strategy. That strategy can be “I’m not going to do wearables” but you need to have a strategy. You need to understand the space and that does not mean looking at the prototypes that are in the market right now. Those prototypes are just the beginning of everything and can’t be taken at face value. If you remember what a mobile phone started out looking like, they weren’t very mobile.
We are living now with the exponential tech curve and we see a lot of stupid prototypes of fashion wearbles but we have washable batteries coming out next year and everything is changing quite fast. So if you’re not going to have a wearable strategy that comes down to a gadget, you can have something that adds function to an accessory or rethink your garment manufacturing. Maybe you want to think about smart textiles or green textiles.
As fashion companies don’t necessarily have the R&D to invest in wearable tech as building sample lines is a heavy enough R&D expense already, do you think they should be developing technology themselves or licensing and partnering with wearable tech firms?
They don’t have to do any R&D as the start-ups are doing that for them. The start-ups are investing and developing all the hardware and all the textiles. If you think of the washable batteries they were a start up.
What the tech side does not have is an enabler or a platform to roll it out. And my message and the message of my company is that. Be that company that is going to test things out. It will cost you close to nothing to test things out. If you are a contemporary brand you can take a few more risks and if you’re a luxury brand it is a little more risky so you need to look at where this prototype is coming from and the team. Check into what type of funding the company has to see how safe it is. But what the industry needs right now is a curator and that’s the role we serve. Like we did when we put Kate Spade and Perch together.
You’ve mentioned there are fundamental differences between designers and tech founders before. Can you elaborate a bit?
I think it is important to talk about the paradox between a designer and a start-up founder. Start-up founders work via what I call a lean start-up-machine. You don’t test too much, you run with it and adjust as you go and then you get to that beta, beginning of the wheel thing. So start-ups have an idea, they go online and build an online platform, like a Brichbox or Rent-the-Runway. It starts online, some things are wrong, it gets better, and then they achieve maturity and if there is an opportunity to go offline they build a pop-up store and then if you grow really big like Rent-the-Runway you start to think, “Oh I can now have a store.” So that is the way a tech world sees and does fashion.
In the fashion universe you have a designer, they have a collection, and they get their first wholesale buyer and they try to work on the scale of their production and their sourcing problems first. Then maybe two or three years into it they go “Oh, I should have my own website.” They build the site but they haven’t sold anything on it and the user experience isn’t quite there yet. Then they move on to think about their next milestone, which is their flagship store. They have the store but they don’t think about a digital conversion as none of those things matter to them. They are prisoners of milestones that aren’t ROI driven in the revenue and business sense.
There are two problems here that are going on. On the fashion side, what they do quite well is they do the brand. They have a vision and the designers know what the brand stands for. They do that really beautifully. What they are bad at is creating a way to maximize the revenue and grow as a business.
On the start-up side, they have the business side down. They have processes for it. They have buckets of trained expertise to reach it quite fast. They think they did a million this year, and I want to do five million next year, and then I want to do 20 million. It is natural for all of us to think that and we expect nothing less. The last thing we think about is a brand. What does this stand for, what is it about and what is it not about?
So now we are in a world were those two are crossing and it is quite interesting to see what is going on. The KPI’s of one world are now going to the other and vise-versa. If you launch a tech company today and you don’t have any sense of esthetics right from the get-go, if the site doesn’t look good and the logo is a little off, it is not working out. And on the fashion side you need to have some type of strategy that goes beyond hoping that one-day like Jason Wu, Michelle Obama wears your dress. It can’t be like that anymore. He is obviously much more than one-dress as he is a true designer with an amazing business but it can’t be all about chance and bloggers as that game is changing. And it is really cool how you now can go straight to consumers and scale.
So it would appear that our worlds are merging. Thanks for putting it all together and sharing with us today.
That’s what Decoded is all about. Thanks for the interest Kenneth.
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