Is technology going out of fashion? Why it’s quieter than ever on this season’s catwalks

Gigi Hadid in Tommy Hilfiger's LA fashion week show  - technology innovation

Gigi Hadid in Tommy Hilfiger’s LA fashion week show

Despite some connected clothing here, a spot of mixed reality there, there’s largely been little in the way of technology in action this fashion week season. Not literally of course – behind the scenes, tech is working harder than ever to push the latest shows out to a widening consumer audience – but the role of innovation has made a serious shift away from big tech hits in recent times.

Over the past few years, tech has been the way to grab attention – we’ve seen everything from drones, holograms, virtual reality, wearables and more making their way down the New York, London, Milan and Paris runways. Who could forget Google Glass at Diane von Furstenberg, virtual reality windows at Topshop or the holographic Polo Ralph Lauren show? And that’s before you think about the likes of Burberry pioneering the way with endless partnerships with tech giants Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Such a focus wasn’t brand new (the infamous robotic spray-paint scene from Alexander McQueen takes us back to before today’s connected age – nearly 20 years ago to spring/summer 1999), but it exploded in the social media era, becoming the defacto way to draw headlines, whether it was for the first live streams or indeed those big budget campaigns.

But in the centre of all that, in some instances because of it, the very notion of fashion week has changed. Today, the industry is battling with an event series that has become consumer facing while it’s still set up to deliver primarily to a trade (wholesale) model. What appears on the catwalks is generally speaking six-months ahead of it hitting stores. The result is supposed consumer fatigue, greater fast fashion copycats and more pressure than ever on turnover, margins and more. The big question now is not only whether that should change, but how. Enter the “see-now, buy-now” movement from those able to be more agile in their production timelines, including Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger, Tom Ford, Rebecca Minkoff, Topshop Unique and more.

Burberry's February 2017 LFW show  - innovation technology

Burberry’s February 2017 LFW show

But the follow-up question that then brings, is if we start selling to consumers now what does that mean for how things are marketed in real-time?

The simple answer, really, is to step away from the tech-for-tech’s-sake stuff; the attention grabbing initiatives without any substance behind them. That concept can still be achieved in other ways – with set designs, with political statements, with genuinely incredible collections. Today’s focus instead seems to be moving to conversion rates – to selling. And importantly, less on gimmicks.

It’s still very early days with this consumer-facing movement, and we’re just bedding in with the first iterations of it, let alone have any true measurement to compare. But, as one big British brand told me off the record this London Fashion Week: “If you have a line to push immediately, your efforts and budgets are going to go to that – to directing consumers into how to shop, not in something else that’s merely a brand move.”

What we did see in technology this season was accordingly driven by what would indeed impact the end shopper. There were chatbots once more from the likes of Burberry and Tommy Hilfiger. There was also an immediately shoppable initiative on Instagram from Rebecca Minkoff in partnership with LiketoKnow.it.

“Our customers love when we create unique experiences for them. More than just shopping, they get to be a part of our brand and we get to know them in a more meaningful way,” said Minkoff. “Collaborating with LiketoKnow.it empowers us to take that to a global audience by giving them immediate access to the same content and products that those attending in person are seeing, and that’s a very powerful opportunity.” She also introduced connected handbags to draw in certain shoppers to a unique experience of the show via a digital ticket.

The new connected #AlwaysOn Midnighter handbag from Rebecca Minkoff - innovation technology

The new connected handbag from Rebecca Minkoff

Tommy Hilfiger then introduced a visual search tool with Slyce – an app called Tommyland Snap:Shop that enabled users to take pictures of the models to pull up the e-commerce link to that item.

Both Minkoff and Hilfiger, who each showed in LA this season, otherwise focused heavily on the idea of full consumer entertainment as well as a significant influencer plug-in. The recognition here is that it’s about getting in front of the right consumers, and spending money to do it.

And this isn’t just a fashion week move. You can see the same with social media. It’s not about gimmicky campaigns anymore – when was the last time you called something on Facebook an innovation? It’s more about integration. It’s about decent budgets and shifting the needle on ROI.

It’s a similar story at retail, with fewer campaigns focused on technology in the store. That doesn’t mean there’s actually less tech in-store – but there’s a redirection towards the sort of tech that matters.

Speaking at the recent Commerce 2020 summit in London, Malcolm Pinkerton, VP of e-commerce and digital retail insights at Kantar Retail, said: “[In recent years] we’ve seen stores flooded with technology hoping it would digitise the experience, but it was hard to do and expensive to maintain. Now we’ve realised we can build solutions around what people bring in with them – mobile.”

Sabinna's LFW show was shot for mixed reality - technology innovation

Sabinna’s LFW show was shot for mixed reality

Innovation today is happening in that somewhat quieter fashion. Chatbots might still be nascent, but it makes sense they’re being experimented with – forget drones on the catwalk, why not offer personalised access to it through an AI-enabled smartphone experience? It’s for that same reason we’re seeing virtual reality and mixed reality content continuing during the shows – dipping a toe into where the future of interactive (and shoppable) content is moving.

The fact is, technology shouldn’t be a “brand move” anymore. It needs to work for who your customer is, where she is, and when. On that basis, it shifts from a headline, to a standard part of what you do. All year round.

That’s not to say there’s no place for innovation anymore. Far from it. It’s perhaps more necessary today, than ever. In this sort of market, the question increasingly becomes how do you stand out – especially if you don’t have Tommy Hilfiger-size budgets? And even if you do, how is that sustainable? On that basis, it’s about shifting the very fundamental underpinning of the business, not just the press release topline.

It’s about truly keeping ahead of the curve by disrupting the way you’ve always operated. Innovation today isn’t necessarily about the flashiest moves, but the smartest. Innovating in the supply chain, in the personalised customer experience via mobile, even eventually more and more through the fabrications themselves, is where we’ll start seeing real movements.

So is tech going out of fashion? No, but the thing to remember is that innovation is no longer just a marketing play; it’s an entire business mentality.