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Innovator Liz Bacelar on the intersection of fashion and technology

Thanks to Ruth O’Connor for permission to publish this piece, originally published in The Sunday Business Post, October 2019.

‘Pay attention. You’ll need to,” Liz Bacelar declares as she takes to the stage. “What I present to you here will not be the same as what I present to people next week. That’s how quickly this stuff moves.”

Inventor of the phrase “fashion tech”, Bacelar is an entrepreneur, journalist and a co-founder of Current Global, an innovation firm based in New York, London and Tokyo, which seeks to redefine how fashion and retail intersect with technology.

Established in 2013 with her co-founder Rachel Arthur, Current Global forges relationships between fashion retailers, the luxury sector, tech giants and start-ups. Put simply, Bacelar has put the tech intelligence into retail. She’s speaking today at Maven46’s ‘Be’ Summit 2019 at Dublin’s Richmond Education and Event Centre, and is offering a whirlwind trip through consumer beauty and fashion, augmented reality and the immersive reality of multiple platforms.

Prior to launching Current Global, Bacelar established Decoded Fashion – the world’s largest innovator community for consumer retail. The company launched in ten countries before she exited. “I wanted to be in the connection business, not the conference business,” she says.

She is also co-founder of Flow Journeys, which sees a handpicked group of thought leaders visit locations as diverse as Iceland and Cuba to build relationships and foster collaboration. It’s networking on another level.

She uses terms like “data-driven customer journeys”, “augmented worlds” and “a culture of purpose” – which sound like future jargon, but we’re already there. Think you’ve never used augmented reality? What about apps such as the Dulux Visualiser which allows you to try paint colours on your wall? Amazon App’s View in your Room function? Or the recent launch of Spark AR on Instagram allowing users to “try on” cosmetics or sunglasses from Nars Cosmetics and Ray-Ban?

Bacelar is frequently asked whether bricks-and-mortar stores are dead. She doesn’t believe so; she says that physical retail spaces remain important, but that innovative brands are leveraging those spaces differently and the customer has become more demanding.

“It’s about having a mixed-reality layer overlaid [on the mobile experience], so that when you go into a store today you know that there will be a mirror in which you can see the make-up on your face. In certain markets, this is becoming a consumer expectation. The customer does not want to have to try on the product physically – they want to try on the product virtually.”

Later when we talk, Bacelar says that we are living in an era of contradictory behaviours, a battle between the digital and the analogue. The desire for immediacy and convenience has become a way of life. “You can live in a rural setting and still want to receive things faster,” she says. “We all perceive that we have less time, yet we also have more things to do, so we need vendors to give us efficiency and speed. A lot of what’s driving implementation of these things is a chase for speed and free time.”

The more free time we have, however, the more we spend it in a digital vortex which sucks away our human experiences. “It’s a pendulum that keeps swinging from one side to the other,” Bacelar says. “Sometimes you do want to talk to somebody when you go to a store. So technology now is swinging towards personal connections.”

Think of when you first got a personalized email from a brand. It seemed cool and even intimate at the start, but not after the 300th time. “But what if the email is from Tanya, who you met at the store, and who logged you in to the loyalty system for the brand? It becomes harder to ignore that email when you know it was sent by a real person. Stores are rolling that out now, with the first touchpoint being a real person.”

Data-driven customer journeys can become skewed when those same customers supply incorrect information. Think of the child who uses a fake date of birth to set up a Gmail account in order set up an Instagram account because they’re under the age limit, or when you put in false details online for privacy reasons.

Liz Bacelar, co-founder & CEO of Current Global speaking at Maven46’s ‘Be’ Summit 2019

“The major platforms do have bad data,” says Bacelar. “A lot of brands over-rely on data from the social media giants and they don’t have their own way to create a deeper understanding of who their consumer is. There are a lot of start-ups that want brands to think outside of those major platforms by harnessing the data themselves to reach a place of accuracy.”

Since we spoke in Dublin, I’ve been anticipating the new Ken Loach and Paul Laverty film Sorry We Missed You, due for release in November. It’s a stark look at the zero-hour-contract gig economy and the appalling conditions in which the people who deliver our online shopping work because we demand immediacy through e-commerce. It raises the question of where the humanity lies in all of this.

Bacelar believes that the next big retail trend is the “trend of purpose”. Thanks to the “Greta effect” she believes that young people are becoming less interested in shopping from brands that lack purpose. “Kids are bouncing from digital to analogue at a very interesting pace and the way they are aggregating communities is very interesting. The sustainability and climate change effort does not belong to any specific social platform,” she says. “It is a globalization of mobilization – the ability to mobilize communities and groups from anywhere without being in one specific place.”

Bacelar says that we are living an “offline moment” through global climate change protests and that we are also living in an “exponential curve” – a period of change on a large scale at an accelerated pace. “The level of change we’ve seen in the past six months has been greater than in the past ten years when it comes to the subjects of sustainability, technology and data awareness. Change is happening very fast.”

If people in general are resistant to change, this is also the case in the corporate environment where she says many executives believe that innovation is gimmicky rather than “doing something in a new way to get different results”.

Bacelar adds that we, as consumers, have the power to shape the conversation. “I know of companies today who are only doing sustainability because you must show that you care,” she says.

“Companies like the Eileen Fisher womenswear brand have been doing this for many years and no one listened. It once looked stupid to take old clothes and remanufacture them. Now it sounds invigorating and inspiring to a consumer.

“If I were a luxury executive, I would be terrified of the ten-year-old kids today. Their futures depend on these executives and they are not aligned. These kids walking the streets with Greta Thunberg care about localization, activism, inclusivity, empowerment – everything that luxury hasn’t been.

“Luxury is trying to catch up. In eight years, these kids will be their consumers. They have eight years to change their ways.”

Ruth O’Connor is a journalist writing for Ireland’s top publications on fashion, design, craft, trends and business for the past 13 years. She graduated from University College Dublin in 1998 with a first class honours degree in English. She then studied pattern cutting and fashion design later going on to obtain a first class honours degree in journalism from Dublin City University in 2006 where her final thesis was an exploration of fashion in Ireland. @ruthoconnorsays

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Your guide to SXSW 2019 through 10 key themes

SXSW has shifted quite remarkably in the past 10 years – from a launchpad for new technologies, to a reflection of much broader connected culture. During the Interactive portion of the festival, there remains an underpinning of innovation, but so too is there everything from politics to gender on the agenda.

The audience accordingly has widened from those looking for the latest tech trends or emerging startups, to those aiming to understand how societal shifts and digital consumer behaviors are impacting their businesses.

For 2019, that looks set to continue. For those headed down to Austin from the brand world therefore – from marketers to retail executives – it pays to be one step ahead in what to expect. Here are 10 themes to look out for during this year’s festival and the main events to head to in order to see them…

Entrepreneurship

There’s always a theme around entrepreneurship that pops up during SXSW, but this year’s line up looks particularly engaging. Top of the bill is Howard Schultz, former Starbucks Chairman and CEO, who will be talking about growing a global brand with an eye on humanity as well as profits. Meanwhile, Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger are taking to the stage for the first time since leaving their company, to talk about their entrepreneurial journey. Other highlights come from Esther Perel, who is applying her relationship therapy to workplace dynamics, and Brene Brown, who will explore showing up and speaking out.

Wellness

Wellness as a theme has been increasingly emerging at SXSW over the past few years, as digital health has evolved beyond fitness trackers, for instance, into mental health and mindfulness. That plays out in a few different ways this year, from the expo dedicated to wellness as a theme, to the house Lululemon has with programming focused on yoga and meditation, and a keynote from Gwyneth Paltrow talking all things Goop. Over at the Current Global’s Innovation Mansion, highlights lie in a keynote from meditation app Calm’s co-founder and co-CEO, Michael Acton Smith, alongside a guided meditation experience from the app in our pool house, and a game show dedicated to the wellness revolution.

Michael Acton Smith, Calm
Michael Acton Smith, Calm
Sustainability

Sustainability follows neatly after wellness as we think about not just ourselves but our planet. On that note, there’s a lot for the fashion industry to stew over this SXSW, including a session featuring the H&M Group and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition; another from Finery founders Brooklyn Decker and Whitney Casey, and one from SAP on a more sustainable supply chain. There’s also Rent the Runway talking about the sharing economy, Walmart looking at sustainable beauty, and a keynote at our Innovation Mansion? with the head of global product innovation at Levi’s.

Experiential

When it comes to retail, experience remains the buzzword du jour, and there’s a lot to learn at SXSW related to such a theme. From the large-scale activations taking place across the city, to those discussing how to do such things well. Giant Spoon is the agency behind last year’s winning Westworld experience at SXSW, and they’ll be on stage discussing how they do it. Also worth seeing is a session dedicated to how to ensure engagement, delight and success through experiential retail above and beyond the overdone ball-pit and photo-worthy backdrops. We’ll also be heading to Calvin Klein’s talk on how to humanize your brand experience in the robot era.

International Women’s Day

Gender and equality isn’t a new topic to SXSW, but International Women’s Day takes place on the first day of the festival, which provides an appropriate opportunity for a celebration of women this year.  Cue lots of events and talks dedicated to the subject, including a full set of programming from Bumble, a panel featuring the women building brands we’ve always wanted, such as Rachel Blumenthal’s Rockets of Awesome, and a session on the rise of feminists with fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff. Also look out for actress Zoe Saldana’s keynote on changing the narrative for millennial and Gen Z audiences.

Melinda Gates on stage at SXSW 2018
Melinda Gates on stage at SXSW 2018
Retail Tech

What’s interesting about this year’s SXSW schedule is seeing talks by the likes of Magic Leap distinctly pointing their focus towards the retail audience. They’ll be talking about AR in the digital shopping experience, while Walmart, Amazon and Kohl’s are (separately) discussing the future of shopping via computer vision, machine learning and AI. Also not to miss is a session featuring the Current Global’s CTO, Scott Emmons, formerly head of the Neiman Marcus Innovation Lab, diving into how retailers can leverage emerging technologies to thrive in a rapidly changing landscape.

Street Culture

If we’re talking culture today, there’s no escaping all things streetwear in terms of mass consumer spread. SXSW is reflecting that fact with various sessions dedicated to the topic. StockX’s Josh Luber has a keynote session talking about his online marketplace designed to work like the stock market. Meanwhile, I’ll be hosting a panel on stage with Levi’s, NTWORK and Johannes Leonardo – the agency that has worked with the likes of Alexander Wang and Adidas Originals – to discuss how streetwear turns hype into big revenue. That story will continue over at our Innovation Mansion with a business of streetwear-themed gameshow. One additional talk to try and get to is with Nike’s Tinker Hatfield, who’s known as a legend among sneakerheads.

The Nike PG 3 NASA on StockX
The Nike PG 3 NASA on StockX
Blockchain

With a new track dedicated to blockchain at SXSW this year, it’s almost cheating to add it as a key theme, but there’s no escaping the growing presence it’s had at the festival over the past few years. The most interesting sessions for 2019 include a keynote from Joseph Lubin, co-founder of the Ethereum blockchain and CEO of ConsenSys, the Winklevoss twins talking about the cryptocurrency revolution, and a session on radical transparency in the food supply chain. ConsenSys also has a house during the festival where blockchain trends happening across entertainment, fashion, media and more, will be discussed.

Privacy

If blockchain is a key topic, then setting the stage for that, has to be trust. The past couple of years at SXSW have been heavily navigated towards fake news, but after a year of big data protection busts, 2019 orientates itself towards tech ethics and privacy above all else. There’s a not-to-miss session from the founder of Foursquare on location privacy, a couple of deep dives on user privacy in a post Cambridge Analytica and GDPR world, and a look at trust in the era of data.

Looking to the future

Rounding out our themes is the required nod to the future that SXSW has always brought. Malcolm Gladwell is in town to discuss self-driving cars, Publicis is going to explore invention in the age of creativity and the Current Global’s CEO, Liz Bacelar, will dive into the future of beauty with L’Oréal. We’re also looking forward to the Serpentine Galleries’ Hans Ulrich Obrist exploring the possibilities that AI presents for the creation of new art forms, and for those still in town by Wednesday, Bruce Sterling’s always enlightening annual closing remarks.

How are you thinking about retail innovation? We’re all about finding you the perfect partners to do so. The Current Global is a consultancy transforming how fashion, beauty and consumer retail brands intersect with technology. We deliver innovative integrations and experiences, powered by a network of top technologies and startups. Get in touch to learn more.

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business Editor's pick Startups sustainability

H&M Foundation empowers women with list of 500 all-female entrepreneurs

Elankumaran Selvmalar, one of the Foundation 500 women
Elankumaran Selvmalar, one of the Foundation 500 women

H&M’s non-profit arm has launched an alternative to the Fortune 500 list, published each year by Fortune magazine. Foundation 500, as it’s called, showcases female-only business leaders from around the world.

Done in partnership with humanitarian agency, CARE, the aim is to challenge stereotypes and redefine what a business leader looks like. The initiative ties to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals on women’s empowerment and gender equality, which demonstrate that empowering women is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty and create economic growth.

The stories of successful women from 11 emerging countries, including Burundi, Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Jordan, Peru and Zambia, among others, are told, alongside imagery captured by Malin Fezehai in a style similar to that of business magazines covers.

“The entrepreneur is the hero of our time, and it is estimated that over the coming years over 1 billion women will enter the workforce – a majority through entrepreneurship. But, you can’t be what you can’t see. Women rarely make the covers of business magazines, in fact the last time a woman was on the cover of Fortune Magazine was October 2014. With the Foundation 500 list we want to redefine what a business leader looks like,” says Diana Amini, global manager at H&M Foundation.

Further women in the Foundation 500: Karunakuran Kirupaliny, Philomène Tia And Suriyanti
Further women in the Foundation 500: Karunakuran Kirupaliny, Philomène Tia And Suriyanti

The 500 women included are a representation of the 100,000 participating in the Global Program on Empowering Women through Enterprise Development initiated by H&M Foundation and CARE in 2014. From 2014-2020, H&M Foundation has pledged 120 million Swedish krona ($14 million/€12 million) to support over 200,000 women entrepreneurs from emerging markets with seed capital and skills training to start and expand their businesses.

”Born with zero privilege, the women portrayed in the Foundation 500 list have made their own fortunes in the harshest of startup-environments. Yet, their stories often go untold. I wish I had seen women like these on the cover of business magazines when I grew up in South Sudan,” said British/Sudanese supermodel, entrepreneur and H&M Foundation Ambassador, Alek Wek.

“Media can play an important role in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by unveiling inspiring stories helping to change mindsets of what women entrepreneurs can achieve and giving role models a platform to show what is possible. This can contribute to changes in convictions, attitudes, behaviour, rules, regulations and policies,” the write-up from the Foundation reads.