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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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Digital pioneer Burberry does it again, this time radicalising its whole fashion calendar

This post first appeared on Forbes.

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If there’s one thing the fashion industry is talking about this morning, it’s Burberry’s move to “align runway with retail”. The British heritage brand, and renowned digital innovator, is shifting its fashion week calendar so it shows in-season in both February and September (starting September 2016), meaning collections will be available to buy “immediately” after they’ve appeared on the catwalk, both online and in-stores.

Speaking to The Business of Fashion, Burberry’s chief executive and chief creative officer, Christopher Bailey, said: “There’s just something that innately feels wrong when we’re talking about creating a moment in fashion: you do the show in September and it feels really right for that moment, but then you have to wait for five or six months until it’s in the store… You’re creating all this energy around something, and then you close the doors and say, ‘Forget about it now because it won’t be in the stores for five or six months’.”

The move will also see the brand combine both its men’s and women’s shows together at London Fashion Week, and call the collections for the month they appear and not “spring/summer” or “autumn/winter”. Digital and print ads will also launch instantly.

Bailey added: “It often felt slightly superficial to be talking about an autumn/winter collection, when it’s 90 degrees in a third of the shops we’re selling it in. We are a global company and the world is not one weather pattern.”

Such a change inevitably has implications for the company’s supply chain, and was the side that needed the most consideration and thought in order to become more agile and flexible, Bailey says. It will now be designing and manufacturing simultaneously, as opposed to one leading to the other. Wholesale partners will also have to work more collaboratively, and be trusted to work to new embargoes set by the brand. But Bailey says it will also provide opportunities to create exclusives for certain stores and special events for their VIP customers.

Burberry is not the first to announce a shift to this “see now, buy now” model, but it’s certainly the biggest so far. Other, smaller brands including Rebecca Minkoff, Misha Nonoo and Thakoon are also changing the way they do things to better suit a direct-to-consumer model. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) has also hired the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to conduct a study on whether or not New York Fashion Week at large should change to become more closely aligned with retail drops.

The moves come of course as fashion weeks become increasingly public-facing forms of entertainment, rather than mere trade events. Ever since live-streaming began in 2010, designers have battled with capturing that “energy”, as Bailey refers to it, when there was no instant gratification to be had for the broader audience. Many, led by Burberry at that time, attempted to offer exclusive items available for pre-order (and arrival in more like six weeks than six months), but that only ever really felt like a cheap fix.

Where Burberry goes, others will of course now follow. Expect to see multiple other brands, no doubt big and small, start to shift to a current-season view. Topshop Unique is a very obvious one. The likes of Tommy Hilfiger in New York too. But does it suit the more traditional luxury houses in Milan and Paris?

In a piece I wrote on this subject in December, Caroline Homlish, a New York-based digital brand strategist who recently launched her own agency following senior digital positions at Chanel and Alexander McQueen, said she didn’t imagine such cities changing anytime soon, but that perhaps a line could be drawn between what’s considered “luxury” and “contemporary” these days.

It could be that we end up dividing the industry, positioning couture and ready-to-wear as they’ve always been, and introducing a third consumer event series alongside suited to those actively able and agile enough to go direct to the consumer. Burberry for instance, sits very wholeheartedly under what could be considered “mass luxury” today, comparative to some of its European counterparts.

What will be particularly interesting to see come September then, is whether what’s shown on its catwalk shifts too. Fashion weeks, no matter their form, have always been a tool for promotion; a PR move to generate hype around a brand (and of course wholesale buys for it), even though that specific ready-to-wear collection was quite likely not what generated the most revenue. Other pre-collections, the broader retail product mix, not to mention entry-level accessories and fragrance/beauty items were in place for that.

If the catwalk collection is available immediately to buy, it’s quite likely there will be an aim to promote a variety of product through it. Burberry’s luxury arm (what was called Prorsum before the brand moved all of its lines under one “Burberry” umbrella) will still have its place, but it’s likely we’ll also see big pushes around its bags – think of the nylon backpack last season – scarves, and quite likely some cheaper apparel.

In an ultimate aim to make it more relevant in a toughening global luxury market, the biggest test will be to see how sales perform thereafter. Here’s looking forward to September.