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Embracing the #longread: how digital consumption is shifting, plus five fashion stories to find the time for

TLDR

If you’re anything like me, you constantly have dozens of tabs open, bookmarks saved, emails placed in a strategic folder, and apps in use to keep track of all the stories you’re intending to go back and read.

It’s all too easy to let that accumulate, put off by the fact some of the pieces are just that little bit too long (#TLDR) to comfortably whizz through in a spare moment, rather needing you to find some dedicated time to sit down and concentrate on them. But, while we might be used to shorter and shorter formats through our social media postings – 140 characters here, six seconds there – not to mention an entirely visual-based strategy through Instagram particularly, there’s a growing trend for a lot more in the way of this long form content. Twitter itself is indeed thinking about extending to a 10,000 character limit, first page results on Google reportedly contain an average of 1,890 words (that’s mind blowing), and platforms like Medium have taken off for the very fact they enable users to easily spout words without any true perimeters.

Media companies from Buzzfeed to The Guardian, Esquire, The New York Times and Wired all also publish dedicated “long reads” or “big stories” today. The move comes down to an understanding that readers increasingly desire access to longer form content (and the involved insight, knowledge and informed opinions it provides). And more importantly, though counter to popular belief, they’re willingly engaging with it on mobile. In fact, a 6,000-word piece from Buzzfeed in early 2014, saw readers on tablets spend an average of more than 12 minutes with the story, while those on phones spent more than 25 minutes. As The Atlantic wrote: “[That’s] a small eternity, in internet time.”

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No surprise then, there’s an increasing number of highly relevant fashion stories being released that also tick the box for indulgent consumption. As Imran Amed of The Business of Fashion wrote this weekend in a post about his venture into long form with a landmark piece on the Net-a-Porter / Yoox merger (as below): “The idea to do this kind of story came during a conversation I had in September with Graydon Carter, editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, who advised me: ‘Every once in a while, write an in-depth story that everyone in the fashion industry would want to read’.”

So here are five lengthy pieces (2,500-10,000 words) truly worth carving out some time for. Some of them date back to early 2015 (courtesy of my aforementioned bookmarking habit and some power reading this weekend), but if you didn’t get through them then, like me, now is your chance to revisit.

1. The secret deal to merge Net-a-Porter with Yoox – The Business of Fashion

Needless to say, top of this list of long reads, is the aforementioned story from The Business of Fashion last week. If you haven’t yet bitten the bullet, it’s broken down into four parts, chronicling exactly what happened between both parties and Compagnie Financière Richemont (much of which was behind the back of Natalie Massenet). This one is time consuming, but it’s insightful and worthwhile. As someone posted in the comments below: “Noting the tell-all film trend: fun to imagine who will be cast as Massenet, Marchetti and Rupert.”

2. A huge underclass of ghost workers are making your shirts in their homes – Quartz

Informally employed homeworkers in developing countries make up a substantial portion of the (subcontracted) manufacturing process for fashion retailers. This story dives into who they are, what they do and how to go about changing it so that they’re treated fairly and under the same laws as other workers. “The first step is to bring them out of the shadows and acknowledge that they exist,” writes author Marc Bain. It’s an insightful piece – detailed and warranted of its length – on an area rarely touched upon elsewhere.

3. Losing the thread: how textiles repeatedly revolutionised human technology – Aeon

With all the obsession with wearable technology of late, there’s a lot to be said for this essay, which outlines the very fact that textiles are indeed a technology of themselves. “More ancient than bronze and as contemporary as nanowires,” it reads. It goes on to highlight how pertinent textiles have been on economic development and global trade, and calls the industry out for thinking that ‘wearable tech’ is about gadgets pretending to be accessories rather than the cloth we actually wear against our skins. The piece takes us from the development of aniline dyes and cellulose-based synthetics to the performance-based materials we take for granted today. There’s also a great analogy of weaving (the original binary system) rather than mining when referring to the Bitcoin Blockchain.

4. Fashion week, reinvented – The New York Times

Vanessa Friedman penned this piece on how New York Fashion Week is evolving at the beginning of last season (September 2015). Largely a focus on how WME/IMG were bringing designers into its new venues, it explores how the aim is to make the whole affair seem less commercial yet simultaneously a feat of entertainment for the masses. It sets the scene comprehensively, and outlines the ambition on many fronts to evolve what fashion week is and what it could be. Since then, there have been multiple additional stories released, especially around the CFDA’s plans to hire the Boston Consulting Group to conduct a study on whether or not NYFW should become a consumer-facing event presenting collections more closely aligned with retail drops. Lots of food for thought as we approach the autumn/winter 2016 shows.

5. How menswear took over the internet – Esquire

Men’s fashion is growing by more than 100% a year. With that as context, this long form story from Esquire dives into where and how that is happening, talking to executives from Luisa Via Roma, Mr Porter and Matches Fashion. According to the latter, the online men’s market is highly valued for the fact returns are lower and loyalty often higher. Some 50% of its male customers return to buy something else within a year. The story also highlights such tidbits as more money coming from shoes on Mr Porter than Net-a-Porter, and Natalie Massenet saying that the rise of a more creative economy could lead to menswear becoming as big as womenswear over the next decade.

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Fashion takeaways from Ben Horowitz book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things

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The inaugural #fashmash book club was held in London earlier this month, with a group of digital individuals from the fashion industry meeting at the all-new Library private members club in London.

The book in question for this first get-together was leading venture capitalist Ben Horowitz‘s The Hard Thing About Hard Things. The aim wasn’t just to dissect the chapters and share our impressions on each of them, but apply them (and their learnings intended for the world of tech start-ups) directly to what they mean for the fashion industry, enabling a broader discussion on business strategy as a result.

What ended up was quite a critical look at what needs to shift in our industry. Here then are some of the takeaways – a series of considerations designed to be thought-starters rather than fully formed arguments.

“Dogs at work and yoga aren’t culture”

Culture doesn’t make a company, but once you’ve nailed the product, it’s an essential part of building and maintaining it, Horowitz suggests. This isn’t about team drinks or gym classes as the easy option, but an ethos that determines who you are both internally and externally. In fashion, an obvious example is Zappos. As a brand that stands for customer service, it inducts all its employees no matter what level they’re starting at into that way of thinking with a mandatory four weeks training in the call centre.

Much of the industry comes with a significant heritage in tow, however – 150 years for a department store here, 168 for a designer brand there – which make cultural shifts, if necessary, all that much harder to achieve. In the most traditional of senses, the biggest barrier is still that feeling of fashion living in an ivory tower.

Despite a move at large to new ways of thinking thanks to digital, there remains very much a culture industry-wide of there only being one voice, a focus on the idea of that being ‘the way things have always been done’, and significant barriers to internal innovation as a result. Even some of today’s youngest and most successful online companies are beginning to battle with this as their teams grow and become increasingly siloed seemingly overnight. Tweets and Facebook posts planned three months in advance aren’t uncommon, especially in certain European cities, neither are rigorous sign-off processes that make simple tasks significantly more laborious than they need be.

“Create a culture that rewards, not punishes people for getting problems into the open where they can be solved,” writes Horowitz. For culture to evolve in fashion, the starting point is still internal communication, development of trust and a willingness to become more open, our members suggested.

“Technological advances have dramatically lowered the financial bar for starting a new company, but the courage bar for building a great company remains as high as it has ever been”

Courage, as with risk or failing fast, is a common concept for those in Silicon Valley. For fashion however, as with many other industries similarly based on cumbersome legacy systems, it remains somewhat foreign, despite words like “disruption” regularly being banded about off the back of association with new business models, like that of Warby Parker. For a young designer entering the market otherwise, there is little choice but to follow the established distribution model or not be in with the chance of getting picked up from a buying perspective.

The closest the industry at large comes to consistently courageous activity is instead with a constant obsession with the shiny and the new. But is this to our detriment?

Take seasonal collections. The fashion cycle is becoming increasingly transseasonal; fast fashion ever the norm, even at designer level where there can be anywhere in the region of 12 collections per year nowadays. The sustainability of that is another discussion, what’s interesting here rather is what’s happening to seasonal campaigns alongside. From the highest fashion house to the most basic high street brand, we are still obsessed with twice yearly print ads (with the addition of the odd film alongside) that focus on the newness of the product. What’s lacking then is a reflection on the continuity of the brand.

Fashion is so obsessed with its visual representation, it forgets to portray bigger ideas that help maintain and entice a customer base. Sir John Hegarty of BBH gave a great example of the value of this at Cannes Lions this year by comparing Nike and Reebok. The former launched its strapline “Just Do It” in 1988 – a brand identity in three words that it has kept ever since. Reebok in the meantime, has changed its message near on every year, which is perhaps why so few of us can remember any of them. It’s hard to believe the two had equal market share at that point in time in the 80s.

Shiny and new is also seen with our focus on introducing buzzy technology concepts. Are the high profile, often gimmicky (though duly press-worthy) initiatives seen around fashion weeks worthwhile? As Horowitz writes: “It’s quite possible for an executive to hit her goal by ignoring the future.” In other words, it’s all very well pushing a piece of innovation tied to a specific initiative at a point in time, but is it something that fundamentally fits authentically with the business so it impacts down the road efficiently. True courage lies in building blocks that shape the future.

“When you are a start-up executive, nothing happens unless you make it happen”

There is of course an enormous place for innovation in the fashion industry when done right. It’s important to note the difference between innovation and technology here – in fact some of the most successful examples in our industry are those businesses innovating in areas that aren’t hugely press-worthy. Those figuring out how to decrease e-commerce return rates, or strategising on updating those aforementioned legacy systems to an all-new omnichannel approach. Behind-the-scenes work initially, but innovation that absolutely impacts the future.

This fits with the fact an increasing number of new job roles are being created with retailers in so-called innovation labs. What we’re accordingly starting to see is a big focus on how to actually make things happen.

In the recent WGSN Google Hangout on this very subject, John Vary, innovation manager at John Lewis, and Will Young, director of Zappos Labs, highlighted the necessity of the role of ideas managers in their organisations. Having an innovation team is all very well, but someone needs to execute on those ideas for them to be at all worthwhile. Importantly, these tend to be very different skill sets.

As Horowitz outlines in a chapter about leadership, there’s a big difference between knowing what to do, and doing what you know. Some people lean more heavily towards setting the direction, while for others enjoyment comes from making the company perform. All businesses, fashion included, do of course need both.

“You should strive to hire people with the right kind of ambition”

It mightn’t come as a surprise the #fashmash book club, though spinning off from a network that’s more evenly split, was entirely comprised of women on this first occasion. It’s also not surprising then that everyone in the room picked up on the fact Horowitz consistently referred to the CEO and executive subjects in his book as ‘she’ and ‘her’ throughout. It’s interesting in itself that that stands out as being so different when you read it. For a fashion crowd, however, it also sparked yet another conversation.

Despite the female association, this is an industry still dominated at the top level almost entirely by men. When Angela Ahrendts was the CEO of Burberry, she was one of only three females on the FTSE 100, a loss the UK mourned on her move over to Apple. But one the fashion industry did too. Technology as an industry is battling a lack of women at exec level, but has the fact so few have studied computer science or engineering, frequently to blame. That’s certainly not an issue in our world.

More disappointingly however, this is an industry that still operates under a very stereotyped “mean girls” sensibility, especially in increasingly competitive organisations where egos play a significant part.

With Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In as the go-to reference, not to mention this Pantene ad from the Philippines that went viral worldwide after Sandberg herself shared it, women already have to deal with being perceived as ‘bossy’ or ‘selfish’ compared to men being seen as ‘powerful’ or ‘dedicated’. Bitch is another frequent term referred to. So why aren’t we supporting each other more?

Horowitz defines ambition as a particularly interesting game. “When hiring a management team, most start-ups focus almost exclusively on IQ, but a bunch of high-IQ people with the wrong kind of ambition won’t work,” he writes. He emphasises the importance of distinguishing whether candidates see the world through the “me” prism (their own personal success) or the “team” prism (how the company will win). “Nothing motivates a great employee more than a mission that’s so important that it supersedes everyone’s personal ambition,” he adds.

In closing…

Safe to say, and no doubt this isn’t new to hear for most readers (nor is it unique to this industry), fashion needs a bit of a wake-up call. We’re very good at resting on old laurels, tired ways and the way things have always been done. But increasingly these traditional means don’t match a modern world or a modern consumer. This book is a great example of what the industry should know, what they should look at, and where they should learn from. In general for those managing, hiring, training or firing, there’s also some very practical insights to glean as well.

Do check out Horowitz’s book on Amazon here. And keep up with the #fashmash hashtag on Twitter too to see what titles we’re looking to dive into next.

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On your reading list: Influencer Marketing

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If you’re anything like me you constantly have a backlog of links saved in a ‘to read’ folder in your inbox, in an app on your iPhone and in a variety of reader tools on your web browser. I even have word documents with multiples of them pasted in for when I can’t get online during a flight, and numerous printouts just in case I get caught out some other how and can use the time to finally catch-up with what’s going on in this ever-evolving world.

The good news is I just had a great occasion all to myself to do so (namely a long haul journey during waking hours). While you likely won’t appreciate me adding to your own reading list, there’s a couple I had to share on the off-chance you haven’t yet got to them yourself. The first is this story on dispensing with the division of church and state, or editorial and advertising in the fashion media business, written by Jeremy Langmead of Mr Porter in a guest post for The Business of Fashion. This one on Facebook’s shifting marketing strategy – a mega read from Vanity Fair – is another example.

But if I can implore you to read any, it’s this one about influencer marketing by Macala Wright, published on PSFK in March. The title reads: “Why influencer marketing is failing in retail”, which is actually a little misleading. This piece isn’t so much of a downer on why the retail industry isn’t nailing its strategic partnerships with today’s bloggers, but a fabulous insight into how to go about getting it right for your brand specifically.

It was written soon after Suzy Menkes’ piece on The Circus of Fashion Week – a story that sparked a boatload of comment from other heavyweights in the space. But it takes a more strategic route, stepping beyond debates on ‘gifting’ for instance, and looking directly at “redefining and compartmentalising how to leverage influencers in long-term brand and marketing strategies”.  It points out basic, but all-important arguments on quality (smaller people or influencers with cult followers) versus quantity (number of followers, views, and impressions), and rounds-up with nine key points to consider for success.

Check them out here: Why influencer marketing is failing in retail