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A look back at SXSW Interactive – key takeaways for the fashion industry

This article first appeared on The Business of Fashion

Elon-Musk-SXSW

AUSTIN, United States With some 30,000 people in town for the 20th annual SXSW Interactive conference, not to mention hundreds of keynote talks, panels, exhibitions, meet-ups and parties to both participate in (and get distracted by) each day, you’d be forgiven for feeling completely overwhelmed by the whole affair.

The festival aims to provide a “view on the future” and is predominantly focused on the technology space. This year’s conference was headlined by Elon Musk, a South Africa-born, American engineer and entrepreneur who co-founded the groundbreaking electric car company Tesla, as well as payment system PayPal, and is the founder and CEO of SpaceX, the world’s first commercial company to deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station. Musk spoke about a manned mission to Mars and shared a video of a reusable rocket that could, for the first time, land back on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter. Former American vice president Al Gore, likewise, touched on all manner of big ideas, including the genetic engineering of spider goats. Meanwhile, there was tremendous buzz surrounding Grumpy Cat, the real-life meme with whom conference attendees queued up to have their photograph taken.

But for the fashion industry from which there’s a growing contingent that comes to town for the event how much was relevant? The answer is lots.

Part of the beauty of SXSW is, of course, meeting up with digitally-minded people from across the sector. But, without doubt, the most powerful insights are gleaned by stepping outside the fashion bubble and learning from other industries. The challenge is being able to distill down the key takeaways. So here goes.

The Maker Movement

This year’s festival was opened by Bre Pettis, CEO of New York-based 3D printing company MakerBot Industries, who said that cheaply available and easy-to-use desktop fabrication tools would give rise to “the next industrial revolution.”

“We’re empowering people to make stuff, faster and in more affordable ways,” he said, announcing the MakerBot Digitizer, a machine which can scan any physical object between three and eight inches tall and replicate it. Think of it as “a real-world copy and paste,” he added.

In another talk, Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO and co-founder of 3D printing marketplace and community Shapeways, said: “3D printing is so incredibly quick that what we’re doing is design-manufacturing.” Indeed, soon we will be able to not only buy an item online and print it out at home, but manipulate it first, to create a truly personalised product. Though the textiles aren’t quite there yet, a dress that’s downloadable in different fabrications and, better yet, a perfect fit, isn’t that far off.

Mike Senese, a senior editor at Wired, expects brands to swiftly take hold of this opportunity. NASA, Ford and Nokia are already doing so, while Nike, without the large official presence it had last year to launch its FuelBand, was quietly using the networking effects of SXSW to spread news of its new Vapor Laser Talon shoe. Created for American football players, it features a lightweight 3D printed plate, crafted using Selective Laser Sintering technology (SLS) and designed to improve acceleration.

Kimberly Ovitz, who featured 3D printed jewellery in her Autumn/Winter 2013 New York Fashion Week show, this February, was also on site at SXSW. She said that, for the fashion industry, the beauty of the technology at this stage comes down to timelines. Not only can she better keep up with consumer demand by delivering her jewellery within a two-week timeline, but she’s also that much further ahead of the fast fashion outlets who copy her.

Digital Meets Physical

Importantly, hardware dominated the discussion at this year’s SXSW, marking a major move away from the app-focused conversation of the past (SXSW was the launchpad for both Twitter and Foursquare in 2007 and 2010, respectively).

Unsurprisingly, Google Glass got a lot of airtime, with a number of individuals spotted trying out the augmented reality headsets around the festival’s convention center and a live demonstration hosted by Timothy Jordan, Google’s senior developer advocate, who showcased third party apps from companies like The New York Times and Path and introduced the tech crowd to Google Glass’ Mirror API. Expect much more on this front.

Google also introduced a talking shoe (that reminds wearers to be more active) in collaboration with adidas as part of the tech giant’s “Art, Copy and Code” initiative. It was prime example of the so-called ‘Internet of Things,’ the trend towards everyday objects becoming networked. Although still just a concept, the trainers feature sensors that track a user’s speed and performance and speak to them directly (via a speaker) or their phones (via Bluetooth) to encourage movement.

Leap Motion, meanwhile, was widely called “the Nike FuelBand of 2013? in terms of the buzz it generated. A device about the size of a USB stick that plugs into any Mac or PC, it allows users to control a screen with hand gestures alone. Technically, it’s a step on from Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect for the precision it allows. The device can track individual finger movements with accuracy up to one-hundredth of a millimetre. It also retails for only $79.99 and will ship in May.

Collaboration

Amidst all the new technology launches and cross-pollination of big ideas, came a call for greater collaboration. For Elon Musk and Al Gore, that meant fostering collaboration amongst institutions to solve major problems that no single company could address alone. For many brands, it meant embracing their consumer communities.

The team at Lego shared their focus on being “fans of our fans.” With the launch of its crowdsourcing site Cuusoo, the company is empowering their most engaged customers to design their own products, the best of which are actually manufactured. Peter Espersen, head of online communities for the Lego Group, said there was value, not only in listening to your consumers, but setting goals on what you hope to achieve from them.

PepsiCo hosted a similar panel (the company’s fans have helped produce ads for the Super Bowl and create new flavours of Lays Potato Chips). “When you give people a forum to express themselves, you unearth things you never expected to find,” said Jen Saenz, Frito-Lay’s senior director of brand marketing. She addressed the idea of creating a circle of advocacy that could likewise apply to any fashion house: sourcing information, doing something with that information, feeding that back to fans, listening to their reaction and acting upon it.

Not surprisingly, data was a big part of this conversation. In particular, Saenz highlighted the deep level of insight Frito-Lay now has about its customers’ flavour preferences across geography, information it would never have been able to source at such scale using traditional methods.

But despite the focus on crowdsourcing, the importance of powerful storytelling (beyond what the facts, figures and feedback might show) rang throughout the festival. Ultimately, breaking through the noise, said Gary Goldhammer, senior vice president at H+K Strategies, means adding something remarkable and unexpected. “What makes for great storytelling is 1+1=3.”

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#SXSW Interactive in prep: a fashionable playing ground for 2013

FashionBrainBar_SXSW_main

If there was one thing I learnt from SXSW last year, it was that I absolutely had to go again in 2013. On top of the fact it’s the place to hear industry leaders  give expert insights, the place to learn about new innovations and source fresh inspirations, and the place where trends and directions for the tech world break… it’s also a breeding ground for incredible networking.

For anyone working within the fashion-meets-digital space, this seems especially the case this year, with more attendees headed to Austin from our industry than ever, as well as a host of relevant events to go with it.

Fashion’s Collective is hosting one of them, known as the Fashion Brain Bar on Monday, March 11 (as pictured above). It’s aim is to provide a bit of respite from the insanity of the festival, but also a space for everyone to meet the people they need to meet and have “the conversations that will play a key role in the advancements we’ll see over the next few years”.

Industry experts on hand will include Raman Kia, executive director of integrated strategy at Condé Nast through to Dave Gilboa, founder of Warby Parker. The full list can be seen here, as well as a space to submit questions to them in advance.

Another fringe event planned is called The Neighborhood. Created by AvecMode and 2nd Street District, it’s a move on from the Style X event of previous years, which brought a fashion focus (complete with runway shows) to Austin nearer the end of the festival. This time plans are in place from March 11 – 14 with a bit more of an industry edge. There are pop-up stores still, but also Q&A sessions with pros from the likes of Neiman Marcus, Michael Kors, Lyst, Refinery29 and more, as well as highlight interviews with menswear designers John Varvatos and Billy Reid.

The main SXSW schedule does of course feature a number of fashion-specific events too, including this one with Nina Garcia focused on the democratisation of high fashion. And this one featuring New York’s “digital it-crowd” in Aliza Licht, Cannon Hodge, Erika Bearman and John Jannuzzi (that’d be DKNY, Bergdorf Goodman, Oscar de la Renta and Lucky Magazine).

Fashion’s Collective has also published a survival guide to the whole five days, including must-attend events (lots of them non-fashion which I would highly recommend, there’s nothing like being inspired from outside your normal remit), as well as a handful of food and drink recommendations (indispensable).

I also love this guide from Andrew Hyde, called Ditch the Marketers, Find the Makers, it sums up the rest of the experience beautifully (be friendly to everyone, sit down when you can, put down your tech and look at people – yes really).

On that note mind you, if you’re going, drop me a line over Twitter. Assuming I can connect, I’d love to meet you.

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BOF: Looking back at #SXSW Interactive

Covering the rise of the connected fan, through to the uneven impact of curation, not to mention the success of Nike and Amex in Austin, this is a great round-up piece by The Business of Fashion on everything that happened during SXSW Interactive. Check it out.

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#SXSW Interactive: Fashion’s greatest challenge lies in realigning production with communications

“If I were the CEO of a major fashion brand today, my focus would be on trying to compress the production cycle so it realigned with communications,” Imran Amed, founder and editor of The Business of Fashion, said at SXSW earlier this week.

Speaking on a panel called Who needs a fashion cycle? I’ve got social media, he explained that we’re at the beginning of a seismic change in the way consumers communicate with each other, make decisions, and ultimately purchase.  It’s only by changing the operational side of what we do, he said, that we’re going to be able to catch up.

As we all know, the internet has revolutionised this industry. Where once fashion shows were private trade events, now they’re more consumer facing than ever before, highlighted Michelle Sadlier, global digital communications consultant for Karla Otto International, and moderator of the session.

Designer collections used to only be seen by the public when they hit shop floors six months later – or the pages of the magazines just before. Now they’re viewable in real-time. The likes of Twitter and Instagram, not to mention bloggers and live-streams, mean consumers have the same level of access, at exactly the same time, as those invited to the catwalk presentations.

The issue of course, is that the operational side of the process is still the same. Rather than speeding up alongside, production has remained a lengthy and complicated system. The user is subsequently seeing something online, that isn’t available to buy for a further four to six months.

This gap, said Chris Morton, founder and CEO of fashion discovery site Lyst, means brands are missing out on capturing that “intent to purchase at the point of inspiration”.

He referenced a handful of companies attempting to address this: Burberry’s Runway to Reality initiative – where viewers can shop straight from the catwalk for delivery in just eight weeks – for example, as well as start-up Moda Operandi, which offers a similar solution across a variety of brand names.

Lyst itself launched a Runway Tracking service last September, which at least reminds consumers of the items they liked, by sending them a notification once they’re available to buy.

Amed however, said while each of these ideas is attempting to work around the issues, they’re not actually solving the problem. This is the industry’s biggest challenge, he added, and there’s no easy solution.

One of his suggestions was to create two separate events around the shows. One small and quiet for trade to see the season ahead, and the other a big, all-out affair for consumers, timed so it’s in sync with the actual season. So in other words, shifting the position of the fashion show as we know it today, so it sits at the end of the cycle rather than the beginning.

Of course to do so, would mean skipping a season, something Natalie Massanet, founder of Net-a-Porter, first suggested to Amed in an interview in 2010. No mean feat to pull off…

Which takes us back full circle to the very first line of this post. At the end of the day the company that masters how to realign the production cycle with the communications one, will be the one that finds success. And the likeliest way of achieving that right now, is by focusing first on compressing operations.

Watch this space.

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#SXSW Interactive: a new must on the fashion calendar

I have just returned from the most incredible week at SXSW Interactive, where speakers varied from Al Gore and Sean Parker, to Ray Kurweil, Biz Stone and Dennis Crowley.

I’m in the midst of finishing off a piece on the key thoughts and ideas from the week – to be published elsewhere [UPDATE: if you’re interested please email me for a copy].

In the meantime, I wanted to write one very short and simple blogpost that says, if you’re a fashion brand aiming to achieve anything along the lines of digital success, you need to go next year.

SXSW is the place to hear industry leaders (aforementioned and more) give expert insights; it’s the place to learn about new innovations and source fresh inspirations; and it’s the place where trends and directions for the tech world break.

But more importantly, it’s the hottest place to network with anyone and everyone also working in this space. Serendipity as Mashable calls it here. From meeting new start-ups and coordinating with established platforms, to swapping ideas with those from your own industry, it’s the perfect playing ground for getting your head both in the game and ahead of the curve.

And if that isn’t convincing enough, it speaks volumes to see which brands are already doing it. There this year were teams from Burberry, Victoria’s Secret, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, DKNY, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorfs, Net-a-Porter and Moda Operandi… not to mention fashion-specific platforms including Lyst and publications from The Business of Fashion and WGSN, to Fashion’s Collective.

It was undoubtedly one of the most valuable experiences of my career to date.

I hope to see you there in 2013!