Heretics in the fashion industry? Sure.
But I’m not talking about the fashion victims or people who just don’t “get fashion” – those geeky girls who are shunned by the cool girls -the opinion leaders- and then go on to become the prom queen or get the dreamy guy after a makeover in the movies (Clueless, Never Been Kissed, Devil Wears Prada, Princess Diaries - video, Miss Congeniality - video, She’s All That…).
Before and after shots from “She’s All That” (via agentlover)
I’m talking about industry outsiders who see things that people submerged in the Industry Kool-Aid cannot.
Underdog Advantage: Loners become Leaders
As in religion, fashion’s heretics rarely view themselves as heretical, but more often as fervent worshippers. Beyond mere style, today’s fashion heretics are becoming the authority in a new doctrine less focused on style and more focused on substance. They have no profit-based incentive to lie, and so people trust their voices with increasing loyalty.
In digital media, they may have an audience reach that challenges known fashion editors, or they may hold influence in a tiny niche, but they are there and they are growing. The irony of human nature is that those in power rarely embrace the lessons of the heretic, but it always catches up to them.
Speaking of heretics, last September IBM hosted a Forum on the Future of Leadership called THINK where Carmen Medina, former Director of the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence told the audience:
- You all have Heretics
- They are not your problem. They are not your enemy
- They are trying to help you.
- They are probably the start of your solution.
Read that again, because she is so right.
Technology is a Tool for Engaging New Ideas, & That Shouldn’t be Threatening
For the last couple of years I have witnessed an extreme reluctance in the fashion industry to embrace technology, both in the back-end of logistics and planning and in the front-end where the buff and polish of marketing occurs. Business practices in the industry remain archaic and a fear of “losing control of the message” still exists to the point where strategic tomes of policy must be written before upscale fashion brands even consider engaging in social media – engaging with the very people who love fashion so much that they go online to talk about it all day long. For free. #facepalm Some notable exceptions have been made, but they are rare.
However, I’m talking less about a cute voice that banters with potential customers than I am about directed engagement, education, and the preservation of the intrinsic value behind key brand assets – the talent. We have been sold on buying into the “lifestyle” offered by a brand and reinforced by their product offering, and while the lifestyle message has grown stronger, the product value has grown weaker due to countless financial pressures and a cannibalistic business strategy.
Brands have become absolutely fixated on building mythologies and pumping funds into glossy campaigns while their skilled makers – the backbone of the industry – are laid off, and manufacturing is moved to cheaper, unskilled labor pools. The cost savings of these workforce shifts are heralded at shareholder meetings, while untold funds are hemorrhaged into marketing and PR – increasingly important as the intrinsic value of the product (quality, technique, and tradition) diminishes.
This marketing madness has gotten to the point where my generation knows little of intrinsic value but suspiciously knows everything about brand image. We have been told again and again that a logo was a sure sign of value and everyone wanted the lastest “It” thing. Then people started asking questions.
Enter the Countermovement.
At one end of the movement against marketing fluff are those who are furious with the disillusion from a lifetime of having false mythologies forced on them, to the point that marketing is now considered a dirty word and not a helpful way to find what you need. Good luck coming back from that – the symbolic brands have already lost these folks.
At the other end, you have industry outsiders, bloggers, and interested “amateurs” finding information, exploring and talking with one another. Tired of being told what to think, they are finding their own answers, becoming experts and leaders in their own right. Publicly. Online! And often without a degree in fashion design, marketing, or merchandising. Yet they are still very open to a dialogue with brand leaders.
We’ve already seen the emergence of fashion heretics utilizing digital channels to edge into the industry on their own terms and influence great change in the process. It’s begun in fashion media (Tavi, Bryan Boy), fashion photography (The Sartorialist, Jak + Jil) and retail (net-a-porter, Gilt Groupe). I have the utmost respect for all trailblazers, but I have a feeling we ain’t seen nothing yet.
A second generation of fashion startups is soon to emerge, and when combined with what is happening in the startup world of technology, they are about to do some disrupting! While some of the heretical disruptions we will see in the coming years will be geared towards giving branded storytelling a little kick, the REAL value will be in the back-end of the fashion business, where artisans are empowered to do their jobs more efficiently and information can be properly managed for analysis by executives. Consumers are becoming more intelligent about their purchases, and glossy ads will not be enough to capture their loyalty – they want real value and responsiveness, and they deserve our respect. Consumer demands and technological innovations will soon push the “art” of fashion merchandising into much more of a science, with less focus on intuition and greater focus on demand that meets location-specific criteria.
I believe it is time for the pendulum to swing back away from heavy reliance on fantastical marketing schemes, to go back to the real substance of intrinsic value. Fashion and luxury brands that have maintained intrinsic value with skilled production have nothing to fear from “amateurs” asking a few questions about their products, and trying to understand just why those shoes / dresses / bags cost so much.
These “heretics” are not asking permission to get involved and to learn more. They are not asking permission to ask questions or have conversations about topics that interest them. They don’t care about industry rules and bureaucracy, and are happily unconcerned with rituals of dues-paying enforced within the industry by “gatekeepers” of the Old Guard. This generation has access to information, and they will use it.
If this is upsetting to brand managers, they are probably not playing the game effectively.
Walk the Talk on Intrinsic Value
Brands: Customers know WHAT you do. They want to know HOW and WHY you do it, and you have to be honest because things are only becoming more transparent over time. Now is time to walk the talk.
*sign image thanks to PR Connections