From accelerators to investment opportunities, the world of fashion seems to be having a renaissance, so we’ve heard from industry startups to find out what’s really going on in the sector
It’s near impossible to go a day of reading business headlines without seeing tech, or more specifically tech developments such as artificial intelligence (AI) and cybersecurity, get a mention. But in a world filled with evolutions of the electrical variety, have we been caught sleeping on enhancements within the fashion industry?
Farfetch, the online fashion retailer, launched a fashion and retail tech accelerator called Dream Assembly in April with a view of “supporting startups who are shaping the future of commerce”. The London-headquartered company elected to host the programme in Lisbon, though it’s open to startups from across the globe and parts of the 12-week incubator will take place in the UK capital and San Francisco.
José Neves, founder and CEO of Farfetch, reflected on the journey with his firm over the past decade from startup to highly-regarded business boasting partners including Burberry and said how important exposure to brands and consumers alike was for the company. “Farfetch Dream Assembly is dedicated to supporting the best entrepreneurs and teams to scale to the next level,” Neves said of the launch. “We believe that the whole luxury fashion industry, including Farfetch, can benefit from helping to support the next generation of technology companies dedicated to shaping the future of e-commerce.”
One entrepreneur well aware of the opportunity from a startup accelerator is Stacia Bedford, founder of Prim & Clover, a bridal tech startup. Of course, we’ve all heard of fintech, retail tech, proptech and even foodtech but bridal tech? That’s arguably far more niche. The idea for the business came from Bedford and business partner Luciana Riquet, who she met at London College of Fashion, where both of their dissertations were about customisable fashion and the pair went on to work together.
During their market research to bring customisation to the fore, Bedford got engaged and started hunting for a wedding dress. “Very quickly, I became frustrated and overwhelmed as I couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for and all the appointments and running around was exhausting,” she says. “For the one time in my life when it was a given to spend a lot of money on a dress it just wasn’t fun. So, I convinced Luciana to switch our plan from customisable ready-to-wear to bridal wear and Prim & Clover was born.”
The goal is to bring the bridal industry out of the dark ages as Bedford reveals the market “is really stuck in the past.” And while frustrating for her as a consumer, it’s presented a significant business opportunity – hence the advent of bridal tech. “We found that designers and brands have websites, of course, but very few of them allow brides to purchase online – let alone customise their dress,” Bedford explains. “And bridal shops offer even less innovation – it’s all a bit last century.” The founders have only discovered one UK-based bridal designer offering a dress builder but the customer still has to visit a shop for the process to be completed. “We realise what we’re doing is quite disruptive and it’s going to take time for brides to seek out buying a wedding dress this way as there’s a culture and tradition surrounding the idea of wedding dress shopping.” She emphasises her point as she notes the endless reality TV shows sticking to said tradition like glue but that hasn’t stopped 20,000 unique visitors flocking to Prim & Clover’s site on a weekly basis with terms such as ‘design my wedding dress’ leading them there. Millennials in particular are keen to change with the times, she says, and the business is eager to deliver the experience customers desire for what’s “one of life’s biggest milestones”.
Taking part of the Plexiglass accelerator, a 12-week programme for women-led tech startups, not only did Bedford and Riquet get a dose of female empowerment but it was an opportunity to further establish themselves on the tech scene. Prior to participating, Prim & Clover had only been engaged with fashion-centric incubators. With the three months coming to an end in June, Bedford says of the period: “It was an incredible experience and the connections and relationships we made whilst on the programme will definitely help us grow. Receiving help – financially, mentally and professionally – is essential to every entrepreneur. Even after years of careful planning, research and now sales, Prim & Clover is no exception to the need for support. We want to offer our brides impeccable products and an amazing service, so Plexiglass was absolutely the right vehicle for that.”
Although Prim & Clover has its eye fixed unblinkingly on the bridal market, on a broader scale, Bedford feels the overall fashion market will shift in terms of sustainability being viewed as a more crucial element of what consumers look for. “Fashion is going to have to figure out a way to become more sustainable,” she says. “But it’s a paradigm shift and a big one. Future generations are taking note but they still need to be educated on how clothes are made, what they are made of and who is making them.”
Her comments will be music to the ears of Jack Ostrowski, a fashion industry veteran who’s founded two businesses based around sustainability. For 12 years, Ostrowski has been running Yellow Octopus, which works with retailers to distribute their unwanted stock using a sustainable approach. And in spring 2018, he launched a complementary platform called reGAIN, a consumer-facing app that helps them recycle clothes. He’s seen online come in and disrupt the space massively during his time. “The rise of fast fashion etailers has changed the market dramatically, changing the business models of many fashion retailers but unfortunately, impacting the sustainability of the industry as a whole,” Ostrowski reveals.
However, this concerning shift he details seems to be turning a corner though as he adds companies are increasingly considering their environmental impact. “They are starting to focus on design from materials which can be recycled in an eco-friendly manner, as well as developing take-back programmes for post-consumer textiles,” he says. With the introduction of reGAIN, Ostrowski declares it was simply a matter of common sense in order to be pro-active rather than sit back and watch clothing being dumped in landfills. “Marrying technology and sustainability is what I personally want to focus on,” he says. “It can and will have a massive impact on the way we shop in the future. Sustainability is the new rock and roll of business. Investors who can’t see that should probably think about retirement.”
Those parting words are perhaps something for Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet to take on board – although it’s clear she has no intention of thinking about retirement. Indeed, her new project Imaginary Ventures, a VC fund, was unveiled at a similar time to reGAIN and “invests in early-stage opportunities at the intersection of retail and technology in Europe and the US”. The fashionista takes on the mantle of managing partner alongside Nick Brown, a seasoned investor.
Imaginary arrived on the scene with a $75m fund and counts Farfetch, pop-up retail marketplace Appear Here and size-inclusive women’s fashion brand Good American among numerous companies on its portfolio. And Ostrowski can rest easy too, as Imaginary has also invested in sustainability ventures including Everlane, the ethical clothing essentials manufacturer, and Reformation, a producer of sustainable merchandise. Commenting on her new focus, Massenet said: “During my time at Net-a-Porter, I saw the retail landscape transform over a relatively short space of time, enabled by technology and social media and characterised by fast-moving new entrants – brands built entirely around the needs of the consumer.”
With such transformation in the market we heard from another Net-a-Porter Natalie – Natalie Hughes, former social media editor for Net-a-Porter turned founder of The Fashion Digital, a social media agency for luxury brands. As her old boss embarks on a new path different to the one she carved out, Hughes has some thoughts on the transition. “I think it’s a really exciting and natural next step,” she says. “All of us at Net-a-Porter felt inspired by Natalie each and every day. She is a true visionary with the ability to inspire others around her. The fact she’s now empowering other entrepreneurs makes total sense.”
Hughes believes that innovation is the key to anyone in the market looking to achieve investment and highlighted Zyper, a startup that connects brands to “passionate users”, as a prime example. “I think influencer marketing is going to further diversify, with smaller, more engaged communities driving conversions for brands. I’m also excited to see how IGTV inspires new creators and audiences. I’m sure algorithms will continue to challenge content creators to be more creative and nimble. And that can only be a good thing.”
Like Massenet, Hughes has also witnessed the market evolve and points to digital as the stimulus. “Brands and publications alike are needing to create more content than ever for different platforms, while social media has changed the face of content and commerce wildly and continues to,” she says. Her point is backed up as The Fashion Digital is a byproduct of freelance consultancy work that she says organically grew into a business of its own. “I found myself in a unique position – there were few others specialising in digital content and social media for fashion brands,” recalls Hughes. “As a result, I began working with a large number of high-profile brands. As my client base grew, I knew it was time to scale up into a fully fledged agency.”
Full of the energy you’d expect from a startup owner in a sector that’s evolving, Hughes is buzzing with life about the industry’s future development. “It’s an exciting time,” she says. “Thanks to social media, brands and publications are having bigger conversations about issues that have existed in the industry for decades – issues around body positivity, sustainability and diversity. The fashion market has always been a powerful one with super-invested audiences who have serious buying power. That’s an attractive prospect and it’s never going to change.”
Founder of We Are Gntlmen, the men’s lifestyle brand, Matt Bird would likely back Hughes about serious buying power sticking around. Believing that reality TV had lowered standards of what it meant to be a gentleman, the concept for his business was born. “I’ve always been into nice clothes and brands so I decided that menswear would be the medium in which I promoted this message,” he says. We Are Gntlmen develops items with a focus on quality so that consumers don’t have to worry about replacing versions of lesser efforts. “It’s about investing in a couple of well-made products rather than buying countless, poorer versions. It’s a tough balance as doing this reduces the need for a customer to actually come back and buy another shirt from us.”
With a demographic of professionals aged between 28 to 36, the business differentiates itself on the market with carefully chosen fabrics and fits, while Bird explains customers like the brand message about less being more. It’s not just customers who like the message – Nick Patrick, an early-stage investor and entrepreneur, caught wind of We Are Gntlmen when the business was crowdfunding on Crowdcube and got behind it. “He liked the concept of reinventing the true gentleman and agreed that the product really was great quality,” Bird says. “Nick and our other two investors really buy into this vision and are excited about the journey ahead.”
Concluding on the fashion sector as it stands and the future of it, Bird opines: “There are lots of new, smaller brands, like us, giving it a really good go and it’s nice to see. It’s a challenging market and there’s lots of competition but what industry isn’t like that?” He adds that growth in the market will continue with the support of tech and the internet. “All you need to do is read the news about large department stores and retailers to know what’s going on. That approach just isn’t the favoured one anymore.”