Despite their image as cutting-edge industries pinned to modernity, fashion and beauty remain in the digital doldrums. These Irish entrepreneurs are looking to change that.
‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, an adage as old as time. ‘Fashion is at the fingertips of the customer’, a modern, yet-to-be-achieved twist.
Digital disruption is predicted across every industry yet to enjoy sufficient automation. While the industrial revolution originated in part through the improved processes behind the creation of textiles and clothing, speedier production remains a distant dream throughout much of the fashion and beauty industries.
Fashion – particularly at the high, luxury end – is lagging far behind.
The current set-up sees designers and retailers meet up twice a year, across four cities, for a maximum of four weeks combined, to buy up an annual amount of lines.
This New York-London, Paris-Milan adventure is frantic, frenetic and fashionably haphazard. Brief windows of opportunity are extinguished in an instant, stores left to choose six months worth of fashionable outfits in the blink of an eye.
For many designers, their whole career rests on lightning presentations, endless printed paraphernalia and, at best, a handful of handshakes.
In a world of growing demand for personalisation – led by customers, not companies – this isn’t good enough.
A recent report from McKinsey & Company investigating the future of the fashion industry highlighted this issue in particular.
“Personalisation and curation will become more important to the customer,” it read. “As consumer values coalesce around authenticity and individuality, brands will … tailor recommendations, engage influencers and personalise experiences. The fashion companies that flourish will refocus on their strengths.”
‘People think that designers invest all the time and money into their lines, and retailers sell them, but this isn’t the entirety of it’
– AILEEN CARVILLE, SKMMP
As in sport, as in food, as in travel, as in fashion: the customer’s feedback and wants are key. And, when looking at the supply chain in the fashion industry, there are many customers.
Skmmp, an Irish fashtech start-up based at NDRC, is looking at this issue in particular, helping designers, wholesalers, retailers and, ultimately, end-users get more lines of clothing in stores, and more ease of use throughout the whole channel.
The company, led by Aileen Carville, does this by creating digital showrooms for designers to show their catalogues to wholesalers and retailers, complementing the four fashion weeks of the year.
Extending the buying season from four weeks to 52, this should, in theory, lead to more variety and less bureaucracy. But it’s not going to be easy.
“People think that designers invest all the time and money into their lines, and retailers sell them, but this isn’t the entirety of it,” said Carville, the founder armed with nearly two decades of experience in luxury fashion.
“The designer invests time and resources into the brand and designing it but the retailer also invests a lot of money in promoting that brand,” she said. This is the reason why designers need to educate themselves on what retailers want.
“Retailers are looking for designers that can provide a shorter supply-chain time, multiple drops throughout the year, variety. Retailers are looking for production; they want a really high finish on the garments.”
By showing this all year round at the touch of a button, designers can find a way in to retailers that are more and more vigilant about the ethical side of production on the supply chain. Sustainability is important, too, and then each retailer will have its own quirks and preferences.
This all filters down to customers – customers who are increasingly on the lookout for variety married to easy accessibility.
‘Every fashion business is going to have to use technology to survive and thrive’
– DIMA KFOURI, OUTFITABLE
Customers seek out whatever helps them solve their problems, and digital approaches to fashion are doing just that – not just online but in-store as well. That’s according to Dima Kfouri, founder of Outfitable, which matches users with clothing that suits their body shape.
“Shoppers can more easily find what they’re looking for with personalised recommendations. Or they can better imagine outfit combinations and get social feedback on them with augmented virtual changing rooms,” she said.
Again, customers throughout the channel, united by a similar desire: variety at the press of a button. Designers want ease of access to wholesalers, them to retailers, them to end-users. Automation, digital disruption and, in general, simplification.
There is a lot of room for improvement, creativity, disruption and use of technology in the fashion industry, according to Kfouri, an entrepreneur of Canadian and Lebanese descent and a two-time Cannes Lion-awarded strategic planner.
“The more innovation we see, the more attractive it will become for customers, because they will increasingly get what they’re looking for,” said Kfouri.
“Every fashion business is going to have to use technology to survive and thrive, so the future of fashtech is going to be bright. From online e-commerce innovation and sustainable textile production, to interactive stores of the future – it’s an exciting space!”
According to that McKinsey report, 75pc of fashion retailers plan to invest in AI to assist staff in future – this is an inevitability, said Kfouri.
Retailers are beginning to realise that there is huge potential for AI to increase value across the entire supply chain and customer experience, she claimed. This is due to two clear appeals: AI can deliver significant speed and cost improvements.
“Not only does it help with personalised recommendations, merchandising, production and delivery, but it has a big role to play in predictive forecasting by identifying unmet customer needs and trends.
“There are early adopters emerging that are beginning to prove competitive advantages thanks to AI, so I believe it will become the norm for the industry in due time – a matter of survival.”
It’s spreading into beauty, too.
Recently, L’Oréal acquired ModiFace, a company behind custom augmented-reality beauty apps for the likes of Sephora and Estée Lauder. In China, Meitu is a company doing something similar. Meanwhile, Indonesia-based Sociolla, a beauty e-commerce and social platform, recently secured $12m in a funding round. This followed a Series A round in 2015, and B in 2017.
‘The beauty industry is worth five times that of the music industry. It’s wide open for disruption’
– LOUISE DUNNE, GLISSED
An interesting proposition, Sociolla shifted from a purely e-commerce model recently, adding online experiences through its Beauty Journal, with beauty and lifestyle content ranging from articles and videos to glossaries and product reviews.
In Ireland, Glissed is bringing its own digital spin to an industry as fragmented as its fashion cousin. Glissed is an online booking platform for freelance beauty professionals, a marketplace where users can book hair and beauty appointments for home, at work or in hotels prior to events.
“The idea was born out of my own frustration,” said Louise Dunne, co-founder of the company. “I was 10 years in Mac, but I couldn’t connect with customers beyond through the traditional phone numbers, word of mouth etc.
“The whole industry of freelancers I knew and worked with struggled. I lectured in a college and realised that, and every one of my students was the same – bags of receipts, paper diary, no automation. A bit like the taxi industry 10 years ago.”
The average make-up or hair kit for a freelance beauty professional is worth up to €5,000, with current booking processes varied and, in many cases, impractical. Glissed allows these beauticians to deal directly with their customers, take in bookings with automated reminders and scheduling, and ultimately develop a healthy relationship between client and customer.
“The beauty industry is worth five times that of the music industry. It’s wide open for disruption. The customers want it. The professionals want it. It’s happening.”
The availability of freelancers, and the connectivity of the market in general, saw Glissed pop up in Penneys earlier this year, portraying a hybrid of past and future.
Due to an urgent and intense need for innovation across industry, McKinsey & Company predicts that a growing number of fashion companies will aim to emulate the qualities of start-ups, such as the agility, collaboration and openness described above.
Traditional and heritage players will continue to be compelled to open their minds up to new types of talent, new ways of working, new kinds of partnerships and new investment models.
Fashion and beauty seem to be at the epicentre of consumerism and commercialism. Getting in line with what has become a digital age seems an inevitability, an overdue one at that.
NDRC currently has a call open for two investment programmes – one in Dublin, and one in Galway. All the details are available on www.ndrc.ie.