An astounding breadth of topics were covered on the third day of the BoF VOICES event. The session on 'Tech and Innovation' and space was given to an exciting diversity of perspectives. As someone functioning predominantly on the demand side of fashion, only more recently paying attention to its supply systems and mostly with regards to the sustainability component, it was an excellent learning experience and one that I hope to do justice to in recounting.
Image Credit: Jake Schumacher - "Gamer wearing a mask looks away from glowing screen". Doodle design by Alice Palmer.
When Worlds Collide: Technology, Media & E-Commerce 2021
Michael J. Wolf, Founder & CEO of Activate Consulting, started off the session the only way that could possibly be fitting: by highlighting the importance of technology in our lives as a whole and emphasising the consistent booms in internet-related activities. Based on recent surveys, the average user spends about 12.5 hours a day on tech and media - initially a terrifying figure, made arguably both better and worse by noting it includes time spent multitasking (working on and offscreen simultaneously). Wolf explored the role of marketplaces (80% of E-comm) versus individual retailers (20% of E-comm) and the role of new industry disruptors accelerating their expansion, but also noted some exciting new developments in the relationship between fashion and technology beyond the exponential growth of E-commerce platforms. He reflected on novel events taking place over the course of the pandemic so far - Travis Scott’s concert on Fortnite, virtual university campuses on Minecraft, dating and weddings on Animal Crossing, Casinos on GTA5 - and rightfully suggests that “gaming is going to be the next technology paradigm”, in which fashion will indubitably have a role to play. ESport team GenG has already collaborated with Puma, FNatic with Gucci; you can dress your Sims in Moschino and give your League of Legends character a Louis Vuitton weapon - the future of fashion lies in gaming skins.
The Multiversal Self: The Coming Age of Virtual World
Herman Narula, Co-Founder & CEO of virtual reality enterprise Improbable, continued along this perplexing vein. Shedding light on some figures, such as the 1 billion increase in gaming users since 2013, Narula argues that there is a rational foundation for what he calls a shift towards the multiversal self. People have been increasingly spending money and time on multiplayer games, a phenomenon exacerbated by the pandemic that left so many of our social lives hanging on a virtual thread. Gaming has developed beyond a mere source of entertainment and has additionally begun to fill our human desire for connection, autonomy, and skillfulness: how can we call this artificial, if what we are feeling and the bonds we are forming are real? This period has especially given space online for experiencing memorable moments: working with teams, making money, and meeting new people. Gaming is no longer a simulation in which our real lives are reflected, it is instead where our real lives are partially experienced. In this extension of reality, this “more life”, Narula suggests the multiverse will become not just a place for fashion brands to go and to expand, but also a place for brands to be born; his recommendation for existing ones is to “partner early, and partner close” with tech and gaming giants to ensure they aren’t left alone in this lowly physical dimension.
Feel Different: Engagement Strategies From the Cultural Sector
Jake Barton, Founder & Principal of Local Projects, also urges us to move beyond viewing technology as a mere “gizmo” or transactional tool. Local Projects is a perfect example of 360° innovation. The design firm has set up interactive exhibitions in the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, aided the New York Times in spurring dialogue through its incredible “The Truth is Local” campaign, and collaborated with sustainable fashion brands to promote environmentally ethical behaviour by holding shoppers accountable. Their ethos is founded in encouraging community engagement and having faith in every individual’s imagination. Barton believes our new aim should be to create meaning through our interaction and engagement with technology in three simple ways; by “inviting creativity, turning storefronts into story-fronts, and turning customers into brand activists”.
The Power of Voice to Create Human Connection
The talk that followed felt more like being sat on a plush sofa in a warm living room, listening to a casual conversation between friends. In many ways, that was kind of the point. BoF was joined by Paul Davison, Co-Founder & CEO of Clubhouse, and Virgil Abloh, Creative Director & Artistic Director of Off-White & Louis Vuitton Menswear and Clubhouse “superuser”. Davison launched Clubhouse, an up-and-coming social platform, around the start of the pandemic pandemonium. He saw the explosion of podcasting and justifiably reasoned that voice is an extremely important medium of human connection that many Social Media apps fail to tap into; as humans we were talking before we were writing, or drawing, or taking pictures. Through his new platform, Davison hopes to encourage both active and passive participation in the expression of emotion and the creation of authentic connections without the anxiety often related to our appearance, internet popularity, or the messy room in the background. Despite its short lifespan, the platform has already sparked controversy in its exclusivity, labelled first “the hot new thing in clubby silicon valley” and now “the Berghain of social media" for the allegedly controversial conversations it has hosted; but one cannot imagine Davison’s creation to be intended for questionable ends. First of all, he assured us it will eventually be made public; he is currently just working through the problem of “upscaling intimacy”. Secondly, we have Abloh’s 'scout’s honour' that the platform really is the bee’s knees. As a high-profile member of the fashion industry, he views Clubhouse as an opportunity for a refocus on audio, reminding us that, in addition to producing glossy pictures and videos edited to perfection, fashion brands should most importantly have something to say.
How Technology Is Powering African Retail
Next, Zain Verjee interviewed Juliet Anammah, Chairperson & Group Head of Institutional Relations at Jumia Nigeria. Jumia is one of the biggest online retailers operating in the African continent, and one that has experienced a huge surge in usage as a result of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns. Though pre-pandemic, the platform was predominantly used to purchase discretionary goods such as electronics, it is now used for stocking up on groceries and buying basic consumer items. This change in behaviour does not only represent a change in retail market dynamics; it also reflects a momentous change in mindset towards online shopping, which the regular Nigerian was once far more skeptical of. Anammah predicts that this trend will likely persist post-pandemic, as people are also seeing the positives of being able to surf through various prices and buying options. This will be facilitated by the increasingly widespread use and popularity of technology through the corners of the African continent.
Founder's Story: Hope, Resilience And Reinvention In A Crisis
Finally, Lauren Sherman, BoF Chief Correspondent, spoke to Jennifer Hyman, Co-Founder & CEO of Rent the Runway, about finding the silver lining in this crisis we currently face. Throwing it back to the start of March, Hyman remembers asking herself the question every business owner had to raise at some point or other: “Will my business still be relevant after Covid-19?”. Luckily, the answer in her case is a resounding yes, but it did not come without complications. After laying off a disheartening proportion of her employees, Hyman reflected on the practical and ethical changes the crisis would bring about, namely a shift to digital shopping and a heightened emphasis on sustainability and health. Contrary to what many firms were likely doing at the time, Hyman then decided to broaden the scope of her operations rather than limit it; as a business offering rental and subscription services, Rent the Runway also began offering the opportunity to buy (or as Hyman likes to say, “long-term rent”) pre-loved luxury clothing items. As Sherman notes, however, the entire premise of the business rests on the need for newness, but many of us, having sat at home for months on end in our pyjamas, have realised we actually need very few material things to do what we do in our lives. To this concern, Hyman gives the perfect answer. The beauty of fashion, though often poorly marketed and misinterpreted, is not actually to own things. The beauty of fashion is our ability to express and transform ourselves through it. In the same way, the beauty in the service Hyman provides has little to do with newness or ownership, and everything to do with “discovery, freedom and experimentation”, allowing you to try something you wouldn’t necessarily feel confident in buying. These positive aspects of fashion, these joys that we derive from it, are unlikely to ever go away. Moreover, Hayman predicts the onset of “post-vaccine hedonism” in which everything we wear will be pushing our identity and comfort zone more than before. This pandemic may very well inject new life in life’s simple pleasures, including the tattered rags we use to cover our backs. Though the way in which we shop and the type of clothes we shop for will likely be altered by our new tendency to WHF, even in the long-term, the beauty and indeed the purpose of fashion will not wane - if anything, it will be re-invigorated.
On that note, there is much to be hopeful for. We are, today, less physically present than we ever have been, a sentiment that tends to sadden people more than it does thrill them. I tend to be one of those saddened people, but it is likely more fear than sadness. And I, in my unbiased view, am right to be fearful. If used wisely, however, technology will allow us to tap into new realities, create new versions of ourselves, or, if it makes it all more digestible, attach to our beings an extra virtual limb. More importantly, it will allow us to create a web of connections we could have only dreamt of. Without technology, it is unlikely that speakers from nearly every continent would have been able to deliver the talks they did to me and 10,000 others. And without technology, you would not be able to read the words I wrote about those talks. And so on, and so forth. With that said, I hope your multiverse self is loaded and can afford to buy itself Prada bags.
Image Credit: Charles Deluvio - "Shopping online". Doodle design by Alice Palmer.
Edited by Ketki Mahabaleshwarkar