For the first year in its history, the Business of Fashion held its iconic three-day annual event VOICES, online via a global livestream. Fashion giants from around the world gathered around their laptops to tune in and engage in the conversation. The event’s first agenda was centred around the topic “The Wider World: Making Sense of 2020 and Charting a Way Forward”, a global approach to overcoming the effects of COVID-19. With this spirit in mind, Business of Fashion themselves made use of digital technology. They livestreamed with speakers and held events spanning over more than three different time zones. The speakers of this event talked directly to the big brands, in order to initiate conversations about accountability, revolution and technology. Thousands of other viewers sat as ‘flies on the wall’, listening in for clues as to where the future of fashion may be heading after the devastating effects of COVID-19 on the economy and the high-street.
Laura Spinney, the event’s first speaker, began with her topic of conversation: “Living with the Virus: Learnings from the Spanish Flu of 1918”, a pandemic that saw at least 50 million deaths. She set the tone for the afternoon’s discussions, turning to data collected within the pandemic, in order to create an insightful map of where COVID-19 may lead us. The statistics showed that pandemics have historically lasted between eighteen months to two years before viruses began to circulate in a less fatal and destructive way. However, thanks to the billions that have been invested in the speedy development of a vaccine, Spinney suggests that we have the power to cut this time even shorter—an ultimately hopeful sentiment. When a live stream audience member asked if Spinney herself will be taking the vaccine, she confirmed that so long as it is safe and effective, she will be sure to get the jab. A key idea that arose from this talk was that a new global institution needs to (and most likely will) form in order to absorb the repercussions of this pandemic and prepare more aptly for the possibility of another.
CEO and Founder of Business of Fashion, Imran Amed, then introduced the next speakers, ready to discuss the American, Chinese and British economy under the headline “Who Will Win in an Era of De-Globalisation?”. The conversation most poignantly focused on the relationship between China and America, as America gears itself for a less globalised approach to trade, one which threatens relationships between some of the world’s largest corporations. Interestingly, Kai-Fu Lee, Chairman & CEO of Sinovation Ventures, drew on China’s unique approach to production in the age of the digital revolution. He told an anecdote about one of China’s bestselling drinks. Its creator begins by marketing hundreds of different versions of a similar good in different flavours and containers in order to work out which one will sell best, via what platform, to which group of people; then proceeding to produce millions of the single most successful drink. The moral of the story? Western businesses may be missing a trick in focusing on producing products and then figuring out how to advertise them. Instead, the focus should almost entirely be on utilising the powerful tool that is digital marketing. Lee also encourages investment in interactive media such as celebrity endorsed videos with links that take you straight to check out. On the other hand, it was outlined by Dr. Dambisa Moyo that 20% of American businesses are now ‘zombies’, up to their necks in debt. The conclusion seems to be that the fashion industry, which is struggling in the West, needs to take notes from China in order to rebuild after COVID.
The third topic of the evening was titled “Beyond GDP: How Sustainable Development Improves Human Wellbeing”, a talk lead by Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Professor of Economics & Director of the Wellbeing Research Centre, at the University of Oxford. Neve began his talk by echoing the words of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, “GDP measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. For that reason, Neve suggests we should scrap the global assessment of a country’s wellbeing via GDP and instead should turn to resources such as the world happiness report. Neve however, was also very quick to remind viewers that this does not mean that money and happiness are not positively linked. Instead, he suggests that money does buy happiness for those that it lifts out of extreme poverty. However, an increase in income for those that are already stable and socio-economically upright does not necessarily lead to increased happiness. Neve encouraged businesses to influence the world happiness report positively by ensuring they focus keenly on the job satisfaction of all their employees, which has been proven to trigger ripple effects of happiness outward from the employee, to their families, and so on.
The next topic of conversation was titled, “Breaking Up Big Tech: The Looming Battle Over Monopolies and Antitrust”. Roger McNamee, former mentor to Mark Zuckerberg went head-to-head with him in order to destabilise the monopolising power of giant social media platforms like Facebook. McNamee detailed the invasive use of data tracing and the elevation and advertisement of white supremacist hate that Facebook have come under fire for in recent years. He urges the fashion giants to break ties with morally corrupt businesses like Amazon and Facebook and instead open a direct dialogue between themselves and their customers. How? He suggested a collaboration between all the fashion industry’s giants on their very own digital platform. He tells these companies that this platform must be interactive, must push for the consumers realisation of a sense of individual identity realised through fashion, and must abolish sheepish trends that can be replicated, copied and ripped off.
The next two talks: “In the Shadow of Grenfell” and “The Road to Real Change: Translating Awareness Into Action”, draw on the tragedies that have taken centre stage in public media within recent years. The government’s failure to respond appropriately to the negligence that lead to the fire at Grenfell and the outrage that triggered the uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement. Both speakers urged the fashion industry to ditch tokenistic donations in favour of real activism and alliance. Speaker Rashad Robinson asked the viewers, “if a movie was written about what is going on right now, would you want to be the hero or the villain?” He goes on to reassert that there is no neutral, either you support change, or you continue to silently support and fund systemically classist and racist institutions. Speaker Christina Adane brought a similar message to the table in her conversation, “What the Food We Eat Says About the Society We Live In”, as she demonstrates the importance of ensuring that all children from all backgrounds have access to nutritious and healthy food. She, just like all the other speakers, recognised the agency and power that the fashion industry holds, not only as some of the economy’s most impactful businesses, but also as trend setters. The fashion industry has a unique hold over its captive audience that are ready to learn what is cool, what should be popular, listened to, and followed, including the political aspects.
The final speaker of the afternoon was Carlota Perez, speaking on “The Green Global Age of the Information Revolution”. Perez condemned the fast fashion model and asked businesses to use the current need for change as an opportunity to restructure the industry. She reminded business leaders that technology offers the latent potential to make sustainable, long lasting products. Continuing along the current path will only lead to the demise of all of our favourite businesses.
The general consensus agreed upon by all speakers was that innovation and a restructuring of the fashion industry is more than necessary; not only for the sake of consumers but for businesses and their employees too. Many businesses have no choice but to make change, build a new foundation, and head in the positive direction of a more sustainable, technological, and personalised experience of fashion, which acts as a source of light out of the troubling times brought along by the current pandemic.
[Edited by Ketki Mahabaleshwarkar, Deputy Editor-in-Chief]
Image from Business of Fashion website: https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/news-analysis/learn-from-leaders-at-farfetch-alibaba-and-rent-the-runway-at-voices-2020