Lessons from the tech world’s quirky culture that could help fashion get its mojo back.
On April Fools' Day, a couple of creative Russian pranksters posted a web page hyping a nonexistent, but nonetheless well-received, collaboration: "Mark x H&M." The line featured seven identical gray T-shirts and a pair of jeans, poking fun at Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's signature look.It's a uniform that, much like Steve Jobs and his black mock turtlenecks, Zuckerberg adheres to so strictly that he makes headlines when he switches to something else, like a jacket to meet President Obama."I'm in this really lucky position where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people," Zuckerberg said by way of explanation of his signature wardrobe during Facebook's first live "town hall" Q&A. "And I feel like I'm not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life."The last thing the fashion world wants to be seen as — even by the top of the technology food chain — is "silly" or "frivolous." Yet as wounding as Zuckerberg's characterization might be, it's that single-minded drive that's helped the companies in the epicenter of technology change the world.If quarterly earnings reports are any indication, there's plenty the computer crowd can teach the fashionistas: from the need to keep moving forward to getting employees to buy into the company's mission. Learning from the outside and changing one's own habits can be hard work, and these lessons can be difficult, given the vast differences between the techie start-up culture and the decades-old (or centuries-old) habits that define day-to-day life in the fashion industry.The past 20 years have taught, if nothing else, that the digital crowd is onto something powerful.Tech's taste and aptitude for "disruption" have led to a "Revenge of the Nerds" scenario that's gone way beyond giving the geeks their day and created brazen billionaires who applaud rule-breaking. It's afforded them an at-times admirable confidence that it — whatever "it" is, and no matter how pie-in-the-sky "it" might be — can be done. That might mean bringing the Internet to everyone (Zuckerberg), building a train that rips across California in 35 minutes (Elon Musk) or putting self-driving cars on the road (Google X).If fashion's too-cool-for-school attitude looks down on failure as losing, tech thrives on it.In Silicon Valley, failures, quitters and bravado (some say machismo) inspire investor dollars and attract perk-laden engineers. Not having a job or leaving a tech behemoth to "work on a new project" are not only commended, but expected.For an industry that thrives on new design ideas, at least every three months, the fashion world is surprisingly cautious when it comes to adopting new ideas. Yet at a time when the Internet and tech are disrupting traditional fashion and retailing — and in some ways threatening their very existence — experimentation and that old cliché of "out-of-the-box thinking" are needed more than ever.There also are plenty of bad habits in tech that the fashion world should avoid. Silicon Valley is aggressive and grand in its dreams, but not without its critics, peccadilloes or faults. Billionaire bigwigs have recently tested the limits of what money and power can buy. PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel secretly funded lawsuits against Gawker in what he calls a "philanthropic" effort to deter it from bullying. Others see an act of revenge 10 years in the making. (Zuckerberg, another privacy-loving billionaire, has made headlines by snatching up the four homes surrounding his Palo Alto, Calif., pad.)Facebook has had to answer to reports that it intentionally manipulated its algorithms to make conservative political news stories less prominent in its News Feed. Apple's Tim Cook received both praise and criticism as he squared off against the FBI over privacy when he refused to help crack a terrorist's iPhone.Culture — good or bad — is the topic du jour in Silicon Valley. At times, critics paint it as a euphemism for ageism, sexism or other "isms" that deter diversity and lead to an insular point of view. A tech worker might lose a job if he or she is not a "culture fit," and a start-up ceo might share recreational marijuana to "feel out" a candidate's capacity to "vibe" with the company. Instructions for job interviews have been known to include a prescription to "dress comfortably," which could be to say a suit and heels aren't comfortable or aren't commensurate with the culture.Some of the perks, though, are good — too good. And it's not just the money. New techies can often suffer from what's known as the "Facebook 15" or the "Twitter 10" — references to the free-food options on tech "campuses." Although cynics grumble that the buffets are a ploy to keep employees at the grind around the clock, it's also a nebulous investment in long-term well-being and collaboration."At every tech company, you always find a well-stocked open kitchen, or maybe multiple kitchens, and this promotes community and spontaneous collaboration," said IDEO head of retail strategy Nina Fuhrman, who has spent time as a buyer, merchandiser and in product development at Louis Vuitton, Wal-Mart, Ralph Lauren, J. Crew and Gap. "Retail environments might have one small tiny kitchen or a place to put a brown-bag lunch. But happy employees are more creative."There also are cases in which happy gives way to hard-charging, at least in the view of some.After the working conditions at Amazon were dissected by the New York Times as relentless and unforgiving, founder Jeff Bezos fought back. "We never claim that our approach is the right one — just that it's ours — and over the last two decades, we've collected a large group of like-minded people," he said.Bezos' definition of Amazon culture is typical of the tech approach: "customer obsession rather than competitor obsession, eagerness to invent and pioneer, willingness to fail, the patience to think long-term, and the taking of professional pride in operational excellence."The irony, perhaps, is that two worlds that were once as far apart as Venus and Neptune are now locked in an ever-tightening orbit as tech pushes more into fashion: Apple sponsored the Met Gala; Burberry's Angela Ahrendts defected to Apple, as did Yves Saint Laurent's Paul Deneve; fashion magazines are going straight to Facebook-owned Instagram to publish photo shoots and videos, and Google partnered with Levi's to create conductive yarn.And Bay Area socialites have started to pop up at local store openings for Dior, Marni and Maison Margiela. The open secret of the tech world is that its geeky outsiders, applauded for otherwise bucking the status quo, are now paying nosebleed high-rise rents, hiring personal stylists and joining the cool kids at private clubs.But crossover remains more the exception than the rule.Chris Morton, ceo of Lyst, said, "Some fashion companies are still split between 'chics' and 'geeks.' They have built two cultures separately, and it can be quite challenging to run an organization that has two dominant, opposing cultures."The London-based Morton visited Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park recently and noticed a difference between its culture and fashion's. "You only learn through trying and failing," he said. "One of Facebook's mantras is to 'move fast and break things.' Can you imagine if that was on the walls in the fashion industry?"Here, some lessons fashion can learn from the tech playbook — and what the garmentos can teach the geeks.1. Be Faster to Change"Product development in the tech industry involves launching, then rapidly iterating, to improve on ideas over time, whereas fashion is often about catching lightning in a bottle with a collection," said BigCommerce chief executive officer Brent Bellm.Tech titans talk about their desire to "fail fast and often," to "iterate" and to "be nimble" so often that they risk veering into cliché. But they are also employing a good deal of modern common sense.While fashion operates in established cycles and captures single moments in time, product launches in the tech world are more about gradually improving over time, according to Polyvore ceo and co-founder Jess Lee. It's a process that's often steered by immediate user feedback. "It would be interesting to see some of that fast, iterative approach applied more broadly across the fashion world," Lee said.And because tech companies and investors are used to operating in 60-day sprints, as opposed to fashion's months-long lead times, this lag can be a barrier for tech companies that want to work with fashion brands, said Avametric ceo Ari Bloom, who, as founder of A2B Ventures, has consulted for brands such as Uniqlo, Gap Inc., Steven Alan and others.The minute-to-minute pace of social media has helped fuel this appetite for new ideas, although it can be faster to release a software update than a new collection.Rebecca Minkoff ceo Uri Minkoff, speaking at South by Southwest, said that experimenting and iterating in front of the customer is worth it. The mind-set is one that has the ceo asking himself if the company wants to make something perfect the first time or will, in the interest of expediency, get a product out faster. The brand doesn't shy away from the latter."Our customer appreciates our honesty," he said. That approach paid off with a wristlet that charges the wearer's phone. Minkoff said it's been popular and hard to keep in stock, and the company increased its offering of bags built with chargers.2. Reinvent the WheelChange can come not just from a new silhouette or product category, but also from where and how goods are sold. Fashion companies with genius merchants or great brands have, at least at times, spent less time thinking about their business model."Just like you can't stay with the same look, there is an importance of innovation in staying up with the latest trends in business models and reinventing yourself when necessary," said Revolve Clothing cofounder Michael Karanikolas.True & Co. founder Michelle Lam said innovation in apparel is often limited by the machines on the factory floor. "In the world of manufacturing physical goods, we have a supply chain that extends all the way to the hundreds of seamstresses sewing in a factory and the machines they use. We find our designs and innovative concepts limited by what can be physically created," Lam said of True & Co.'s in-house line of intimate apparel. "To truly innovate requires partnership with manufacturers and suppliers to create the right kind of infrastructure to take apparel products to the next level, whether it's by embedding wearable technology, revisiting sizing and fit or creating products that feel custom to her."Model Coco Rocha argued tech and fashion can work together and endorsed 3-D printing as one alternative to mass production. "A lot of designers go bankrupt in that they produce too much or are not making enough — this could change with 3-D printing," Rocha said. "Mass production works, but we all want to personalize what we wear….Think back when tailors would come make something for you — that was luxury."3. Think Like A ProgrammerFor investors looking at a business, a classic first question is: What problem is being solved?"Designers have this belief that they will reinvent the evening dress," said Avametric's Bloom. "I would just roll my eyes every time and think, 'You're not solving anything or doing anything that unique.' "The best brands solve problems. Bloom pointed to Warby Parker, with "affordable, chic eyewear online," or Juicy Couture, for women who wanted to "look sexy and be comfortable," or the popularity of ath-leisure.Rather than relying on intuition, he said programmers look at the world as a series of problems. "That's a really powerful way of thinking," he said.And sometimes that requires actually hiring a programmer.Minkoff said that when the brand added technology such as chargers in its small leather goods, it hired people with a technology background to "become that bridge" and confront the new challenges of merging technology and fashion.4. Respect the (Right) DataThe tech world relies on numbers, while fashion companies can rely too much on intuition, said Chris Lindland, founder of online clothier Betabrand, which has found success as a crowd-funded clothing community. He's also the creator of Silicon Valley Fashion Week."I love the gut — I have a gut, too — I am just saying that we discovered that there is great reason to second-guess your gut, and the numbers indicate that is true," he said.DataScience's Jonathan Beckhardt, who works with companies such as JustFab and Tradesy, said that although retailers often focus on single data points like average order value and conversion rates, he recommends retailers think about metrics like cost per acquisition and average order value "holistically."He has also found that a smart use of data can help predict which customers will have the highest lifetime value."As companies are able to pinpoint the types of customers that will lead to long-term value — not just conversion — they are able to find arbitrage opportunities in their ad spend," he said. "The best companies who are leveraging data analysis often see their cost per acquisition increase. However, the overall value of their user base increases more than make up for it."Companies such as personal styling service Stitch Fix, jewelry subscription service Rocksbox, the aforementioned True & Co. or even beauty retailer Bluemercury have all used extensive customer feedback as they developed in-house brands. The data they captured while selling other brands translated into their own offerings capturing more and more of the overall business.5. Go to the Customer FirstGoing one step beyond Amazon's maniacally customer-centric approach, fashion companies could also take a cue from tech and work harder to bring the customer into the process. Crowd-funding sites Kickstarter and Indiegogo help start-ups capture the wisdom of the masses as they build product assortments.BigCommerce's Bellm suggested beta-testing designs or collections with small groups, noting that "in tech, we share early designs with small groups of testers to capture any bugs."Bellm also suggested logging on to online forums for enthusiasts to observe how people are talking about the brand. "Learn from OCD nerds who have major influence," he said. "Don't dismiss the geeks."Betabrand gets customer feedback and buy-in before going into production, and Lindland said that a recent collaboration with Timberland, which resulted in an athletic-meets-outdoors high-top, was an effective use of that process. "They are a stretch for Timberland. People went for different-looking concepts for them."He also found that models who are more physically reflective of the customer have been popular. "Since we can't afford to hire the same top models used by the industry, we use a healthy dose of friends, neighbors and coworkers to model our clothing," he said. That has inspired fans to submit more than 50,000 photos to the site.ModCloth also regularly finds models in its own customer base, and uses the hashtag #SCOUTMEMC to find them on Instagram. The company has found that products with customer reviews, which make up 92 percent of the assortment, have better sell-through and return rates. Customer feedback has led to the retailer dropping the word "plus" from its web site and expanding its wedding collection.6. Trade Hierarchy for TransparencyDon't be afraid to mix it up. Tech entrepreneurs and engineers are often rewarded for outsider opinions, counter to fashion's more hierarchical decision-making."A good idea can come from anywhere and anyone," said Fuhrman of IDEO, who pointed to the common tech-world practice of so-called "white space," which is structured time for people to work on passion projects outside day-to-day responsibilities as a means of inspiring creativity.The collaborative mind-set reaches beyond just the hypothetical. Closed-door offices and even old-school cubicles are as common in a tech headquarters as a fax machine."One of the things that struck me about start-up culture is the culture of openness and transparency," said Lyst's Morton, even if there isn't any obvious reason or benefit to helping others. "There is a big culture of sharing and paying it forward. In many cases, it's more beneficial to be open and share ideas than to hide it and reveal it at the end." Although exclusivity and secrecy still exist (hi, Apple!), collaboration is key — at least, among coworkers.7. Know, and Adhere To, Your Mission StatementStart-ups put a lot of effort into communicating their mission and values, said IDEO's Fuhrman. She credits both Wal-Mart and Everlane for adopting this approach, which results in "a pervasive sense of culture and purpose as a company."In a place where everyone is allowed to express an opinion, having a stated mission can offer a sense of direction, Polyvore's Lee said. "The downside of having everyone express their opinions is that it can be distracting," she said. "You have to decide what parts of your vision are unwavering."Ultimately, Lee said that one of the biggest lessons of Silicon Valley is to hire smart people, treat them well and empower them to build amazing things. And what can tech learn from fashion? Here are a few things, just for starters:1. Make Things BeautifulIn tech, products are often designed for those making them, rather than by those who are meant to wear them. "Design matters — always," said The Real Real ceo Julie Wainwright."Apple got it way right when things were starting to look beautiful," said Coco Rocha. "It didn't matter what you were selling me; it just looked beautiful."2. Be More DiverseTech's male-centric insularity is no secret, even though research has shown that companies with gender, racial and ethnic diversity perform better financially.Although there is plenty of room for improvement, particularly in the corner offices, Avametric's Bloom said that fashion does a better job in the diversity of the industry by embracing people from different backgrounds. And, as is the case with models, that dialog is growing.3. Distinguish Long-Term Trends From FadsRemember pets.com? The phrase "tech bubble" sends chills down the backs of anyone who was in Silicon Valley for the first go-round. "There's a lot of hype on the next big, great thing, but I think for tech investors and people deciding what companies to invest their career in, being able to understand what is long-term and what is just exciting and hype-y — there's lots of money wasted," Revolve's Karanikolas said.4. Classic Isn't BadLost in all of tech's obsession with iteration is the notion that some things shouldn't be changed. Something that's familiar shouldn't necessarily be seen as bad. It can also be seen as successful, long-lasting for a reason. The many permutations of the little black dress exist because it's a look that works. Fashion embraces that notion, and tech shouldn't necessarily run away from it.Look at the unlikely, if still small, revival of cell phones from way before the smartphone era.5. Be ProfitableTech companies, said IDEO's Fuhrman, are often valued on number of users and user growth, assuming that one day they will become profitable — but that's not always the case. "If you are a fashion or retail company," she said, "that [profitability] is what you're looking at on a daily basis."6. Don't Discount ExperienceSilicon Valley might have shown twenty-somethings can take the reins and become major corporate powerhouses, but the brashness of youth does itself a disservice thinking wisdom gained through experience is not valuable.The gauntlet of a fashion career more often than not produces executives that, if somewhat battle weary, are also seasoned, having lived through the victories and failures of the past as they drive their companies into the future.7. Look Beyond the AlgorithmThe digital masters have found and exploited the magic in data science but can't afford to lose sight of the individual. Fashion brands and retailers have rode the ebbs and flows of society, surviving, changing and thriving by closely tending to the intimate relationship with its customers. As retail legend Leslie H. Wexner of L Brands recently told WWD about retail: "For as long as there's been recorded history, people have gone to the marketplace because they wanted to be with other people."In the best stores and at the best brands, the personal and physical connection with the people being served is never far from mind.
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