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Rethinking The Future

The future is filled with nerds.<br><br>That foretelling of demography, along with insights into the diminutive world of nanotechnologies and a sense of luxury unrelated to price, were part of futurist Edie Weiner’s reading of the tea leaves for...

The future is filled with nerds.

That foretelling of demography, along with insights into the diminutive world of nanotechnologies and a sense of luxury unrelated to price, were part of futurist Edie Weiner’s reading of the tea leaves for the WWD/DNR Apparel CEO Summit.

In addition to pinpointing a few trends, Weiner, who is president of Weiner, Edrich, Brown Inc., a futurist consulting group, stressed the use of “thinking technologies,” or different ways of considering change, to come to terms with the constant and put it in context. “It’s not about knowing the future,” she noted. “It’s about having your head screwed on right in thinking about the future.”

Weiner’s case for the future reverberated among the attendees throughout the following day. In the end, though, she wanted executives to take away this: “There has never been any such thing as overcapacity. There has only been underimagination. There’s so much opportunity it’s amazing. It saddens me to see so much depression around when, in fact, we’re moving into an incredibly challenging and exciting time.”

Here are some of Weiner’s edicts on how fashion should think about the future and what trends, in the wings now, might dominate the future:

EDUCATED INCAPACITY

Fashion executives looking to adjust their mind-set and lean into the wind, Weiner noted, need to understand their own “educated incapacity” — the condition of being so immersed in a topic that it becomes difficult to discern the future. “The more we know. The more we’ve learned. The more we’ve acquired valuable information and knowledge that goes with our titles, our income and our status, the more baggage we carry, the harder it is to get rid of that baggage and so it’s very hard to see the future for what it is.”

By way of example, Weiner conjured up an objective alien, who asks consumers about shopping for apparel. The consumers convey that they like shopping in stores because they can touch the merchandise, feel its texture and try it on for size and fit. The alien sees the great competitive advantage of the retail store and assumes they look like large fitting rooms where it’s easy for shoppers to sample the wares. Unlike the alien, retailers, knowing so much about product, display, signage and supply chain, lose sight of the fitting rooms, which have become closet-sized inconveniences in the back of the store.

Every industry, she said, has a fitting room —”something we do better than the competition and yet we still play on the competition’s terms without identifying our own unique strengths and capitalizing on those.”

Borrowing from psychology, Weiner also said executives surveying the fashion landscape can benefit by considering figure/ground relationships when trying to overcome their own educated incapacity. Figure/ground pictures appear distinctly different when the observer focuses on the figure in the foreground or on the background. A common example is, from one perspective, two faces looking at each other or, from another perspective, an urn.

Applying this to fashion, she said executives seeing an increasingly older population may not be seeing the entire picture. In Italy, there are more people over 60 years old than under 20 and the rest of Europe is close behind. “Replacement rates for population in Europe are absolutely dismal,” she noted.

That’s the figure. The ground is that midlife, through the miracles of modern medicine, has extended. This opens up a demographic that is older than ever before, yet living from 35- to 70-years old as if they were the same age.

TREND/COUNTERTREND

Borrowing again, this time from Newtonian physics, Weiner observed that, just as every action has an equal and opposite reaction, every trend has a countertrend. “Countertrends don’t happen despite the trends, they happen because of them,” Weiner noted. “If you understand trend and countertrend you make a lot of money.” Luckily, spotting countertrends is as easy as looking for a trend’s opposite.

Disintermediation, the practice of bypassing traditional distribution channels or cutting out the middle man, has taken such a hold that it’s caused its opposite, re-intermediation, to rise. This includes new brokers, closer to the customer, that add layers to the supply chain, but offer consumers increased attention. Examples include personal dressers, personal trainers and “1-800-honest brokers” who offer disinterested advice and affinity groups.

“Affinity groups are the most important and powerful marketing engines of the 21st century,” Weiner said. Examples she cited were groups focused on such diverse activities as frog worship and naked kosher cooking. “They are growing, there are thousands and thousands of them and that is because they attach themselves to belief systems and align themselves with where people are actually living and thinking.”

LET’S PLAY BALL

The third thinking technology Weiner offered up was a football metaphor, comparing the game’s four opportunities to move forward, or downs, with business mind-sets.

First down: The company depends on price, quality, convenience and assortment to drive its business. Competition is fierce, though, and the defense is lining up against this offense.

Second down: If the first-down effort is unsuccessful, fashion firms can turn to offering individualization and customization. However, very few firms differentiate themselves well in this way.

Third down: The business can lean back on its reputation. A negative image, she said, can crash a company very quickly, but it’s becoming more difficult to advance much on a positive image.

Fourth down: If the goal line’s nowhere in sight, firms need to punt and go on the defense. With OK field position, a business can go for a field goal and hope for three points. This is an acquisition, joint venture or strategic alliance. If the goal line is in reach, Weiner said, “The go-for-it move is relationship.” A firm’s relationship with its customer can be the game winner. It gives companies a little room, letting them screw up once and be forgiven. The opportunity for cross selling is also opened up by relationships with customers. She warned, though, “If you have a relationship you can cross sell. If you have no relationship, it’s junk mail and junk calling.”

TRENDS TO WATCH

“Luxury can no longer be equated with a lot of money,” she observed. “Luxury equated with price will lead to a price spiral that will kill companies that just see it that way.” Luxury, instead, is about scarcity. So what’s scarce? Time, a full night’s sleep, reduction of stress, quality in a relationship and attention, are some areas to which companies wanting to offer luxury can turn. “If you introduce any of these propositions to your brand, I don’t care if you thought you were mass market, you can actually be a luxury company.”

There has been a rise in the airline-ticket economy, or selling the same product to different customers for different prices. “The myth is that the high income, higher educated consumer is the most-informed consumer,” when, she said, the opposite is true. This consumer will pick their price battles and pay a premium the rest of the time instead of expending the mental energy necessary to find the best possible deal.

A professional servant or service class is rising. These are personal workout trainers, personal chefs, personal fashion shoppers and the like. “This is becoming a very important professional class and it is becoming a very important gatekeeper class in the area of tabletop, in the area of the fashion and of interior design.”

Nascent markets that demand more attention. “The nerd market is a spectacularly strong and important market,” Weiner said, mentioning Bill Gates and Steven Spielberg as examples. “We don’t know anything about nerds. We have no clue about them, but they’re taking over the world. They’re an important market for all of us and nobody’s done the market research. Nobody knows how to sell them. Nobody knows what brands are important to them. Nobody knows anything and yet the money is there.”

Nanotechnology, while extremely small, literally, is expanding into a larger trend. “What we are doing is increasingly moving toward manufacturing models that use nanofabrication,” she said. This could enable the average consumer to, in their home and through means that now seem more appropriate to the space station, manufacture many things now impossible to make individually. This new mode of manufacture, if it comes to bear, would change all the rules of the game fashion companies have learned.