AUSTIN, Tex. — Call it what you will — “Sundance for nerds” (said Decoded Fashion’s Liz Bacelar); “CES-meets-Burning Man-meets Coachella” (PCH’s Andre Yousefi) — but Austin’s 30-year-old South by Southwest festival has grown into a melting pot for the most creative people in almost every industry. It’s especially become a meeting of the minds for the worlds of fashion and tech, and this year, the prevailing message was that this pairing can translate into real dollars and cents.
Topics like virtual reality, 3-D printing, personalization and predictive analytics have been talked about for some time but at last week’s SxStyle, which is part of the festival’s Interactive set of programming, experts pushed to move these ideas from hypothetical excitement into money-making reality.
Coco Rocha joined a discussion with Google’s Made with Code, for which she modeled an LED dress designed with Zac Posen. The digitally savvy model shared her thoughts that new approaches like 3-D printing could offer a return to bespoke clothing while reducing waste. “A lot of the designers go bankrupt in that they produce too much or are not making enough,” she said, wearing her new ath-leisure-meets-streetwear line Co + Co. “This could change with 3-D printing.”
Over at one of the many panels on virtual reality, photographer Steven Sebring (who worked with Rocha on a book in the form of an app, complete with 360-degree images), explained that, in an industry centered upon fantasy, VR is a way to bring fashion photo shoots and shows to vivid life.
“The attention to detail and purity [through VR] are interesting,” Sebring said. “And that is the way that fashion will accept it more.”
Sebring, venture capitalist Anarghya Vardhana and film producer Kevin Cornish predicted that photographers would use VR more in the next few years. “No one wants to get left out,” Sebring said. “It’s moving that quickly.”
They agreed that it’s not a matter of if, but when, and not how, but who. Vardhana compared the eventual adoption of VR to e-commerce and mobile shopping. “Lots of big companies have played around with the marketing side and how it can help someone experience emotion, and that is powerful,” she said. “People want to know the story [behind a brand], and VR presents an interesting way to share that in a way that evokes emotion.” She also said that VR could be used to virtually test product placement in retail environments, as it’s possible to test where the eyes go. On the e-commerce side, she said that a shopper could put on a headset and walk through a virtual store and see products.
Cornish referred to VR experiences as “an empathy machine.” “In thinking about different ways to market a product or idea through VR,” he said, “you’re thinking about it as human connection that is being made through the experience, and that’s where it gets incredible.”
To that end, The New School’s Parsons School of Design displayed VR experiences designed by students to immerse the viewer in various environments. Parsons students also recently worked with MasterCard to design apparel and accessories that function as payment devices; winning designs included sunglasses and shoes.
Parsons’ director of brand strategy Ashley Bruni, wearing an LED-enabled prototype that responds to touch, said that fashion students often collaborate with design and tech students. “We’re committed to finding solutions,” Bruni said, “where each school is tackling issues of aesthetics and practicality in different ways. And that’s where true innovation comes from.”
To be fair, many retailers intellectually recognize a desire to adopt new technologies but aren’t sure if they’re worth the time and investment. As Oak founder Healey Cypher and Avametric chief executive officer Ari Bloom discussed while sharing their futuristic approaches to a fitting room, the retail “holy grail” is technology that both makes brands seem current while boosting profitability and playing to their strengths.
To that, said Cypher, any tech in retail has to solve real problems; you can’t just “throw tech in there,” he said. Smart dressing rooms from Oak, for example, allow shoppers to request sizes and colors from associates all from the mirror, “re-humanizing commerce,” he said. This reflects another way that technology is offering a nostalgic return to retail’s roots.
Rebecca Minkoff’s Uri Minkoff echoed Cypher’s sentiments about the practicality of technology and said that to do well, experiments need to ultimately be useful to the consumer, but that experimentation — and iteration — was forgivable. The brand’s $120 phone-charging wristlet and wallet, he said, is something the company is having a hard time keeping in stock because it solves a real problem. He also shared that Minkoff has prioritized hiring people with a background in technology to bridge the new challenges that technology introduces to designers and retailers.
For many fashion and film types, it was the first time they’d attended the festival. Kate Bosworth, who visited an event hosted by Neiman Marcus and Refinery 29, hinted at an upcoming shopping app and shared details of a recent meeting with Sheryl Sandberg.
Style blogger Aimee Song, also a first-timer, said that she’d noted more of an emphasis on fashion at the festival. Song was staying at a house rented by Revolve, which had partnered with Postmates on a pilot program to deliver on-demand orders of clothing at South by Southwest. Revolve vice president of brand marketing and strategic partnerships Raissa Gerona said that sales exceeded expectations, and it’s something they plan to introduce at future festivals.
“We’ve seen the fashion industry begin a huge shift to faster purchase cycles,” Gerona said, calling on-demand delivery more than just a fad. “We aim to embrace on-demand as the retail space is undergoing some major changes.”
Song was right — SxSW head of Interactive press and SxStyle Kelly Krause and Decoded Fashion’s Fay Cowan both increased the amount of style events after previous years generated enthusiastic response. Still, many of the talks attracted lines of attendees wrapping around hotel hallways throughout the city, and multiple panels were filled to capacity 15 minutes or more before the speakers began, as was the case with Adidas creative director Paul Gaudio, who spoke on the personalization of fashion.
Personalization was another key theme of the week — and another indication of how consumers’ nostalgia for traditional retail values are being reengineered for the modern era.
“We have been doing personalization in retail since retail has existed,” said Shoptelligence founder Laura Khoury, who spoke on the role of “big data” in fashion to understand and deliver on the customer’s needs. “Before we had data science, we had sales associates who understood their customer very well and could engage directly and understand what their needs were.”
All this begs the question: Could tech not only be cool, but necessary?
President Obama thinks so. In introductory marks that were perhaps more prescient than he could have known, the President encouraged the movers and the shakers in the audience to use their talents toward doing good; understandably, his focus was toward the civic-minded, but it’s a message worth considering for the fashion world as well. In other words, if retailers build it, the customers — and their money — will come.