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How Technology Is Changing the Luxury Fashion Industry
At Burberry’s London store, a digital “thunderstorm” rages, reminding shoppers that they might need a Burberry trench coat. Smart mirrors turn into screens, displaying the catwalk version of the item shoppers are trying on. This 160-year-old luxury brand has merged the digital and physical elements of shopping seamlessly to deliver an experience that is equal parts technology and fashion.
Fashion and technology are not traditional bedfellows, but the imperative for fashion marketers is clear: it’s crucial to integrate technology into every customer touchpoint, both online and offline. Most importantly, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship—fashion makes technology more appealing to a style-conscious customer base. Diane von Furstenberg’s design collaboration with Google Glass, the wearable that has been criticized for not being sexy enough for regular use, is part of a larger trend to integrate wearables more easily into consumers’ lifestyles. “Technology is your best accessory,” Furstenberg says.
From big data to sleek online stores, luxury brands are exploring new ways to showcase innovation — and managing to preserve their historic brand equity. Here are three big ways in which the world of fashion and technology are colliding and, more often than not, finding innovative ways to work together.
The Conflict: Exclusivity versus Accessibility
Traditionally, fashion brands derived brand equity from being the authority on a distinctive style and their ownership over an iconic product—think Diane von Furstenburg’s wrap dress or Burberry’s trench coat, two distinct products that maintain brand associations with the brand that created them. But the “always-on” consumer has become her own authority on style—she can now quite literally rent the styles of the runway, have other shoppers suggest products for her, and buy any item from any store in one mobile cart.
One might argue that the exclusivity of high fashion has been diluted by social and digital media, but brands need not see this a threat to their authenticity. Embracing the online economy allows discovery for high-end brands among a larger pool of consumers.
The Resolution: Decoding the target shopper through data
Data should be top of mind for retailers because, according to Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren, it “will be retailers’ competitive advantage.” And fashion brands have used data-driven insights to tailor a more intimate customer experience.
Rent the Runway, dubbed the “Netflix of fashion”, pushed designer fashion into the sharing economy—for $90, you can rent a $400 dress. Founder Jennifer Hyman hired data scientists to study conversion rates on the website, and found consumers were more likely to purchase if they saw photos of other buyers wearing the item. Although luxury brands may turn their nose up at this, no brands have pulled their items from the site. And founders Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss don’t think you need fashion models to keep a brand aspirational. “Real women are aspirational, when they’re confident and having fun. We believe the industry has gotten it wrong when they think of what’s aspirational,”according to them.
The Conflict: Stores versus screens
Shopping at a luxury brand store is as much about the in-store experience as it is about the purchase—or at least it used to be. E-commerce revenue from accessories and retail is predicted to be $86 billion by 2018. One would expect most luxury brands to have caught on to e-commerce, but 40 percent of luxury brands are not available online.These brands clearly place a premium on brick-and-mortar locations, but they are missing out on what BNP Paribas analysts have dubbed “the next China”. Launching an online store is not a cop-out—it is the brand proving it can replicate the luxury shopping experience online as well as offline. Kenna Wynne-Jones, social media manager for bebe, agrees that “priorities are shifting toward mobile and social conversion, and e-commerce.”
The Resolution: Seamless omnichannel marketing
Coach realized it was time to rethink its retail efforts after seeing revenues drop in 2014. It had also been criticized for diluting its presence with too many outlet stores. Coach’s response? A strong omnichannel marketing strategy focusing on building an e-commerce platform that rivaled its physical store location. Coach’s digital platform ranked as the best in the industry in a 2014 report by Exane BNP Paribas. The report rated luxury fashion brands for their digital reach and customer experience, and put Coach, Burberry, and Tiffany & Co. at the top three spots for delivering seamless experiences both online and offline.
Their success lay in translating the exclusivity of an in-store purchase to the virtual store, replacing the in-store customer service with the individually tailored convenience that luxury brand loyalists value. Coach’s online store includes films on the making of its leather bags, and the option to web-chat with one of its handbag specialists while choosing a bag—recreating its in-store experience for the digital customer.
The new-age fashion company is a tech company
Luxury fashion is no longer the domain of iconic standalone brands. There is a steadily growing army of fashion tech startups bringing luxury brands into a single retail space and carving out a distinct brand for themselves in the process. Designer eyewear startup Warby Parker is building a lifestyle brand out of a single product, purposefully making the digital shopping experience thoughtful and social (customers can try on eyewear at home). Its physical stores serve as marketing collateral rather than profit generators, turning traditional offline-to-online marketing on its head. Co-founder Neil Blumenthal calls the stores “synergistic”, since 85% of the brand’s retail buyers have already browsed online.
And online fashion marketplace Spring proves that high-end brands can maintain their authenticity on e-commerce portals. On Spring, brands can choose which items they sell and how their products are presented on the app, keeping the shopping experience brand-centric.
Integrating technology into fashion doesn’t have to look as complex as Burberry’s 100-screen showroom or Diane von Furstenberg’s Google Glass eyewear. Lines between digital experiences and physical products are blurring, leaving a huge opportunity wide open for fashion to answer questions technology might neglect. As technology gets smarter, it has to get more stylish if it’s going to become a lifestyle—and that’s where fashion comes in. With fashion tech companies of the Warby Parker variety redefining the way fashion does business, luxury brands must prove they can innovate just as well.