On the Future of Retail
Last week I had the opportunity to speak on a panel in NYC about "The Future of Retail x Tech x Sustainability" hosted by Accenture Consulting and featuring Rent the Runway and Articles of Style.
It was a very interesting conversation with quite a few different perspectives, and methods to solve the same problems.
We weren't able to shoot video, but I thought I would share the questions, and the answers I prepared for them here.
WHAT OPPORTUNITY DID TOU SEE TO CREATE YOUR BUSINESS?
We had a unique perspective, because we started as a blog, and grew an engaging following who would ask questions and ultimately guide our decision making toward the void in the market. While blogging, I was working for a traditional in-person bespoke tailor, providing a high level of personal hands-on service. I would feature these bespoke garments on the blog, and readers from all over the world (not just in NYC or a major city with bespoke tailors) wanted to buy them, but we didn’t have a good way to service these guys. We were also educating the customer with the content, so they were looking for a well-made product, and more importantly, a high level of service, as you’d expect from a great tailor. We couldn’t fake it.
Those readers lead us to find a new way to offer custom clothing online, so we started by doing in-depth reviews of every company in the “online custom” business. It was shocking how much different the online process was and how different the final product was, from the traditional in-person experience. Basically these “online custom” companies had a goal to create a scalable business by removing the tailor altogether, and train the customer how to measure himself. This has lots of major flaws. I was a trained measurement specialist, and even I couldn’t get anything right from these companies. That’s because even with perfectly captured body measurements, a well fitting garment requires much more. Furthermore, because the fitting process wasn’t reliable, and re-makes were so common, the final garment being delivered also had to be strictly price conscious (cheap enough to re-make and still squeeze out a profit). There was no way to provide a luxury product, because there was no method to ensure the cloth being cut wouldn’t be wasted (not to mention a luxury customer wants nothing to do with measuring himself). This lead us to break-down every element of the in-person bespoke experience, and blend it with e-commerce, to develop a platform that allows real human tailors to assess and service clients digitally, at scale. I don’t believe that you can remove the tailor from custom clothing, but using technology, you can leverage the expertise of a tailor to provide their fitting expertise efficiently and service many more customers from anywhere in the world.
WHAT ARE NEW CONSUMER BEHAVIORS PUSHING YOUR MOVES IN TECH?
In my opinion consumers are looking for a combination of convenience, service, and customization - all backed by strong content. Guys don’t want to book fitting appointments, they’d rather buy from Instagram and save their time. Time is the most important resource anyone has, and it’s our job to give that back to them, without making compromises on the product or the service they are purchasing.
The consumer today is also more educated about quality manufacturing, and more conscious of their consumption, than ever. And this is where the content piece is so important. Customers are buying into our brand more for the “why” - the brand ethos and messaging, just as much as the product itself. Our articles are not just about style and products, they’re also about how we are helping diminish the impacts of fast fashion, employing American people with fair wages and working conditions, etc. They don’t just want a great product that is made just for them, they also want to know, and be reminded, that that product was made the right way - technically and ethically.
HOW WILL PERSONALIZATION EVOLVE AS DATA BECOMES INCREASINGLY AVAILABLE?
Personalization, in my opinion, will continue to evolve e-commerce. We’re still very early in the e-commerce revolution. We offer a very personalized service and experience; our garments are custom-made just for you, and we have lots of data including your specific body measurements, fit preferences, and your astheic or wardrobe preferences. But there is so much room to improve the user experience, especially with content integration directly into the purchasing flow.
What’s important to note here, is that our customer often times is looking to us for our opinion. As a professional designer or stylist, it’s my job to inform the customer what would be best for him, and inspire him to step out of his comfort zone a bit. With that said, I find data models can be a bit backwards here, as it is most often used to re-surface products that the customer already owns, or is already contemplating. We don’t want to sell you another blue suit because we know you look at a lot of blue suits online...Rather, our job is to help you add to your blue suit, to get the most out of it, and create a wardrobe that is ideal for you - which is not necessary what you would have picked on your own.
We think of data more as a means to improve our fitting algorithms, but not as much to make personalized recommendations to a customer. In fact, data for the former can sometimes be misleading. Our customers don’t want to be served the things they already know and feel comfortable with - they look to us to help them step-up and recommend things they may not have thought about.
WHAT TRENDS DO TOU ANTICIPATE WILL IMPACT THE RETAIL INDUSTRY
I think we’re going to see a regression of Fast Fashion, as consumers get more conscious of waste, working conditions and environmental impacts. I hope the old days of making a bunch of stuff, hoping to sell it, marking it down, then eventually burning it are behind us. As are the days of wearing something one time then throwing it away.
This leads me to believe that craft will come back. People will buy less items, but buy better items.
This goes hand-in-hand with Made-to-Order (or Made to Measure) business models, and also hits on another trend: consumers want custom products that are made in their design, and for their bodies and lifestyle.
All of this also flies in the face of the traditional fashion industry - which is geared to convincing consumers to replace items and buy new ones. The new world order is buying items that enhance, not replace, your previous purchase(s). I always think it’s funny when designers purposely change their fit or silhouette on the runway, just to try to convince consumers who bought a year or two ago to buy the same thing again.
Another trend is consumers wanting to look “under the hood”. The custom tailoring business has been a notoriously “shady” business with people lying about where or how things are made, the provenance of raw materials, etc. More and more consumers will continue to do research, to make sure they are getting the best value. There will be less wool to pull over the eyes, and that would include the aggressive margins a lot of luxury companies bake into their price tags. With the rise of e-commerce and lean business models with a wide reach and more free advertising avenues than ever - we should expect this to trickle down to the consumers getting a better product and experience.
From purely a fashion perspective, I think we have reached “peak pajamas”. That is, I think people are growing tired or wearing sweatpants and yoga attire all day, every day. I see a return of elegance, and a renewed sense of occasion. Clothing for occasion can make life less boring.
From purely a tailoring perspective, I think we have reached “peak slimness”. People are wearing their clothing too tight these days, to the point where I see guys who cannot bend down to pick something up off the floor. As hilariously big as things got in the 90s, things are even more hilariously small today. It’s a pendulum, and i see the swing picking up steam. The coolest cats already have some drape in their trousers today.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES RUNNING AFTER VCs FOR FUNDING?
Number one is time wasted. Fundraising is a full time job, and can take you away from the core business that you should be building. I’m not interested in raising VC money at this time. Because of our business model (MTO, no inventory) and the access of affordable (free) advertising, there is no need for it in our business. I also believe it can be a huge mistake to raise VC money too soon. Because we’re building an entirely new supply chain, we are much more focused on building an efficient platform for fulfillment, than we are about selling as much as possible. If hitting sales targets by any means possible was the goal, it would certainly cause us to make compromises to what we are building. I prefer the long game; slow organic growth, and spending money where it is most needed, rather than always on customer acquisition.
There is also a mental element to fundraising that people don’t talk about enough. When you’re running on a dream to build something entirely new, it is absolutely critical to stay positive and optimistic - taking meetings with banker types who are telling you that your idea sucks and won’t work, over and over again, can certainly affect your optimism. Cutting this out by not fundraising and focusing on organic growth has been a big boost for us.
WHAT IS YOUR COMPANY DOING TO BE ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE?
Firstly, we only use all natural raw materials - animal hairs like wool & cashmere and plant fibers like cotton & linen. Less than 1% of our products have any synthetic fibers in them. So our products are naturally recyclable and biodegradable.
More importantly, we’re creating a timeless product that is meant to last many years, and not be replaced. We coined the term “Slow Fashion” - as the exact opposite of “Fast Fashion”.
Furthermore we make all of our products here in America, where most of our customers live, so we are able to cut down on shipping emissions.
IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME 5-10 YEARS, WHAT IS THE ONE PIECE OF ADVICE YOU WOULD GIVE YOUR YOUNGER SELF?
I would say: don’t build it unless you absolutely need to. In today’s world, there are solutions for just about anything, from e-commerce to logistics to customer service. When we first started we custom built our entire web platform from scratch because we had a new way of doing e-commerce whereby the customer needed the ability to upload images and feedback for their fittings. This didn’t exist out-of-the-box so we decided to build an entire e-commerce platform, including things like product pages, checkout, SEO, etc. My advice would be to get started using as many of the tools that are already available, then as you learn what your business needs, you can add to them and focus on building only the technology that is absolutely unique to your business. Tech is extremely experience and time consuming - only build the pieces that are absolutely unique to you.
Other than that; remember that it’s just clothing and it’s all for fun! Starting a business can fully consume you and it’s important to remember that life has much more to offer than new customers.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Yours in style,