Every week, The Interline rounds up the most vital talking points from across the landscape of fashion technology news. This roundup is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.
Retail prepares to re-evaluate its relationship with China, and its reliance on big tech.
This week has a very clear leading headline. But it’s a story with broader implications for fashion retail that have flown under the radar.
After months of allowing brands and retailers to take the lead on scrutinising their supply chains for forced labour in China’s Xinjiang region, the US government has now stepped in and applied an outright ban to sourcing cotton (and some other resources and consumables) from there.
The catalyst is clear: human right abuses on a potentially staggering scale are reported to be rife in the region, with persecuted Uighur people also being used to pick cotton as indentured workers. The impact is murkier – especially since this is not the only China-related story from this week that should give The Interline’s readers pause.
eCommerce giant Alibaba may have been spared a similarly-timed crackdown on Chinese stocks being sold to US investors, but all is not well for China’s leading online retailer. It, like many entities that cross paths with the PRC, has been reined in. And its normally-ebullient Founder and CEO, Jack Ma, has either voluntarily or involuntarily vanished from public life.
As The Interline has mentioned in previous roundups, Ma owned a controlling stake in not just Alibaba Group’s retail arm, but also Ant – a fintech company that budded from the parent company’s country-spanning Alipay network, and that was gearing up for potentially the world’s biggest IPO at the tail end of last year.
That IPO was cancelled before Christmas, and this week whispers have begun to circulate that Alibaba Group as a whole could be nationalised as part of a broader shift towards a state-controlled economy.
If this sounds like news of little import for people outside China, consider this: Alibaba has recently made a clear effort to court Western brands to make its marketplace offer more directly competitive with Amazon’s, and this strategy built on partnerships with other Western brands and retailers signed back in 2015.
So this week should have brands not just re-evaluating not just how they source from China, but how they sell there as well. Because retailing in China is a very different prospect, ethically speaking, to retailing through China, with the proceeds potentially benefitting its ruling party.
And while there are not likely to be any direct analogues to this deeply concerning story (Jeff Bezos is very unlikely to be disappeared, despite last week’s democratic unrest in the USA) there are similarities in the impact the combined Xinjiang / Alibaba stories could have on international fashion and the potential effect that restraining Amazon for anti-monopoly reasons could have in the West.
The US, UK, and EU have historically been much more fertile ground for the sort of high-wire entrepreneurship that was going to culminate in the Ant Group IPO, but the political winds could soon be blowing in a different direction, and the forced break-up of Amazon – and other American big tech companies – is not a completely wild idea under Democratic control of the US government.
And just like with Alibaba, which was much more than just an online retailer, and also controlled vital financial infrastructure, Amazon has not been a retail-only company for a very long time. Its operations are woven into the very fabric of the modern internet through Amazon Web Services, and 2020 saw the beginning of its entry into the healthcare sector.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this week’s stories go deeper than you might think. Not only should brands and retailers be questioning the source of their raw materials and the destination of their finished products shipped overseas, but also the long-term stability of the digital marketplaces and the technology providers they rely on.
If the last twelve months have taught us anything, it’s that long-term stability is something of an illusion. And in light of that, taking ownership of as many components of their technology ecosystems and technology-centric processes as they can – not just in overseas sourcing, but in international sales, domestic payments and much more – seems like a smart move for any brand or retailer of a certain scale.
Videogame marketing and cosmetic content hit a new milestone.
Fortnite has become a very easy poster child for the melding of videogames and fashion – to the extent that its name has become a way of handwaving the complexities of actually building an effective crossover channel. But despite that, it’s also the game platform that continues to set new benchmarks for player engagement with cosmetic items.
This week saw the reveal of a Fortnite skin (this one created as a likeness of famous streamer TheGrefg) surpass the record for most concurrent viewers by a significant amount. More than 2 million people watched the reveal simultaneously, with many more engaging with it as an archival clip afterwards, which more than quadrupled the previous viewership record set in a cross-media collaboration between Fortnite personality Ninja and American rapper Drake.
To put that figure into context, it falls far short of the reach of a top influencer for physical fashion like Chiara Ferragni, who has in excess of 20 million followers, but TheGrefg’s live audience alone – not to mention the people who will watch the replay – puts him comfortably in the top 15.
There are two particularly interesting things about this story for The Interline’s audience.
First, TheGrefg is not an English language streamer, which speaks to the sheer scope of the gaming crossover and potentially the digital fashion markets outside the UK and US.
Second, his audience were not tuning in to watch gameplay: this was a purely cosmetic reveal.
For anyone not familiar with videogames, watching TheGrefg’s skin reveal will be an almost completely impenetrable experience. The lexicon and culture of gaming are deep, complex, and meta-textual – and that language has its own sub-languages and dialects for different games. But despite that barrier, there is a clear takeaway here: this is fashion’s ideal of “see now, buy now” and its vision of digital fashion both writ large. A hungry audience, on a massive scale, tuned in to see a celebrity unveil a new cosmetic collection that they could acquire and wear within a matter of days.
And in a world where the gap between buying a new outfit and actually getting to wear it outdoors could be months or more, that’s a compelling opportunity – and one that the fashion industry is understandably keen to seize.