Every week, The Interline rounds up the most vital and interesting talking points from across the fashion technology landscape. We provide our take on what matters, and why. This roundup is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.
Lockdown is the time to lift creative restrictions, not impose them.
Like almost everyone else, The Interline is working from home. This makes us fortunate for several reasons. The most obvious is that none of us are on the frontlines of the medical campaign against COVID-19, and this is a luxury nobody should take for granted. The second is that we are able to do the entirety of our jobs from home, with very few compromises; our core tasks of researching, writing, and being given demonstrations of cutting-edge fashion technology can all be accomplished remotely. We are able to work on the day-to-day as well as getting ready for the new.
This is not the case for everyone, though, and this week’s developments in the global lockdown are an indication that, across multiple industries, companies are considering how work-from-home provisions can be extended beyond the basics to encompass the creative.
Apple is, like many consumer tech and lifestyle brands, a company that runs on secrecy and reveals. Its unveilings of new phones, tablets, and laptops are bona fide events for consumers and press. And, for the most part, those new products stay under wraps because work on them is tightly monitored, controlled, and confined to approved R&D facilities.
This situation is not dissimilar to the way fashion and footwear brands that run on a “drop” model operate, with upcoming styles, collaborations, and licensing deals shrouded in mystery. This is also the reason that pre-announcement product leaks are treated so seriously by brands, and are so sought-after by consumers hungry for the next hot thing.
But what happens when the creatives who should be working on the new, the exciting, and the unannounced can’t commute to the places they’d normally work? Apple set something of a precedent earlier this week by reportedly allowing employees working on secret projects to take their work home, and putting structures in place to allow this to happen.
This is, of course, a matter of necessity. Apple has no intention of delaying its biggest product launches, even if it can no longer bring people into conference venues and theatres to see them live. The company’s product managers will have worked backwards from their delivery dates, followed a critical path, and realised that deadlines would not be met if it did not relax its traditional rules.
This is likely an equation that fashion brands are weighing up at this very moment. It is, after all, one thing to let designers, technical designers, garment technicians and others work to finish already-planned collections and styles from home. It’s another thing to recognise that the seat of innovation – the crucible of the next wave of creativity – might also need to become moveable, and be shifted away from headquarters.
This is a trend that’s already been happening to some degree, as teams become more distributed, geographically, and as co-creation with suppliers on other continents becomes more commonplace. But – like with a lot of fashion’s traditional ways of working – the coronavirus pandemic has put a foot firmly on the accelerator.
Fortunately, fashion has a lot of the tools it needs to switch its creative processes from analogue to digital. From 3D – our current editorial focus – to collaborative online storyboards and moodboards, there are really very few impediments to letting fashion be more flexible, and even fewer reasons why designers, buyers, merchandisers, sourcing managers and others can’t do the full extent of their work from home.
But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be friction. For evidence, look at Nicole Phelps’ analysis of how the CFDA is managing the cancellation of the Resort 2021 schedule of New York Fashion Week, and how brands are choosing to forge their own paths.
[In the UK, where The Interline is based, “resort” is not really a word that gets a lot of use, primarily because our weather is so bad – Editor]
Here, the CFDA is strongly advising brands – many of whom are in dire financial straits – not to unveil their Resort 2021 collections in any way, and even to consider not producing them at all. This, in The Interline’s opinion, is not a particularly positive attitude, so it’s little wonder that brands and designers are trying to find – primarily digital – ways to both reveal and produce their collections outside the structures and strictures of the seasonal runway calendar.
This is a situation that Michael Kors sums up best, saying that: “One of the only bright lights [of the current crisis] is that all of us are well aware that something has been broken for quite a while.” And over at Glossy, Jill Manoff talks about using “alternative platforms” to replace “outdated traditions”.
Now clearly The Interline has a horse in this race: we are firm advocates for the wholesale digital transformation of fashion, because we believe it’s necessary. But if the coronavirus pandemic has revealed anything – besides how seamlessly a lot of job roles can be shifted to work-from-home arrangements – it’s that fashion needs to break away from its historical frameworks, not just to keep the old guard in business, but to lower the barriers for the next generation.
To give that some context, the New York Times this week ran a fascinating series of interviews with emerging designers based in NYC, which has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, making physical studio space inaccessible. The Interline challenges anyone to read this and come away thinking that things do not need to change, or that digital product creation is anything but a necessity. Because when the world does cycle back to some kind of normality, the question won’t be why anybody needs to work from wherever they can be most comfortable, and most creative – it’ll be why they can’t. And the list of valid reasons will not be a long one.
In a retail vacuum, Amazon could be gearing up for its greatest power grab to date.
The Interline wrote several times about Amazon’s push into physical retail last month, before coronavirus swallowed the news cycle. And as catastrophic as the current crisis has been for fashion retail, there are even stronger indications that a crisis of a different kind could follow right behind it as Amazon takes the opportunity to seize power and market share with its reach and its technological advantage.
In the face of an 81% drop in footfall, retailers are facing an incredibly difficult future as and when stores re-open after the worst March on record, and what’s all but guaranteed to be the worst April on record as well. Even ambitious, digital-native brands with bold business models are struggling, and here in the UK research suggests 2020 will see more than 20,000 permanent or semi-permanent store closures, 235,000 lost jobs, and £20 billion in lost or unsaleable stock.
In this context, growth ambitions will be scaled back, and most fashion retailers will be satisfied with simply surviving.
As we wrote last month, though, one retail player has a potentially unassailable edge when it comes to simply surviving:
“Amazon is really good at losing money, and after dominating eCommerce, physical retail looks like it might be the next game Amazon can afford to keep losing until it wins by default. Because the other players on the brick-and-mortar retail field can’t get anywhere close to its resilience.”
Amazon, to put it simply, does not operate like a traditional retailer, and as such it has the potential to weather the crisis far longer than any traditional retailer can. It has the benefit of other revenue streams to prop its retail arm up, it can burn investors’ cash for an alarmingly long time, and as WWD wrote this week, Amazon could easily swoop in and hire, acquire, and bully other brands to use its marketplace.
This is what The Interline meant when we referred, early last month, to Amazon’s ability to “parlay its outlast-them-all market position into longterm profit”.
This is also before we consider a new kind of post-COVID-19 physical retail where putting screens between cashiers and customers is going to quickly seem like a stepping stone on the way to a strong consumer preference for fully cashier-less stores and limited human interaction.
And who’s now a key player in full hardware and software suites for cashier-less stores, and who started licensing that technology to other retailers a fortnight or so ago? The name runs from A-Z.
Post-COVID-19, goodwill could be the most valuable currency for brands.
To end on a positive note, The Interline, like a lot of people and businesses, has been touched by the generosity, consideration, and humanity we have seen in our personal and professional lives in the last month. And similar stories are emerging from fashion, where the horrific economic impact of cancelled orders is being at least partially offset by those brands and retailers who are finding new ways to help the most at-risk people in their supply chains.
There are, of course, limits to how far any company can stretch its cash reserves to help others. But when it comes to buying goodwill, the payback could be swift and large-scale when this crisis is over.