Feature Article

Fashion Forward

By Pam Niequist Wehbi and Samantha Mocle

A flip in fashion industry dynamics has designers, manufacturers, and distributors doubling down on strategy to assert themselves against the player holding all the cards - the consumer. Influence is everything, and the power to dictate what comes next is no small privilege.

Where brands once reigned supreme, consumers are now at the helm and in control, driving the future of fashion. The industry has experienced a drastic shift from the mid-century days of exclusive couture to a consumer-driven world that requires use of advanced and ever-changing technologies to maintain an advantage.

"The consumer is forcing change and strategy, whereas before, the retailer and fashion companies were the ones dictating," says Catharine Weiss, assistant professor of fashion retail and merchandising at Lasell College.

"This paradigm has put the consumer in charge and forced retailers to create ways to engage consumers and understand the way they think," she says.

To stay current, brands have adopted cutting-edge tools that utilize augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and social media to engage their customers and promote their products. This "cyber revolution" has changed the industry in a big way.

MILLENNIALS AND ADVERTISING

To remain relevant, some big brands are doing business differently to attract today's top consumers: the millennials, who make up a quarter of the U.S. population and, according to Forbes, command $200 billion in annual buying power.Fashion Silhouette

"Baby boomers have [and spend more] money than millennials, but because [the latter] make up a huge chunk of the population, companies are trying to rebrand themselves toward this up-and-coming group," says Weiss.

To get younger consumers to physically (or virtually) open their wallets, brands must play by their rules and use what they use: technology, in all its iterations.

According to a consumer study conducted by Forbes and Elite Daily, millennials prefer value authenticity to traditional advertising. This, paired with the prominence of social media, has pushed companies and designers to rethink their approach.

Weiss cited Gucci as an example, noting that today's advertisements, "have completely upended Gucci's vision of what it means to be a classic, Italian brand. It's all about talking to the perceptual aesthetic of the millennial customer."

In Gucci's case, the brand's use of social media has embraced millennial consumers' affinity for online sharing. The company's website and social channels brim with photos of individuals that look like their new target audience, making their products feel relevant and attainable for the masses, says Weiss.

THE OMNIPOTENCE OF SOCIAL MEDIA

"Without social media, I don't know that I would have a business," says Sonjia Williams '08, a contestant on Project Runway and Project Runway All Stars. She launched her brand, Something by Sonjia, in November 2014 and receives a large percentage of sales from her Instagram handle, @somethingbysonjia.

"I have to continuously create content to get people interested in buying," she says. The big plus, as she sees it, is that people connect her to her brand this way.

Williams conducts frequent photo shoots of regular people (herself included) wearing her clothes and then posts them to Instagram.

"We are in the age now where you have to be able to keep up with social media and find ways to keep customers engaged," she says. "I think [these platforms] can be oversaturated, but I could never downplay their importance. It's a huge aspect of my business."

From Facebook to Instagram and Twitter, social media often serves as judge, jury, and marketer when it comes to fashion. Christian DiPietro '10 is an accessories designer at Kohl's and former designer for Marc Jacobs. At Kohl's, he uses a platform called First Insight to help identify products consumers want to buy. For example, if he isn't sure which color or print to use, the options go on First Insight.

"We'll put them up there, and whatever the print is that the people had a stronger, more emotional reaction to is what we'll probably go with," DiPietro says. "The social media world has taken over and dictated what is going to happen now for the future of fashion."

THE AMAZON EFFECT

While competing for the affection of a changing consumer base, fashion companies must simultaneously face the challenge posed by third-party websites - most notably, Amazon.com. Amazon's dynamic pricing technology works in favor of the consumer, says Chelsey Plumb '14 G'15.

Fashion Silhouette"If Amazon can detect that Nordstrom is offering a product at $20 less, they will price match on their site," she says. "Since consumers are more apt to go on Amazon these days, it creates a brand image challenge if your product shows up for less than what you're selling it for."

That means that shoppers will always get the best price - leaving retailers to vie for their loyalty in new ways. It is a challenge that Plumb is all too familiar with. As a content strategy manager for Sperry Topsider, she is responsible for the content and user experience on Sperry.com, as well as their email program.

Today's new standard, she says, is for brand outreach to be "hyper-personalized" and to leverage a data-driven mindset.

"It used to be enough to segment a simple campaign by elements such as gender or product." Now, she says, customization is the expectation. "The key is to be a fast follower of whatever new consumer trends come out. Retailers need to ask, why would this customer come to our site or store versus Amazon?" Plumb says that creating loyalty programs and exclusive brand experiences-such as products only available in store or for a limited time - is a good start.

Another method is by "dropping" a small line of product into a store, virtual or physical, and letting it sell out. "The Kardashians do this," says Weiss. "It is sort of this special product that is developed in small quantities to sell out quickly, to create something that is collectable so that consumers can say they have it."

Despite the pricing competition it poses to fashion brands, Amazon still serves as a strong platform on which to build awareness. A Future Shopper study by Wunderman Commerce shows that Amazon is the starting point for 51 percent of e-commerce shoppers.

"It is important to have a corporate presence on Amazon," says Plumb - and not just for products that are out of season or set for liquidation. Offering new, full-price items on the e-commerce platform helps consumers see a brand's full line.

CUSTOM ALL THE WAY
Deep learning algorithms from companies such as IBM and Edited, a data analytics company that specializes in fashion, provide a human-like ability to help brands analyze and determine trends, and make predictions. The more information an AI program is given, the more it "learns." The benefit for customers is more product availability and faster, more accurate deliveries.

"Someday you will be able to talk to your computer and tell it that you want red shorts that day," Weiss says.

In the search for those red shorts, for example, the consumer would describe the desired style, shade of red, and size. AI-powered search engines would locate the closest match. In addition, the whole fashion team - designer, merchandiser, and buyer - could work in tandem with AI to predict what the consumer wants to wear even before it is apparent to that person.

Augmented reality is another tool that encourages consumer interaction. Eyeglass brand Warby Parker combines AR and facial recognition to let customers virtually try on various frame styles.Fashion Silhouette

This kind of technology has also increased efficiency - but at what cost to the consumer? In-store heat maps can track aisle traffic, and interactive kiosks can provide real-time data to marketing teams behind the scenes. The bigger issue, says Weiss, is that increased competition and urgency has pushed fashion companies and Retailers to peer more deeply into consumer behavior.

"It is not like it used to be, where salespeople could report on what was most looked at on the selling floor," she says. "The company can't be everywhere all the time, but consumers can shop online 24/7. It has forced retailers to peer into your habits using cookies and other technology to make better business decisions."

THE FLIP SIDE OF FAST FASHION

Historically, there was a period of six months to a year between when a designer created the fashion line and when it hit the sales floor. With the advent of today's technology, "Something is designed, produced, and manufactured almost simultaneously, and is put out to the consumer in such a direct way that the design almost becomes obsolete from the time it hits the store," says Jill Carey, professor of fashion and director of the Lasell Fashion Collection.

Fast fashion, once known as off-price, is now almost throwaway, due to technology's ability to get it to market quickly and at low cost - starting with the pattern. "If you draft a pattern out in a program and your factory counterpart has the program, you can just send the file and then it can print out right there and get to work," DiPietro says.

Stores such as Zara and H&M are leaders in making trendy styles readily available to the general public at a fraction of the cost of the big fashion houses.

"We live in the age now where it is cool to shop cheap brands," Williams says. And while this is an advantage for consumers looking to stay on trend without emptying their wallets, it puts designers such as herself at a disadvantage. "You have to create things that can't just be sold by anyone. Otherwise, why would someone buy a Something by Sonjia dress that is similar to one offered elsewhere at a quarter of the price?"

Her goal, she says, is to create and design pieces that stay true to her creative vision and brand, but that feel unique to what is already in the marketplace.

"This kind of creativity is needed to remain innovative and ahead of new trends," says Weiss.

"You have to be so on top of your game and ahead of the curve, and completely tuned into what your customer is saying, doing, and thinking," she says. "The smart companies are the ones engaging consumers and using technology to their advantage."



THE LASELL COLLEGE FASHION COLLECTION GOES DIGITAL

Students in each of Lasell's three fashion programs learn how to utilize new technologies while simultaneously considering the longevity of such platforms and their
ethical implications.

Technology has enabled the 3D digitization of artifacts in the Lasell Fashion Collection, which consists of about 3,000 pieces - including nearly 1,400 pieces from the now closed American Textile and History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts - and dating as far back as the 1790s. This assortment is critical as these artifacts give clues into American design, the way people lived, and how costume informs both identity and community.

Lasell College Fashion Collection Items | Photos by David Parnes

"Museums and smaller collections gather assortments of clothing and accessories [such as Lasell's collection] that speak to style, trends, and culture to understand the zeitgeist," says Jill Carey, professor of fashion and curator of the Fashion Collection.

When collections are digitized, they can be viewed countless times - and by many - without harm to the artifact. "All of this is important for the industry because the history of fashion is core to design inspiration and the symbolic implications of style shifts," says Carey.

Students in Carey's class have worked on a Connected Learning project over the course of several semesters to catalog and digitize specific aspects of the collection for a redesigned public website that launched in November 2018. Jessie Bowens '18 and Erika Patnaude '18, fashion communication and promotion graduates, along with Rebecca Glick '19, a fashion design and production student, developed terminology and metadata to help identify target audiences and drive them to the online collection.

Lasell College Fashion Collection Items | Photos by David Parnes

"This means that anyone in the community can use these pieces for scholarship and teaching - from history, to graphic design, art, sociology; the content has
far-reaching potential."

And, adds Carey, the digitized collection may also serve as a vehicle to attract future students, provide inspiration to designers, and provide historic inspiration to
industry professionals.

Collection photos by David Parnes

Past Issues

Past issues of Leaves Magazine at Lasell College