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The Fashion Business: Past, Present & Future – The WhichPLM Report

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Earlier this year, WhichPLM was invited to cover an industry event at the London College of Fashion – one that was unusual in more ways than one.  Firstly, the day was sponsored by one of the industry’s biggest software vendors, CGS, but software itself was not the key focal point.  Secondly, it marked the first event that I have covered from both sides of the stage.

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Over the past few years, vendors have become increasingly aware that the traditional software conference format is out-dated.  Existing customers would rather see new developments and benefit from insight from their peers than have basic functionality shown to them again; prospective customers, taking time out from their jobs, want more than just to be fed the party line.   These forward-thinking suppliers have realised that, in order to justify a day or half-day’s worth of their attendees’ time, they need to do more than just advertise.

They need to educate and entertain.

And so, Computer Generated Solutions (or CGS, suppliers of the BlueCherry suite of apparel specific software solutions covering the entire ‘concept-to-consumer’ lifecycle, including PLM), chose to build their February event on those two watchwords.  Fashion students from the surrounding classrooms were invited to rub shoulders with close to a hundred of the industry’s biggest names, and delegates more accustomed to the boardrooms of brands like Burberry, REISS, Agent Provocateur and ASOS crowded into the college’s lecture theatre to hear a roster of speakers expound on “The Fashion Business: Past, Present and Future”.

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Paul Magel, President of Application Solutions at CGS had travelled from New York to begin the day with a short address.  In it, Magel explained that the event had been conceived as a unique educational opportunity, giving a host of industry figures the chance to articulate the tectonic changes that technology has brought to the fashion industry.

And when I took to the stage to fully introduce the day’s agenda (a role I would pick up between each speaker’s presentation during the morning symposium) I had the chance to echo and expand upon Paul’s introduction.  We make no secret of the fact that WhichPLM focuses primarily on product development, but we have always taken account of the broader ecology in which it takes place – something regular readers will have seen in our coverage of the National Retail Federation show.  It goes without saying, almost, that the changes felt in one part of the fashion industry are reflected (or magnified) in others, and the work we do at WhichPLM has exposed us to seismic shifts at every stage of the product lifecycle – from design to disposal.

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In my introduction, I sought to impress upon the gathered industry figures just how momentous some of these changes have been.  Not just in product development, but in retail itself.  This event took place in a country where a huge proportion of shopping is conducted online, and yet practically everybody in the audience could remember a time when Amazon only sold books, working out of Jeff Bezos’s garage.  A time where there was no ASOS, no BooHoo, no street style blogs, and no transformative, multi-channel digital experiences from Ralph Lauren or Burberry.

In short, today’s fashion industry (the titular “present”) would be essentially unrecognisable to a designer, a garment technician, a buyer, an executive or a store manager working even a decade ago.  This is something CGS appear to be acutely aware of, and was, indeed, the catalyst for their approaching this UK launch event with such a focus on education – giving those audience members still in education an appreciation for the complex industry they are preparing to enter, and reminding those with more experience just how significantly everything they take for granted has changed.

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First to take to the stage was Damian Hanson, CEO of One Iota, a company delivering in-store and online retail experiences.  Like many of the other speakers who followed him, Damian talked about the disruptive, transformative power of mobile technology.

Although much of Damian’s presentation focused on technology’s effect on retail, it was sobering to hear him list the sheer number of household items and activities that smartphones have rendered redundant: watches, calendars, cameras, sat-navs, and more.  Most of these, it has to be said, are as much a result of the ubiquity of the internet as they are the rise of mobile devices, and it’s the synergy of these two technologies, Damian explained, that has produced a generation of hyper-connected consumers who will shop “whenever, wherever, and however” they please.

E-commerce is practically a given, but retailers and brands, Damian said, ignore mobile technology at their peril.  28% of UK shoppers have made purchases directly from their tablet or smartphone; 40% of the same group reach for a mobile device in response to advertisements, and more than half of all shoppers report using their phones or tablets to compare in-store prices against their online equivalents.  That latter trend is a phenomenon known in the industry as “showrooming”, and is in many ways the encapsulation of just how disruptive the combination of mobility and connectivity have been to the retail experience.  And the one vital theme to have emerged from Damian’s scene-setting presentation was that the retailers and brands that are embracing this technology-led multichannel concept are leading the market.

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Following on – and beginning the “Past, Present and Future” symposium proper – was Morag Ashworth, an industry expert of more than a quarter-century’s standing, with experience working for PVH, Henri Lloyd, and now a member of WhichPLM’s Editorial Board.  Morag’s light-hearted presentation elicited chuckles from the more experienced members of the audience, and from their younger counterparts, when she described a world of hand-drawn designs, fax machines, TELEX, and domestic manufacture.

Far from being played just for laughs, though, Morag’s humorous insight into the fashion industry’s recent past was intended to remind delegates of just how alien the 1990s feel today – less than three decades on.  Not only have we moved from a world where “the only place you could use your mobile phone was in your car” to one where the inverse is true, but at the same time the industry itself has moved to offshore manufacture, multichannel strategies, and a dizzying array of product development processes that collectively make the fashion industry today even more complex than the paper-driven world Morag described.

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That complexity was at the forefront of the audience’s mind as Sjors Bos (director of Future Forward Consulting, formerly of Ben Sherman, Timberland and Nike) strode to the podium to examine the most common challenges facing the retail, footwear and apparel industries today.

Sjors is a calculated and engaging speaker, whose accompanying slides were as stark as they come: a single word or short sentence emblazoned on black, serving as a launching pad for Sjors’s considerable insight and expertise.  Among his targets were the landscape of retailer, brand and consumer dynamics (in which he coined the term “C2C” is recognition of the quantity of commerce that is conducted outside the purview of the ordinary business to consumer relationship) and the pressures of industry-wide reductions in cycle time, operating margins and seasonality.

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Concluding, Sjors cited the perfect balance of people, processes and systems as being a prerequisite for any retailer or brand wishing to thrive – not just in the industrial climate as it exists today, but in the future.

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And the future certainly received its share of attention in the concluding presentation, given by WhichPLM’s own Mark Harrop.

Touching again on the mobile revolution, Mark’s presentation focused on the major forces that he predicts will shape the future of fashion and retail: in-store multi-touch experiences; ethical and environmental compliance (driven by regulation); social media, and consumer-driven product development.  Mark’s decades’ worth of industry immersion leant each of these predictions the weight of experience, and the Twitter feed specifically set up to monitor the day’s interactions was soon abuzz with endorsements and echoes of his recommendations.

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If the opening addresses and symposium were the audience’s opportunity to listen and learn (the educational component of CGS’s two-pronged approach to the day) then the sessions that followed were its chance to engage – both directly with the day’s speakers, and with a roster of additional, high-profile panel members and retail executives.

I was given the opportunity to interview a senior executive from UK own-label retailer REISS, in a one-on-one session that saw us discuss the company’s international expansion, the value they place on technology and the strategies adopted in order to help the company to surmount some of the challenges described in Sjors Bos’s earlier presentation.  It’s an outlying case, certainly, but the anecdote shared about a customer in an overseas territory whose purchase of a snakeskin bag required her to obtain a fishing license to satisfy customs served as a reminder that, where modern, global fashion is concerned, it can be prudent to expect the unexpected!

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Afterwards, I was joined on stage by each of the morning’s speakers, as well as equally illustrious company in the form of Caroline Nodder, Editor in Chief of Drapers Record, Maureen Hinton, Director of R&A for Verdict Research, Jamie Mellalieu of internet specialist Zen Web Solutions, and Paul Magel, who chose to field a number of questions put to him by audience members clearly interested in what CGS themselves had to add to the topics raised during the earlier sessions and explore further their UK & European expansion plans.

The organisers had assembled an extremely able and experienced panel, with each member having the opportunity to field incisive questions put to them by an audience who, it seemed, could easily have spent the remainder of the day soliciting the panel’s insight on the state of high street retail, the importance of channel differentiation, and expected returns on investment for supply chain solutions.

It takes a brave vendor to fund, arrange, facilitate and speak at an event where their software takes a back seat to content designed solely to educate, but judged solely on the number of attendees who were held enrapt by the day’s presentations and discussions, that bravery paid off.

And while this may have been something of an unorthodox launch for CGS’s UK operations – removing the focus from the product – I would not be surprised to see that product on upcoming shortlists on the strength of its vendor’s ambition, verve, and willingness to subvert expectations alone.

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Find out more about CGS by visiting the company’s microsite here on WhichPLM or www.cgsinc.com

Ben Hanson Ben Hanson is one of WhichPLM’s top contributors. Ben has worked for magazines, newspapers, local government agencies, multi-million pound conservation projects, museums and creative publications before his eventual migration to the Retail, Footwear and Apparel industry.Having previously served as WhichPLM’s Editor, Ben knows the WhichPLM style, and has been responsible for many of our on-the-ground reports and interviews over the last few years. With a background in literature, marketing and communications, Ben has more than a decade’s worth of experience, and is now viewed as one of the industry’s best-known writers.

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