Fashion Tech Alchemy: What's the Winning Startup Formula?
What makes a successful fashion tech startup? We explore here.
In the last few years, growing technology has rapidly changed life as we know it. Phrases like “Netflix and Chill” and “Ubering a car” make sense to everyone. And it’s not just taxicabs and online streaming companies who’ve proven adept at jumping on the online and app bandwagon. Fashion has proved it is just as capable, with platform Farfetch astonishing everyone as its share price closed at nearly a third higher than predicted on its first day of trading in February 2019. This is an encouraging success, as online luxury sales were up 24% to 27 billion dollars last year. Yet the focus in the fashion world is on using technology for marketing and retail, and there are far more opportunities to seize technology than it currently avails itself of. Thus the fashion industry is still a laggard and it’s impacting the fashion tech ecosystem.
Although it is slow, fashion is catching on. The need has been identified, and fashion tech is no longer an afterthought. It isn’t just for the geeks in the corner, incomprehensibly doing whatever they are doing. Fashion tech has been brought out into the sunlight, and exciting collaborations with scientists and technicians from the defence and space industries are gradually coming to fruition such as that by textile computing company Myant.
Fashion tech courses, labs and incubators are springing up world-wide to support the next generation of specialists. These hubs vary in size, ambition and scope, but can for example combine investment, incubators and research facilities that may or may not be attached to a larger corporation. Ideally the result is symbiotic – those just starting out can access the experience of bigger companies, whilst the established companies benefit from a fresh perspective on innovation.
Two years ago Miroslava Duma, the founder of Buro 24/7, set up her own fashion tech lab. The vision was part investment fund, part an accelerator for entrepreneurs and part experimental laboratory for cutting edge technologies and sustainable fashion. Future Tech Lab, (previously called Fashion Tech Lab) was set up with a $50 million-dollar investment and focusses on socially responsible investment, connecting technologies within the final fashion product. The concept is based across 11 world-wide locations and many of the scientists and engineers that Future Tech Lab works with originally came from the big budget world of aeronautics and defence.
Last year LMVH made a big splash when it launched its accelerator program, which is designed to help startups to develop innovative new products and services for the luxury market. La Maison des Startups in Paris offers workspace at Station F (above) as well as coaching and support from LVMH group experts. Working in this way will help not only the small businesses but invigorate the luxury giant’s own approach as it absorbs new ideas from its talent. However, although it mentions innovation often in its press materials, La Maison des Startups isn’t especially focused on developing fashion tech as such, and many of its inventions revolve around retail solutions.
In addition, there are similar programmes scattered around. Most of these are in Europe (FTA, CFE, Startup Bootcamp), with a few in North and South America (New York Fashion Tech Lab) and barely any elsewhere.
The problem with many is that they may not offer as complete a package as it may seem, with more of a desk space set up than a practical innovation studio setup grounded in unknown experimentation. Industry sponsored schemes often feature experts who channel products to market too quickly, seeking the latest gimmick without giving proper development time. The alternative are Fashion Fab Labs (fabrication labs) fully committed to developing a workable product but situated in small towns or other physical locations far removed from the centre of the fashion world. Therefore, the industry leaders need have more of a conversation surrounding how all of this can be less dis-jointed throughout all facets of the ecosystem.
To get an idea of what happens when successful fashion tech companies are properly developed, let’s look at some examples. MishiPay is a very effective method of self-checkout that we trialled at our The Dandy Lab store. It enables you to scan the barcode of a product yourself and pay automatically via its app, which causes the security tag to be deactivated so you can just leave without queuing. Snap Fashion is a search engine based on images. Just take a snap with your phone of a garment you’ve taken a fancy to, and the app will scan through its 30,000 partners to find a shop selling a similar item that you can buy right then and there. And The Future of Walking is a company that seeks to address the pollution in our streets by inventing shoes which incorporate an air filtration system activated when the footwear is in use.
Image: Jaume Giralt
These companies and their potential are very exciting. But they are only a few of the many who could be emerging. According to the Fashion Tech Benchmarking Report published by E4FT in February 2018, there are only 60 higher education courses and 57 research centres world wide that even vaguely relate to fashion tech. Meanwhile our studies are showing that fashion tech accelerators are seeing between 500-1000 applications per year, that are then whittled down to 10-20 for incubation (accurate as of March 2019). The hubs and educational structures need more support to nurture so many within the fashion tech ecosystem.
At Beyond Form, we have closely noted this need, and looked at what works and what doesn’t for other innovation labs and courses. We have partnered with IFA Paris to address this in ways that exceed the scope of many other institutions and can take an aspiring fashion entrepreneur (including students, researchers, and startups) from their first expression of curiosity about the area through a rigorous training, both practical and theoretical, and thence into a hothousing at the 4000sqft fashion tech innovation lab based onsite at IFA Paris.
The focus is on providing access to the latest prototyping machinery and a network of computer engineers to actualise the concepts. In addition because we believe that the bleeding edge technologies aimed at disrupting the fashion system thus developed need to have a global audience, our unique ecosystem of experts, partners and academics means that the results will resonate not only through Paris, but beyond.
Fashion tech is an exciting discipline and one that can literally change the world in which we live in. We need to nurture the inventors, the ground breakers, and the pioneers of tomorrow. Beyond Form challenges the fashion system to stop dragging its feet and join us as we cross new frontiers in as-yet unimagined technologies.