Prelude: this blog post has been inspired by this McKinsey article. It’s a great and interesting read. Most of what’s in there makes selling sense. And that’s a sad realisation since most of what’s in there says that fashion should become even faster and not substantially better and thus more valuable. Thus, the article may make selling, but not marketing sense. It speaks about being more competitive – and not providing a better offer. Sadly, both tend to be only distant relatives, in today’s identity-driven and emotion-first consumer culture.

The Shovelling Business

You can put time and effort into your products – or you can shovel them out as quickly as humanly possible. In the latter case, the focus shifts from your product to the size of your shovel and the person shovelling, maybe even what an optimised shovelling motion would look like, maybe an ergonomic grip for the shoveller. But your focus sure as Sunday does not have anything to do with your product anymore. You become a professional shovelling company and whether you shovel authentic diamonds or beautifully painted coal does not really matter that much any more. In fact, it becomes painfully obvious that shovelling diamonds is a ludicrous thing to do – so painted coal it is. Welcome to modern fashion.

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34 suits. Not one rocks. 30 will likely be sold off-price and 15 of those will be – best case scenario – recycled. I am sure, they have a great baseline profitability, but they lack anything else.

Fast Fashion kills Innovation

There is much to be argued against fast fashion in terms of a responsible organisational behaviour and I will, however valid they appear, not touch any of those points. Instead, my focus is on the Darwin-award-esque behaviour of the modern fashion industry that quenches every bit of innovation that once resided there. The hypothesis is that fast fashion kills innovation in the product substance of fashion. There is no innovation to be expected from fashion companies as long as they focus on shovelling their painted coals as quickly into the store as they can sell + shovel it out again to burn the remains (either financially or factually).

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Certainly not fast fashion, but rather uninventive 19 different derivatives of the same white shirt we’ve worn since the Duke of Windsor in 1920s.

Close to a Century of Creative Gridlock. Now: faster Gridlock.

Today, we wear underwear, socks, pants (mostly jeans, maybe khakis, probably slacks), maybe skirts. We wear t-shirts, blouses, shirts, pullovers, belts, shoes. In case of the fancies, we wear a suit or combination or a dress. This is what could have been written in the 1930s, 1950s, 1970s, 1990s, 2010 or close to 2020. It’s identical. The difference, however is, that in the 1930s and 1940s (the last time of true textile innovation), people were busy fighting wars. Still, they innovated more than today, with leading designers transporting the look and usability of factory wear to women’s wardrobes. In the 1950s, people rebuilt – and the jeans was introduced in Europe. In the 1970s, they revolted – and wonderfully coloured onesies appeared. In the 1990s, everybody was busy trading – and the train of non-noteworthiness started its ride. In the 2010s, everybody was on their smart phones and marketers got onto selling there. Today, we wear the same stuff, we put on the same concepts, we buy the same coal that has been shoveled for close to a century. We celebrate patterns or their mix and an odd cut to pants for women. We lust after learning the colour of the season and the helplessly useless material innovation that just proves that you can turn dandelions into woven garments. Yes, cotton is still better, but hey – it’s something. At the same time, we wear the same stuff that our parents wore, their parents, and probably the duke overseeing management half a century before that. If mobility was as innovative, we’d still be condemned to walk everywhere since we shot the horse for salami.

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50 shades of boredom, established 1860.

Towards a Solution

Competitive advantages can arise from greater efficiency, yes – but there’s also a word to be said for effectiveness driven by bringing a more valuable product to the market. Speaking of a lack of innovation in the fashion industry, however, may be misrepesenting reality. Fashion may even have been innovating above and beyond what’s good for its own advantage and in merely one distinct capability: logistics of material, information, and money. This appears rather sensible as the past decades have been described before as the decades of the CFO – and in the mind of most CFOs, lean does the trick.

What could be the agents of change to counter the fast fashion frenzy? I’d like to propose three distinct approaches:

  1. Become aware of the current opportunity to innovate. In a market where no brand really dares or cares to rock the boat, you brand can very easily differentiate by developing a strong innovation portfolio that goes beyond customer insight and logistics to focus on today’s and tomorrow’s big topic of designing experiences. And no, that new, redundant fabric won’t cut it. Also, your new, radical cut will not make a difference. Consider the customer journey, consider customer roles, and consider the desparate need of customers for meaning and perspective. Please relish and benefit from this particularly impressive situation in your market.
  2. Redesign your management metrics. This is where you lay the sledgehammer at the foundations of the fast fashion fallacy: speed is not the answer. Don’t get me wrong: driving out the fast from your fashion does not mean that you get to be slow and cumbersome. You will likely need to retain your speed. But your brand needs to stop and come off the drug, yearning for more and more acceleration and accept velocity as a prerequisite of doing business while what really matters has never been how fast you can do stuff, but what you’re doing in the first place. Please readjust your aim to meaning, not speed.
  3. Stop producing fashion. Start producing wearable experiences. By now, everyone and their grandmother has accepted the fact that building products alone does not cut it any more. Doing this faster is even more true. Thoroughly great companies have advanced so far that they went full circle to cut off their product focus in favor of services and ecosystems  – AND THEN – since services and ecosystems really only make sense with awesome products, rediscovered their products as the nodes to the neuro-emotional network that make a customer experience hold together. Please stop making fashion (and tacking a campaign to it) and start creating experiences.

Those three revisions to your strategy would never have a problem attracting new talent. They would never have any problem attracting new customers. They would not need to fear jumping off the fast fashion bandwagon – because the wonderful convertible sports car of business success is standing by, ready for them. Just don’t try to outrun the bandwagon of fast fashion to cross in front of that train: it’s headed the wrong way, anyways.

You know the drill – this is just my 2 cents and I might be terribly wrong. But here I am, in my jeans and my t-shirt. Just like my dad, 40 years ago. And his, 70 years ago. But according to Bavarian ministry of the interior, we’re going airborne taxis soon. I simply don’t find a look to match the fast forwardness – not in fast fashion, anyhow.

All the best

Benjamin

(edited for corrections and fighting with wordpress)