Three Emerging Brands the Show The Future of Fashion Technology

Forget the smartwatch hype, here are three UK businesses that could drive the next generation of fashion – they all make use of technology, but not to lead the product. Instead they use it to offer a great the user experience.

Cute Circuit

Even if you don’t know their name, you probably know their work. They have been around for over 10 years and during that time they have created a number of successful pieces for Katy Perry, the Tweeting Dress for Nicole Scherzinger and the Huggable Shirt. In many ways this company embodies the concept of ‘wearable fashion technology’. Much of this is done by using LEDs that are part of the fabric combined with traditional techniques such as pleating. It means that the clothes can be made skin-tight and fabrics can move in an organic way. , Cute Circuit also have a retail, ready to wear line. The company makes use of LEDs secreted throughout their garments – these can be used to create patterns or messages, all controlled from a smartphone app. For their 14/15 catwalk show, data from the web was fed to the mixing desk and used to create bespoke, changing patters on the clothes. My favourite is the Tweeting handbag. It looks similar to a mid-sized clutch bag, but Tweets and words can be displayed on it.

Lost Values

Trained in both fashion and technology (at MIT), Elena Corchero prefers the phrase ‘smart materials’ applied to her work. Her range of clothes, jewelry and toys generally avoid batteries or circuit boards, instead focusing on smarter fabrics to solve problems. The Lflect range, for example, uses a reflective wool to produce scarves, hats and gloves that are aimed at keeping cyclists safe without the green, hi-viz jacket. The Ecolorium range of jewelry uses stones that change colour in ultra violet light. The objective is to warn the wearer (or friends) to cover up or use sunscreen.

Depop

They don’t make clothes and they don’t use LEDs or clever materails. However, this UK-based app is on its way to changing fashion retail, and particularly that of the vintage market. Using a familiar Instagram-style interface, it allows anyone to post items for sale and other users to like, comment or buy, via a frictionless experience (helped by Paypal). Already popular with millennial users, the app has expanded to the US and secured VC funding. I don’t use the word ‘disruptive’ lightly, but Depop is one of the few apps that has the opportunity to change the market for clothing retail.

Depop’s Becoming the AirBnB for Vintage Clothes

Depop vintage appIf you haven’t come across Depop yet, think of this app as Etsy meets Instagram. The UK business first launched in 2013 and gained nearly 2 million users in its first year. While that growth may not be stunning compared to say, Snapchat, it’s gained considerable traction with millennials – the demographic that typically drives new channel adoption. Depop is chock full of vintage stuff (100,000 items at the last count). Mostly clothes, but plenty of shoes and a smattering of vinyl records.

It works because the app does everything a contemporary mobile experience should do. The Instagram-style layout is easy and familiar. It has a useful set of search tools that add to the product relevance. There are neat little buttons to comment, like and most importantly, to buy the items. It’s almost as simple to sell on Depop. Take a picture, upload it, add a price and off you go. The success of the app comes from this combination of an immediate, frictionless experience and a collaborative approach. Or as their CEO says, ‘it’s designed with the mobile in mind and is social at its very core’.

Depop has the opportunity to be distruptive in the retail space. However, collaborative apps are not without criticism. AirBnB rents more rooms the The Hilton Group, but they are not subject to the same taxes or regulations that a traditional hotel chain has (and I won’t even mention the controversies associated with Uber). They’ve also attracted not just those with a spare room for the night, but people investing and making a living from AirBnB properties.

Depop also appears to have commercial traders, but thanks to the strong social element, it retains a homely feel. When it comes to vintage retail, the market isn’t dominated by large businesses (unless you count Oxfam), nor does it have many of the regulatory issues that hotels or taxis endure. In fact, the opportunity for Depop is by bringing the vintage market into one neat place, right where their audience is.

There’s plenty of optimism for the app. They’ve already ironed out a few complaints about buginess. At the start of the year they gained £5m in VC funding, opened a New York office and hired Ex-Reddit GM, Erik Martin. Whilst Depop are not the only player in the vintage market, it looks as though they have the right UX for the right audience to succeed.

Are Smartwatches The New Sandwich Toaster?

There is a theory that most sandwich toasters lie in the cupboard unused (I suspect that you could also include ice cream makers). A sandwich toaster is exciting (ish) for the first few months as you discover all of the random things you can shove between two bits of cooked bread. After that, it largely takes up space in the cupboard.

It looks like smartwatches could go the way of the sandwich toaster. Someone recently told me that he had a Motorola smartwatch but didn’t bother wearing it. The watch was decent enough, but after a few months of use, he realised that there was little need for it. He wasn’t alone. A study in 2014 found that 50% of fitness trackers were left in the drawer.

If smartwatches want to remain on people’s wrists they have a number of challenges to overcome:

  • The devices can be very buggy – in some watches, the software has simply not been up to the job. Apple’s Watch will work superbly, but the predicted 18 hour battery life is going to make constant usage tricky
  • Fashions change – unlike a phone, the look of a smartwatch is absolutely key to its adoption. They are firmly in the accessories market and the technology companies are competing against the likes of Fossil, Swatch and Tag Hauer. And all of them are competing with the fickleness of fashion
  • Smartwatches are not essential, core devices – whilst I can’t imagine leaving home without my phone, I don’t see any real inconvenience if I forget to wear my smartwatch. Sure, some people get addicted to them but a combination of the small screen size and limited functionality puts them in danger of being novelty items.

Many commentators have pointed out that it’s the apps that will make or break adoption. Simply reducing phone apps to a mini screen is not going to hack it. Developers need to think differently for a more personal, wearable channel. Without some killer apps, there’s a possibility that smartwatches will become a short-lived fad. With the impending delivery of Apple’s Watch, it’s certainly exciting times in the world of wearables. The company has been a game-changer with their phones and tablet devices. However, it remains to be seen whether they can make the smartwatch enough of a necessity that it doesn’t end up languishing in the cupboard next to the sandwich maker.

Teenagers, Facebook and The Rise of Visual Messaging

“It’s is Dead to Us. Facebook is something we all got in middle school because it was cool but now is seen as an awkward family dinner party we can’t really leave.” That’s how a 19 year-old American student described his generation’s relationship with the social media site in a widely circulated blog. This is not really a revelation. His views were evidenced by a teenage trend away from Facebook that was first identified by Pew Research in 2013 (and confirmed by the social media site themselves). In October 2014, a study by GlobalWebIndex found that Facebook’s user base grew 2% in the previous six months. The low growth is hardly surprising when you consider their user base is close to saturation point. However, the significant stat from the study was that teens were using the channel much less. 37% of young respondents said that they were ‘bored’ with the social network. Over the same period Tumblr saw an increased use of 120%. Popular with teens (and ad agency folk), its uptake has been driven by the humble ‘gif’. The ancient web-format has gained a new lease of life with highly sharable animated gifs of cats and celebrities.

Facebook has been aware of their teenage problem for sometime. They understand that young, early adopters are fickle when it comes to their digital channel choices. And thanks to mass smartphone adoption, that switch is happening faster than ever. There has been, for example a shift in messaging from SMS to What’sApp. The teen messaging channel of choice has quickly grown to over 700m users – nearly 3 times Twitters’ active user base. Fundamentally, teenage audiences are most active in messaging channels – and they’ll go where it is easiest, cheapest but above all, they’ll go where their friends are. A few years ago, they were using BBM. Before that, MSN was popular. It’s interesting to see, therefore, that the one Facebook product that remains relevant is their messaging app. A GWI study found that social messaging use grew by 50% in 2014, across all age groups.

Whilst messaging is still the driver of teenage online activity, the significant change has been the growth visual messaging. For today’s teens, pictures are better than words. This new found popularity of has been driven by smarphone cameras and apps such as Snapchat. GWI found that the picture app grew 57% – the fastest of any messaging app. UK teens especially love Snapchat, with 39% of them saying they use it compared to 15% globally (GWI). There’s an element of teenage rebellion about Snapchat. Part of attraction is that their parents (who are all on Facebook these days) don’t see the point of it. However Snapchat is also a bona-fide messaging app. Whilst it has gained a reputation as a place for ‘sexting’, it is an unwarranted tag. A 2014 University of Washington study found that the behaviour represented only 1.6% of users. The main use for Snapchat are is not to share amazing portraits or beautiful sunset pictures, but to share quick snaps with added comments or scribbles.

The real winner in the visual message channels though, is Instagram. Sure, it’s good for showing nice filtered photos, but spurred on by hashtags, selfies and numerous celebrity accounts, it has become the channel of choice for teenagers. By the end of 2014 it had overtaken Twitter’s user base and it continues to grow. Understanding the teen challenges, Facebook has been pretty shrewd in addressing them. When they bought Instagram for $1bn in 2012, observers thought it was an excessive sum for a company with just 13 people. In hindsight, given the level of uptake, that price seems like a bargain. After sniffing around Snapchat for a while (who reportedly turned them down), Facebook ended up buying What’sApp for $19bn in 2014. Facebook are aware that ultimately, no site is safe from a mass exodus of their users. Just look at the fate of Friendster or Myspace (and BBM or MSN for that matter). However, if Facebook are simply going to buy their most popular competitors, then the chances are, they’ll still be going in a few years time.

2015 Predictions: Mobile, Wearables and Connected Technologies

It’s a pretty safe prediction that iBeacons, Apple Watch, drones, 3D printing and VR will continue to receive a considerable amount of hype next year. Who knows, someone might attempt a Crowd Sourced 3D-Printed QR Code Live Streamed Via Go Pro for real? A combination of cheap computing, rapid prototyping and new funding will bring many more gadgets and connected devices. All very exciting, but what’s hype and what’s actually interesting?

In 2015, don’t get too excited about:
Beacons. They will not save retail . In some unsurprising news, a study in 2014 found that consumers think beacons are largely annoying. There are some opportunities where the technology can offer a good solution to problems. The (award winning) Nivea Protection wrist band is a good example of where this type of technology works well.

Is anyone really interested in beacons?

Wearables, whilst popular with techies, don’t expect an uptake like that of smartphones or even tablets. In fact some categories such as fitness bands may become redundant through smartphone health monitoring apps (think, Apple’s Health apps)

Smartwatches will not simply have to compete in the tech space – they also competing in the fashion accessories market. So consumer choice is not simply about functionality but also about image and style.

– Brands may try, but wearables are probably not a place for advertising (although Indian Company, Techsol have announced a wearable ad server). For brands, it’s isn’t simply a matter of down-sizing for a smaller screen – they will need to consider the whole engagement.

AR/VR in the form of Google Glass and Oculus Rift will remain as essentially prototypes. There are specific industries or applications, such as medicine, that will benefit but this does not make them mass market.

This might actually be a good use of Google Glass

Things to be (slightly) more excited about in 2015:

Messaging channelsWhat’sApp/Line/WeChat will continue to grow in place of SMS. Visual messaging through Snapchat and Intsagram will also see growth, especially with a younger audience. Significantly, Instagram’s user base overtook Twitter in 2014 – perhaps the latter has reached its peak.

– For brands the challenge in social is an interesting one. Users, especially younger demographics, are switching channels rapidly. The role of Facebook and Twitter as content channels will be less important. In fact, some are already predicting the demise of Facebook. Whilst brands would do well to focus their attention on delivering service in messaging apps, although they will probably struggle to get the attention of a younger audience.

As home screen notifications/replies become more common, we will see fewer app openings. That’s a problem for the likes of Facebook, but it’s also going to be a challenge for brand advertising. What’s the point in buying ads in an app if it’s not going to be opened?

– So what will be the successful apps of 2015? In essence it will be those that bring an additional the service layer beyond the functionality, especially those that make clever use of gamification and APIs. Good examples are Duolingo or City Mapper

– Along side service layers is the growth of the collaborative economy, delivered through apps. Think AirBnB, Waze, or Hailo (I’m NOT advocating Uber as a good example of the collaborative economy though)

– The mobile payment space will become a key battleground for brands in 2015. Many people were exciting by the potential of Apple Pay but it has already run into corporate obstacles

Peer to Peer Payment is set to grow in 2015. Barclays PingIt is a (rare) good example from a brand – it has become their largest channel for new customer acquisition. My money is on the third party providers though. P2P creates opportunities in the startup space, as demonstrated by the excellent Droplet. My guess is that’s where the success will be and brands/corporates will be playing catch up.

Big Data is interesting (really, it is). The true potential hasn’t been realised yet and amazing things could happen if we combine the potential of the vast amount of data from personal devices (wearables or smartphones) with the AI development from Google or IBM’s Watson. (or even this simple idea)

Here’s a few trends that might be interesting in 2015.

The Internet Fridge. Something not to get excited about in 2015. Or ever.

The Rise of The Phone Zombie

Earlier this year the picture below was trending on Twitter, with the ironic statement (and I paraphrase) ‘What on earth is this guy looking at? The World or something?’. It looks like we’ve become a society of phone zombies.

Instead of engaging in conversation with our friends or family, it seems we are constantly distracted by our smartphones. As if proof were needed, a recent IPSOS study identified this trend. They surveyed 16,000 people in 20 countries and 60% of them agreed that they were ‘constantly looking at their screens’. In the UK though, 71% said they were glued to their phones (second only to China). Perhaps our zombie behaviour is best summed up by Buzzfeed’s, 23 Pictures that Prove Society is Doomed. This phenomena doesn’t just impact on our social lives, there are other risks. One cyclist, writing in London’s Metro paper, explained that phone zombies were the most frequent hazard she had to contend with. Maybe in the future our smartphones will need proximity sensors to alert us of traffic hurtling towards us.

Is the phone zombie good or bad for marketing? A decent ad person would spin the problem into an opportunity. For example, we reach for our mobiles within 15 mins of waking and check them up to 150 times per day. That’s a lot of marketing opportunities. But perhaps, just perhaps the best thing we can do is to help society act a little less like the living dead and occasionally speak to other people. The Brazilian beer brand, Polar tried to do exactly that. They created the phone nullifier. A bottle wrapper was able to block the phone signal for anyone within a few feet, thus nullifying the phone zombies and ensuring that people enjoyed their drink, whilst conversing with their real friends.

Arguably though, the phone zombie could be seen as a natural behavior. Humans, especially the younger variety, enjoy media that distracts us from the real world. The Victorians complained that young people spent too much time reading books. Television and video games have constantly been blamed for corrupting teenagers. Perhaps the phone zombie is just another example in a line of media distractions. Before smartphones, commuters were hiding behind newspapers on their journey to work. And maybe the only reason the man in the picture is looking at The World was because on that day, his battery had died.

Beacons, the Saviour of Retail? Probably Not.

Since Apple launched their iBeacons, a Bluetooth-based proximity channel, some marketers have seen them as the saviour of in-store engagement. Retailers from Macy’s to Tesco’s are trialling the technology. In France, the supermarket chain Carrefour is putting them in 1000 stores. However, beacons present a common digital marketing challenge; technology itself is never a brand marketing solution. In the late 90s nearly $200 million was put into a scanning device called Cue Cat. It was sent to over 1.5m million people in the hope that they would scan bar codes printed in magazines instead of typing in URLs. In spite of the backing from major brands and publishers, the project was a failure. From a user perspective it didn’t solve any problems. When Beacons first launched I wrong a blog, Bluetooth the Revenge, pointing out the limitations of beacons as a marketing technology. The two practical hurdles are that people need an app installed and their Bluetooth turned on. Whenever I have researched it, that number is around 30% of people (there’s some research here). So 70% don’t have their Bluetooth on. For brands, as always, the key is to get the engagement right. They need to give their customers some pretty good reasons to use iBeacons. I’m not sure if giving offers is enough. To get users to engage, brands will need to use it to solve real problems, not just encourage more purchases. There have been a couple of recent studies, that suggest, unsurprisingly, that users don’t want to be stalked by brands in store. Opinion Lab, for example found that 77% of people don’t want to be tracked in shops. Our phones are personal and it seems like we have enough marketing already. My worry with beacons is that they will simply be consigned to the dustbin of technology history. In a few years time will we look back and say ‘do you remember iBeacons’, along with the Apple Newton and the Cue Cat?