What is Fashion Tech?

What is Fashion Tech?

There’s no doubt about it: the fashion tech space has exploded. It has, by my count, 595 billion google search results, seven dedicated meetup groups with thousands of attendees, a half dozen conferences, and a dedicated startup accelerator. Further, we at Third Wave Fashion, track over 500 fashion tech startups in our own database. This space is big and expanding fast. But what, exactly, does “fashion tech” mean in these contexts? In short, it describes tech startups that are focused on the fashion world.

But it’s not quite that simple.

Here at Third Wave Fashion, we use a three-legged stool analogy. We look at companies that have at least two of the following three qualities: social elements (they all have this), disruptive technologies, and innovative business models. We believe that the best companies have all three of these qualities.

In 2010, when we came into existence as a company, we still spoke about things like big data and complex algorithms referring to them as cutting edge technologies. These days, almost every startup that we see utilizes both of these in some way.

It’s important to note that we’re not talking about wearable tech here. That is an intriguing and exciting world, but not what we’re referring to.

Fashion tech startups exist online, but many of them combine offline elements as well. Many online companies host physical pop-up shops; Poshmark hosts offline parties to complement their online events, Warby Parker lets you try on glasses before you buy them, and Bonobos invites customers into their Guideshops. Another, Shoptiques, lets you buy merchandise online and pick it up in store the same day.

Fashion tech startups are blowing away the traditional relationships between consumers and brands. Direct-to-consumer brands have exploded, including (in addition to Warby and Bonobos) Everlane, the Mint family, Elizabeth & Clarke, and Frank & Oak. Smart brands are finally speaking directly to consumers, utilizing exciting new platforms such as Olapic (a client of ours) to engage and capitalize on what consumers are already sharing online. Consumers are even able to help brands decide which items to produce; Moda Operandi takes pre-orders for designers and ModCloth and Stitch Collective allow consumers to vote on designs.fashiontech_image3

Lawrence Lenihan, founder and Managing Director of First Mark Capital, penned a shrewd article for Business of Fashion about the problem with most fashion tech startups. In it he said:

“Going forward, every brand must figure out how to connect directly with its customers and they must structure their business around the relationships they want to have with their customer rather than let their distribution channels define them. The economics are too great not to do so.”

Fashion tech startups are erasing the line between brands and publishers. We recommend to our startup clients that they prepare themselves to act like a publisher. NET-A-PORTER is the best in the business at this, and Style.com responded to this need by launching their own print magazine.

Fashion tech startups let users tap into existing networks or join new like-minded communities. By empowering users they let people find their tribe. For instance, Stylitics allows users to track how often they wear clothing, while Chloe + Isabel have taken the Avon model and applied it to funky jewelry for the college set, and StyleOwner lets anyone set up their own shop.

Fashion tech startups are building and making useful large data sets. Stylitics sells granular data back to brands, Shop It To Me uses customers’ preferences to send them customized sale information, and new beauty tech startup, Poshly, is creating an exhaustive database of each customer’s physical characteristics and product preferences. In some ways, algorithms, curators, and ‘discovery platforms’ have combined to become the new recommendation engines.

In many aspects, fashion and tech are a great match: they are both future-driven, product focused, and, essentially, a growing passion for many young consumers. However, it can be very hard for both seasoned technologists or investors and “fashion people” to relate.

I attended a meetup group some years ago where the founder of a well-known company that aims to connect fledgling fashion companies with investors got so caught up on understanding the concept of Facebook’s API that the pitching company’s allotted demo time was exhausted trying to explain the simple idea that users can, in fact, log in with Facebook. Moments like this show just how different the worlds can be.

Fashion tech startups rarely do anything disruptive to the tech world; what’s generally compelling are the changes that they are leading and reflecting in consumer behaviors. I am personally very excited to see how other industries adopt the new buying behaviors, brand expectations, and platforms.

There are a lot of opinions about what fashion tech is, though. We reached out to some other experts in the space and are excited to tell you: there is no agreement. Here’s some of what we heard:

What is fashion tech?

Charlie O’Donnell, Founder of Brooklyn Bridge Ventures and VC extraodinaire says:

“There is no such thing… Technology is both a channel and a best practice around delivering a product. It could mean a unique and convenient purchase experience or it could mean a means to acquire a customer, but unless you’re experimenting with materials science, you’re really just following your customer. Since they use digital technology, you need to as well.”

Hilary Peterson, VP of Business Development at Lyst eschews the complexities and sees it as a broad, simple proposition:

“Technology, broadly speaking, is essentially using scientific knowledge to improve or solve a problem. Fashion technology is simply a specific area in which technology is applied. In my mind, fashion technology covers everything from using nanotechnology, to improving fabrics, to sites like Lyst which improve shopping online.”

Jennifer Margolin, Founder of the Social Edge Summit, luxury creative consultant and fashion stylist, believes that it’s more complex:

“In the most basic explanation it’s where technology and fashion have merged to create faster and more innovative ways to shop, market, educate and ultimately experience the fashion industry whether through software, apps or products. In years past the only way to be a part of the fashion industry… was to live in a fashion city (New York, Paris, etc.) and work at a publication house, PR firm or with a designer and work your way up. In the past few years technology has opened the fashion industry wide open.  Bloggers sit in the front row at Fashion Weeks and partner with big fashion brands. It was less then 10 years ago, publications such as WWD and others were saying that e-commerce was a fad and wouldn’t stick as people needed to touch the items they were purchasing.”


She continues,

“Fast forward to today, we now are able to pre-order designer clothes, shoes and accessories as they are shown on the runways. The big push for when the fashion industry seemed to really embraced technology is when brands/designers saw the power in having social conversations  with their audiences to increase sales, generate buzz & try new ideas at a faster pace. There does not seem to be any industry that is not affected by technology in some capacity, that’s just the day and age we live in now. Fashion is all about new trends and ideas. Technology is very much the same and when you combine the two the sky is the limit. But at the end of the day, to be successful the fashion tech companies/brands that solve a problem or address a need will most likely be the ones that succeed.”

Rob Sanchez, founder of the Fashioning Our Industry Conference, sees some separation. He believes that:

 “A fashion technology company and a technology company in the fashion vertical are distinct entities. A technology company may make a product that can be used in the fashion space or that targets at the fashion vertical. A fashion technology company works with and builds upon the fashion universe by enabling, modifying, or enhancing some unique aspect of the industry.

The best way to explain this is through illustration:

  •  An e-commerce solution is a technology company.
  • A curated e-commerce store specializing in women’s wear for the tween crowd is a fashion retailer if using traditional e-commerce solutions (not fashion tech).
  • An e-commerce store selling custom-made dresses that uses crowd-sourced design coupled with geographical data and an algorithm that scans public Facebook photos to determine the current season’s dominant color trend is a fashion technology company.
  • A company that creates a social network that identifies fashion trends and monetizes the network by creating an e-commerce platform that fully integrates with their community is a fashion technology company.

Fashion technology companies are fundamentally rethinking how we shop, purchase, design, source, manufacture, alter, swap, try on, or otherwise engage in the fashion world.”

Laura Zapata, Editor of Fashion Digital Daily and cofounder of the Future of Fashion series at Projective Space, concludes that:

“In a broad sense, it’s when fashion (what we wear, what we aspire to be, how we present ourselves to society through clothing) meets technology (innovation, a digital presence, engaging online & mobile content.) It’s fashion embracing a new and digital component to sell / present their business model.”

So, what is fashion tech? It’s many things to different people. However tricky defining it may be, there’s no doubt that it has the interest of entrepreneurs, investors, the media, and consumers. That’s a combination that will continue to keep this space interesting for years to come.

Liza Kindred is the Founder of Third Wave Fashion. Third Wave Fashion has been your fashion tech think tank since 2011. We publish the first ever printed fashion tech magazine, Third Wave.  Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter to stay on top of the latest in fashion tech + wearables.