Among the innovations that are top of mind for legacy retailers: algorithmic personal styling, 3D design tools and amateur fit models.
The New York Fashion Tech Lab acts as a matchmaker between growth-stage tech companies and a group of retailers who pay to sponsor it. The NYFTLab vets potential companies, then participating retailers — who this year include LVMH, Macy’s, Kohl’s, Estée Lauder Companies, PVH Corp, Perry Ellis International and American Eagle Outfitters — collectively interview and vote on the eight that are accepted.
Because of the buy-in from multiple brands at once, the accepted startups and their areas of focus provide insight into retailer pain points at a time when brands are hesitant to reveal weak spots.
“Even before we select and announce each year's cohort, we are able to see clusters of themes via the application process,” says NYFTLab managing director Jackie Trebilcock. In the past, she says, categories like wearables, chatbots, augmented reality and virtual reality and fit-tech have been popular. Some — like wearables — “trail off”, while others — fit-tech, data analytics and visual search — are persistent, in part because no single solution has proven dominant. “No one has figured [fit-tech] out yet. It’s a pain point for consumers and retailers, and because fit is proprietary, it’s hard to standardise,” she says.
Unlike incubators and accelerators, the goal of NYFTLab is not to help launch startups but to bring them together with retailers. Many of the companies selected to participate in the NYFTLab have already graduated from brand-sponsored incubators and accelerators. Farfetch, LVMH, Target, Walmart, Kering, Yoox and Nordstrom are among the many retailers that have experimented with independent startup programmes. Non-fashion programmes like Y Combinator and Plug and Play, meanwhile, are seeing increases in fashion and retail participants.
NYFTLab’s accepted companies tend to be more “corporate-ready” than startups participating in incubators or accelerators, and have already found success working with smaller brands, Trebilcock says. They are also increasingly international startups looking to partner with US companies. Rather than mentorship, the three-month programme is designed to facilitate partnerships; each retailer is expected to meet with at least two out of the eight companies accepted.
Notable past startups to be accepted include chat-based commerce startup Jumper.ai, whose clients now include Disney and Unilever, and circular economy platform Eon, which has worked with brands ranging from H&M to Gabriela Hearst.
Levi’s, which has been a participant since last year, independently partners with a range of accelerators, VCs and startups, says Brady Stewart, senior vice president of digital at Levi Strauss Americas. The NYFTLab allows the San Francisco-based company to connect with talent from the East Coast and other countries. “We believe strongly in the ‘test and learn’ model of innovation, and we scale our relationship with the top performers,” Stewart says. She says that key technologies on the company’s radar include recommerce, visual search and social commerce.
LVMH’s Alex Montefalco, who is head of executive recruitment and market intelligence, North America, says she appreciates the programme's diversity of startups, global reach and focus on women founders. “What we have found to be very rewarding is that our company representatives first see these ideas written out, and then we get together in a room full of partner companies to hear the in-person pitches. It’s wonderful to see the ideas come to life,” Montefalco says. “Witnessing this evolution affords us a clearer idea of which maison would make the most sense for the cohort to connect with.”
Perry Ellis signed on in 2018. “We saw the need to have someone to be able to search and talk to the startups that have new technologies that can help streamline our processes, and this programme is a great way to get to know the companies that have solutions that we can pilot,” says Isaac Korn, director of innovation at Perry Ellis. “The key problem we are always seeing is how to get our clients more engaged with our brand.”
By parsing through the main themes and commonalities uniting NYFTLab’s 2020 class of startups, patterns emerge that hint at what areas brands are most interested in fashion tech.
Personalisation and predictive analytics
Analytics and personalisation software allow brands to create and recommend products that are a better fit for customers, helping retailers to move away from discounting to push sales. They also help brands become more sustainable by producing fewer items that sell better, Trebilcock says.
Paris-based forecasting agency Heuritech, for example, is among those accepted to this year’s NYFTLab cohort. It analyses data to help companies like Louis Vuitton and Dior both predict product trends and anticipate how they will behave in future seasons, and recently won the LVMH innovation award after participating in its Paris-based Les Maisons des Startups programme. Meanwhile, Farfetch Dream Assembly recently accepted Brandpoint Analytics, which uses customer lifestyle data to help brands optimise price.
Technology that can personalise a customer journey helps recreate the type of recommendations that are possible in physical retail, says Korn, of Perry Ellis. “When consumers come to our website, we want them to feel that we're talking to them directly. It’s very important for us to be able to talk to companies that can enhance that e-commerce journey.”
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