Keep calm. London Bridge is not falling down. It is uploading, rendering, and otherwise digitizing the economy of this historic hub for culture and commerce. The tech upgrade comes amid the efforts to revamp Brand Britain in the eyes of contemporary luxury consumers. While the US tech giants continue to set the rules of engagement online and EU fashion hubs are grappling with the decentralization of trend-making amid a growing network of alternative fashion capitals, London has emerged as a go-to destination for fashion tech. It is the industry’s most fascinating and often misunderstood segment. The move is not surprising for a city with one of the world’s first Chief Digital Officer positions in City Hall. From dandies to punks, London has been a barometer of cool for centuries. In the virtual future, it cannot be as easy as adding “cyber” in front of the current aesthetic staples. The way fashion is produced, consumed, and communicated is changing rapidly. Attending London Fashion Week presented a perfect opportunity to understand what drives London’s fashion tech ecosystem.
Here is what I learned from key players in the field about the digital future of fashion and what makes London a global success story in the making, yet again. But first, Fashion.
Dedicated to Vivienne Westwood, this edition of #LFW featured the themes of her life’s work across its 120+ shows: sustainability, diversity, human and animal rights. Perhaps, the silverware dress by Dilara Findikoglu was the perfect “Victorian punk” homage to the late designer’s rebellious tongue-in-cheek spirit. All eyes were on Daniel Lee and his debut at the helm of Burberry, UK’s most valuable fashion export. The future was as present as ever with pregnant models making history thanks to Sinead O’Dwyer and Di Pesta. Sir Ian McKellen walked for S.S. Daley while TikTok star Alex Consani hit the runway at Connor Ives exemplifying the range in today’s notion of celebrity. Ukrainian wunderkinds Ksenia Schnaider presented alongside Ivan Frolov and Julie Paskal at the closing of the week in a strong show of industry solidarity with the Ukrainian creative diaspora.
ASAI interwove history’s most notorious diplomatic failures into a political fashion manifesto brilliantly executed in deadstock fabrics. The brand name stands not only for the designer’s name (A Sai Ta) but also as an abbreviation for A Self-Actualized Individual. Another favorite was Edward Crutchley who juxtaposed Medieval monastic garments and modern fetishwear (yes, in shades of gray).
Chinese-British couturier Huishan Zhang presented his gorgeous collection at the stylish Londoner Hotel – the official hotel of the London Fashion Week and home to an impressive collection of art and fashion photography spread across its 16-storey building. Zhang’s show this season made me reflect on the growing love affair between the hospitality industry and fashion, take for example a nod to French millineries through Whitcomb’s, a restaurant inside The Londoner, and in the heart of St James’s, one of London’s most historic and fashionable districts, you will find Jermyn St., where business deals are made over lunch sets, but that’s a whole different story.
Christopher Kane hopped on the viral AI-art trend and used AI-generated animal prints. Meanwhile, textile experimentation had its moment thanks to Saul Nash, the 2022 winner of both the International Woolmark Prize and Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design. All in all, it was a strong showcase for London’s trendsetting prowess. The week’s most tech moment came courtesy of Vogue and its Snapchat project Redefining Body featuring Dior, Kenneth Ize, Richard Quinn, Stella McCartney, Thebe Magugu and Versace in all their augmented glory. Fittingly, it got mixed reviews from the critics and the public. However, in the space of fashion and innovation, it is the effort that counts the most. Moving the needle takes courage.
Changing How Fashion Is Made
“Everything we know about fashion is about to change,” says Matthew Drinkwater, Head of the Fashion Innovation Agency at the London College of Fashion. It takes expert intuition or sheer whim to make such proclamations calmly. Given his reputation as a fashion tech trailblazer, he has a point. In fact, he has a few. Until recently 3D technology left many tailors skeptical. Today, it is a default tool for designers from the fast fashion to couture segments. Similarly, augmented reality has found its place in the daily life of billions of people with social media filters. “The excitement for fashion tech is driven by the understanding that the next generation is much more comfortable managing their lives in both the physical world and the virtual. As digital natives come into power in the creative workforce, we’re coming to a tipping point for mass adoption of immersive technologies,” notes Drinkwater.
Many fashion startup brands are turning to virtuality to disrupt the conventional design-to-retail paradigm from the start. Products are rendered in 3D, made available for virtual try-on, sold on e-commerce platforms and only then manufactured and shipped in the physical world significantly reducing wastefulness and duration of the traditional sampling cycle. Moreover, both designers and users now understand their lived experiences as a greater sum of its digital and physical parts. “For younger creators and consumers there is much less of a gap between their sense of virtual and physical experience. The strength of emotional connections is increased by the utility of the digital assets in the physical world,” says Carol Hilsum, Head of Product Innovation at Farfetch. The legendary Portuguese-British purveyor of luxury goods in headquartered in London. The AR elements, and similar the exclusive opportunities are woven into the very fabric of the garments, literally and figuratively. The future of fashion is phygital.
Changing How Fashion Is Consumed
“Let’s be honest, brick-and-mortar was never a sustainable business model,” says Olga Dogadkina, CEO and Founder of Emperia VR, a London-based VR platform for immersive retail. Between the rising stock and staff transportation costs, climate control energy needs, excessive returns, elaborate supply chains for the various elements of product and customer service management, the allure of the physical store has been waning well before the pandemic upended our retail knowhow. When it comes to the future of e-commerce beyond faster checkout, Emperia VR is responsible for creating the creative blueprint. The company partnered with the iconic American department store Bloomingdales for the first of its kind multi-brand metaverse experience as well as the French luxury stalwart Lacoste for its first ever VR shop.
According to Dogadkina, virtual retail experiences result in conversion rates uplift of 70+ percent and an impressive average ROI of 750%. Achieving such milestones requires a new comprehensive strategy that accounts for the fundamental shift in consumer behavior. The technologists at Farfetch have developed its own Dream Assembly accelerator program to build pathways between startups and this lucrative niche. “The luxury retail principles are evergreen. People want exclusive, multi-sensory experiences that enhance their reality and cater to their emotional needs. We invest quite a bit of time into educating brands on this nuanced field,” shares Carol Hilsum. “Innovation is at the core of fashion. There is a clear direction for the industry, and it’s digital. Think of it as AI with a human touch.”
Changing How Fashion Is Communicated
As e-commerce evolves, consumers become more discerning and take practical convenience for granted as they pursue new experiences. Louise Conolly-Smith, Head of Creative at London & Partners, the largest operator of tech accelerators in Great Britain, suggests it’s all about a carefully differentiated product. “Cheaper does not necessarily drive market interest anymore. Tech innovation must qualitatively improve the product and the experience for the consumers.” Virtuality grants brands a carte blanche in creating experiences that communicate their values and foster branded world-building. In 2018, the Fashion Innovation Agency partnered with ILMxLab (the immersive entertainment division of Lucasfilm) to present a groundbreaking AR/VR show with Canadian designer Steven Tai. At the time, it “broke” London Fashion Week, and the internet. Today, the XR/MR/AR/VR technologies are part of the runway showmanship and the see-now-buy-now business model. “It was never about more tech. Fashion is a reflection of where the culture is at. Technology is a tool. Tools don’t make you creative. Whether you pick up a pen, a brush, a needle or a keyboard, you still need original ideas to succeed,” says Drinkwater. Beyond better data processing, companies need to implement incremental changes that optimize brand familiarity while easing the transitions between the virtual and the physical worlds. “You can’t future-proof a brand with cool gimmicks. The magic happens when there is continuity,” says Dogadkina of Emperia VR. “Tangible business value is built with long-term engagement strategies that blend in-store, online, and virtual experiences.”
London continues to appeal to fashion brands as a premier gateway to the global markets. Last year, 20+ fashion and footwear companies outside the UK opened their international store within London’s coveted Zone 1. This was a major increase over the pre-pandemic five-year average. Earlier I reported on factors that drive fashion tech interest here: access to major investors, vibrant competitor scene, multiculturalism, tax efficiency. What else makes London particularly attractive for this emerging industry? I asked Laura Citron, CEO of London & Partners, a company dedicated to helping international businesses secure a foothold in this city. “It’s the synergy between the private and public sector being forward-looking on what a city could be. The entrepreneurial culture here suits purpose-driven companies with innovative products. London is a top city in the world for tech adoption probably by any metric,” says Citron. One example would be the gamification of fashion. Fashion and the gaming industry are falling in love with each other to the tune of $100 billion with a B in annual spending.
According to UK Games Map, over 700 games companies are based in London and the number of British game developers has nearly doubled in recent years. This is an aesthetic and financial relationship future designers must take seriously today! “People have genuine emotional reactions to these purchases and experiences. Whether in the physical or virtual realm, these items exist. That sense of wow, the excitement is real,” notes Drinkwater of the London College of Fashion. Furthermore, the city’s Datastore API provides immense advantage by providing access to city data which enables businesses to fine-tune their offers and expectations. “Where in London? First, we ask… Are you a tech company or a fashion brand? Depending on how they understand their business, there are organic industry clusters for gaming, VFX, fashion, and so on,” notes Connolly-Smith. With 33 boroughs, the city is large and interconnected enough to provide optimal space for a business of any scale. London is also home to some of the best minds in marketing and advertising. London’s ad companies generate 80% of the UK advertising revenue. New York is not the only place from which you can “make it everywhere”. After all, the Prime Meridian in London’s borough of Greenwich still marks the march of time around the world. The future literally starts here.