BOF – NEW YORK, United States —

In the Internet era, designers can be the architects of the conversation with the customer, putting them in control and freeing them from fashion’s closed loop of sameness, argues Lawrence Lenihan.

“Nobody knows anything.” That famous line from the two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter, William Goldman, was his summary of the movie industry’s inability to predict hit films. He pointed out that while some guesses about box office success were a little better than others, they were just guesses and the actual outcomes were often quite different from what was expected when it came to predicting public reaction. Nobody knew more than any-one else or had better skills at predicting the future. Once a movie was unveiled to the public, free will of the people determined the outcome and created both blockbusters and box office flops.

Over the past twenty years, fashion has not really had this problem. Indeed, the fashion industry has become an axis of power shared among large brands, large retailers and large media. Because of the control wielded by this axis, predicting trends in fashion is not nearly as difficult as in other cultural industries, simply because all of the parties involved can influence the outcome and, essentially, stack the deck in their favour. True, their ability to control outcomes is not perfect, but like a brilliant card-counter in a casino, the odds increase greatly.

Combining the closed-loop of industry relationships with vast amounts of available computing power, which can now be harnessed to run incredibly sophisticated algorithms to analyse and predict product and style trends, fashion brands and retailers can further increase their likelihood of success by identifying pat-terns of consumer behaviour earlier and earlier, feeding into these early market signals and driving a sameness across the industry as fashion businesses try to reduce their likelihood of failure.

But if you remove controlled access to product and diffuse influence across thou-sands of points, prediction becomes a very hard business because we, as consumers, don’t know what we want, nor do we have any idea about how we will react to something we have never seen before — the brilliant and beautiful dis-continuity of the unexpected, dreamed up by talented creators across the creative industries, be it film, music or fashion.

Controlled closed-loops are designed to eliminate the unexpected. Publicly-traded companies are supposed to be predictable, so they play the odds of the stacked deck they are able to deal themselves. Creators, by contrast, take chances. They see what we can’t and manifest it from their imagination and skill to deliver an experience that surprises and delights us. Over the years, the fashion industry has become more and more systematised and worked to eliminate variability and surprise.

Last year, I wrote a piece entitled “The End of the Billion Dollar Brand” in which I argued that the Internet, by enabling universal connectivity, would create a force that would enable consumers to find creators who connect with them more clearly and deeply than in any manner previously available before. Brands of the future will be Internet-first because this connectivity begins to eliminate the need for broad media and mass-retailer gatekeepers to connect creators/designers with their customers. Creators control the conversation, the timing, the experience and the relationship with customers. Internet-first does not mean online-only. It gives creators/designers freedom to orient their businesses around genuine customer conversations in a format that is authentic to both the brand and customers, rather than tied to geography or a mass-marketing campaign.

We are entering the golden age of the creator/designer. The barriers to establish-ing a new brand are lower than they have ever been. An explosion of blogs and social platforms enable creators to connect directly with their customers without having to participate in fashion’s closed-loop, taking chances to deliver real surprise and delight.
Examples have come in many forms, some of which you might not know precisely because they don’t play by the rules of the fashion industry game.

Black Milk, for instance, was started by a guy who sold his guitar to buy a sewing machine to make stretch pants. They have branched out into selling leggings and dresses and body suits and a bunch of other things with themes like “Middle Earth”, “Hogwarts” and, my favourite, “Space Invaders.” Sound stupid? It doesn’t matter what you think, because the million people who follow them on Instagram think they are amazing.

Chubbies Shorts resurrected the old Ocean Pacific shorts from the 70s and have built an incredible ‘bro’ brand’ with a passionate customer base who view Chubbies as a lifestyle decision, not just a product choice. You think, bros are stupid? It doesn’t matter because they don’t care what you think and there are many of them out there.

Each of these businesses are very focused on a deep and personal connection with their customer. They don’t need the mass media to anoint their value. Their customers already know. They don’t need a gatekeeper to distribute their product to generate revenue. If they do use a retailer, it is for brand building and customer connection. Finally, they don’t need mass amounts of capital to open thou-sands of stores. True, these are very focussed opportunities and even the successful companies will struggle to reach $500 million in revenue, but these businesses will be so strong because they are so meaningful to their customers.

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