You may have heard the term “fashion lab” thrown around in the tech blogosphere lately. Perhaps it conjures images of shoes being grown in test tubes, or scientists in super stylish lab coats. What, exactly, is a fashion lab, and why should you care? Here’s an explainer on how more and more engineers and retailers are using tech to change the way we dress and shop.
What are fashion labs?
The way we shop and dress ourselves increasingly relies on the digital: think e-commerce platforms like Stylect (the Tinder for shoes), ASAP54’s app that hunts down cool boots you saw on the subway, or ThirdLove’s bra-sizing app. Major retailers and designers are seeking to capitalize on this intersection between fashion and tech, and they’re collaborating with engineers in incubator or accelerator programs, labeled “fashion labs.” These programs, often made up of clusters of startups, aim to grow a new generation of brands from online roots, in hopes that a geeky environment will spawn the next cutting-edge digital platform in the fashion space. The definition of labs, accelerators, and incubators varies depending on whom you ask, but as Enrico Beltramini, a former Gucci corporate executive and founder of the Fashion Technology Accelerator, told Women’s Wear Daily, “It’s all part of the same trend. . . . We all want the same thing: to innovate fashion through technology.”
What do they do?
Fashion labs are made up of employees savvy about iOS app development, cloud computing, and predictive analytics, not just about style and business–so that the retail brands they’re attached to can compete with innovators at big tech companies. The labs create a variety of tech-based products–such as apps, digital storefronts, and wearable devices–related to fashion. Walmart’s @Walmartlabs, started in 2011, and Nordstrom’s Innovation Lab are examples of some of the bigger brands’ internal labs. @Walmartlabs, for example, created an iPad app to help customers find the best pair of sunglasses for their face (it involved lots of selfies), and they’re currently working on e-receipts–a way for customers to create shopping lists and track spending. Shopping center giant Westfield Group’s Westfield Labs, based in San Francisco, has recently piloted digital storefronts, allowing customers at a California mall to browse items on a wall-sized touch screen pad, and a same-day delivery service powered by Silicon Valley startup Deliv. Such tech-minded fashion companies have an edge over less web-savvy retailers, or so the thinking goes: “Today, an online fashion company built five years ago can have a bigger valuation than an offline fashion company that has been around for 30 years,” Beltramini said.
Who is involved in fashion labs?
In addition to Walmart and Nordstrom, major retail chains like American Eagle Outfitters Inc., Sears Holdings Corp., Target Corp., and Kohl’s Corp have built their own internal tech labs. These retailers acquire tech startups–Walmart’s has so far acquired 13–so that they can be the first to launch and benefit off a given innovation. Then there’s the recently launched New York Fashion Tech Lab, in which brands like J.Crew, Ralph Lauren, Macy’s, and Kate Spade are mentoring fashion tech startups, helping them grow their ideas and apply them to retail. And software companies are pouring more resources into fashion–the German software giant SAP (Systems, Applications, and Products), for example, has launched a Silicon Valley-based lab, called AppHaus, which is piloting an app called MyRunway.
Who knew that the geeks and hip fashion kids would one day sit at the same cafeteria table?