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Is London The World’s Fashion Tech Capital?

October 5, 2015

Fashion | by Mikael Jack

Candid’s 11th issue, on sale now, celebrates the worlds of tech and fashion. On the day that Net-A-Porter – one of the most prominent and innovative fashion tech companies of the last decade –  who has this year merged Yoox to become Yoox Net-A-Porter Group makes its debut on the Italian stock market, read the article from Issue 11 where fashion features editor, Mikael Jack, puts forward London’s case as the world’s fashion tech capital.  


It is rarely disputed that London is home to the most exciting and innovative fashion scene. Perhaps not the biggest, or the most commercially fruitful, but when it comes to originality and revolution, Paris, Milan and New York struggle to compete. That innovation is not just in sartorial trends either, as London is firmly establishing itself as the world’s fashion tech capital.

Globally renowned businesses, such as ASOS and Net-a-Porter which both launched from London in 2000, were the ones who kick-started it all, adding another platform for shoppers and beginning to radically shake up the way people shop. These fashion start-ups proved that this was fashion’s new frontier and the business model was right, setting the ball rolling for an onslaught of new online retailers. In recent years, newcomers have grown into giants – Avenue 32, Stylebop, Mr Porter, Farfetch – and it remains the biggest growth area in fashion retail today. In 2015, UK online retail sales are set to reach £52.25 billion, an increase of over 16% on 2014’s £44.97 billion, the Centre for Retail Research claims.

Realising the potential that was within London’s grasp, in 2010, the Prime Minister David Cameron and the Mayor of London Boris Johnson masterminded Tech City UK. The East London-based initiative was set up to support tech entrepreneurs, fashion and otherwise, who appeared to be congregating in the Shoreditch hub, giving them the nurturing needed to make these digital pioneers’ ventures a success.

“London is on the cusp of a second wave of digital revolution; it’s a fascinating time for the capital,” Gerard Grech, CEO of Tech City UK, told us of the city’s technological outlook in 2015. Speaking to an audience at the London School of Economics, he added: “Its people, its eccentricity and stubborn refusal to conform are what’s going to provide the big bang.”


Gerard Grech of Tech City UK

And Tech City UK isn’t the only support for these estimated half a million people who work in tech businesses across the capital. The Technology Strategy Board delivers public money to launch entrepreneurs’ visions, while investment firms such as Felix Capital and Index Ventures are clambering to provide venture capital to the most promising start-ups. According to Grech, an estimated £800 million was invested in digital in the first six months of 2015 in Britain alone.

The sales of fashion online are not new sales necessarily and the inevitable decline in high street profitability has accompanied this online growth. But balancing the two to create a lucrative retail ecosystem seems to be the key, rather than one competing against the other. There is, of course, competition between department stores and their online counterparts such as Mr Porter, but there are now very few bricks and mortar stores that don’t have an e-commerce platform to link to. These companies aren’t cannabalising themselves, just making themselves more available to their customer and to many more customers worldwide. The way that these online and physical stores can co-exist lies in the ease of shopping and the synergy that the two have together. If shopping isn’t made easy, then fewer people will do it, and that is exactly what tech is doing. This is most true for luxury goods, the reach of which is now limitless. 20 years ago, if someone in the Scottish Highlands desired new Gucci loafers for a summer wedding, that would involve travel, time, and expense other than for the goods themselves. Now, a parcel from Harrods or Mr Porter can arrive on their doormat the following morning. Easy.

So what part has London played in all of this? And how does it differ between the newcomers breaking onto the scene and the institutions trying to adapt to the new age?

Natalie Massenet, founder of Net-a-Porter, told the Financial Times: “The proximity and collaboration between the big brands, tech experts, top fashion colleges and an active start-up ecosystem makes London the fashion-tech capital of the world.” With estimation by analysts that her company – started in the kitchen of her Chelsea apartment 15 years ago – is worth over £1 billion, there might not be an e-tail landscape like we see today or the investments available had it not been for her example and fearless determination to make her revolutionary creation succeed.


Even further into the realms of the aforementioned digital and physical retail ecosystem, a new model seems to now be established, different to Massenet’s online answer to the department store: the online marketplace. Lyst, founded in London in 2010, allows its users to shop from over 12,000 designers and stores, which are curated using algorithms and data from users previous visits, and then checkout in a single basket and payment. Farfetch’s similar operation caters to a London shopper, bringing renowned boutiques like Browns, Hostem and The Shop at Bluebird to customers’ fingertips all on one page.

“Our customers can shop from over 1,000 brands in our menswear section, from well-known established brands to newer designers at the forefront of ground-breaking fashion like Saint Laurent, Givenchy, J.W. Anderson, Craig Green and Christopher Kane,” Farfetch’s menswear editor, Tony Cook, told Candid. He added: “Our boutique network is so varied and their buys so individual and interesting that we are able to offer our customers the possibility to create their own unique style and explore their individual perspective on fashion.”



The new collective approach hasn’t left the standalone brands and stores behind however. Burberry, now in its 160th year, has recently turned to tech to enhance the heritage of the iconic British brand and move it firmly into the 21st century. At the centre of everything Burberry have done in recent years, tech and history have collided, not only blurring the lines between digital and in-store, they have also been the vanguard in the way tech is incorporated into the catwalk. Their Regent Street flagship in London is an almost overwhelming experience and perhaps the best example of Burberry’s physical and digital achievements fusing together to represent their past, present and future. A historic Grade-II listed building with a domed ceiling, sweeping staircases and marble floors house the many seasonal collections, iPad-at-the-ready staff, interactive fitting room mirrors which pick up hidden microchips in the garment labels and impressive screens showing runway shows or acting as a backdrop to in-store gigs.

While Alexander McQueen’s spring 2010 show, Plato’s Atlantis – the last for the house by the late designer Lee McQueen – was the first fashion show to be live-streamed online, Burberry have taken the lead in making the multi-media show experience one that is truly interactive. In recent seasons, their shows have been filmed entirely on iPhones – days before the release of the 5S – and have allowed Twitter users to ‘click to buy’ their wares in a partnership trial with the social media giant. Their collections are now available to buy, almost in their entirety, seconds after debuting in Burberry’s famous shows.

When Burberry’s CEO Angela Ahrendts left the now CEO and Chief Creative Officer Christopher Bailey in charge of the fashion house last year, her departure to Apple to look after their retail and online stores was a surprise to some, but a clear indication to all of how successful the Burberry digital evolution had been. Digital initiatives were her brainchild, and it was from her thinking that other areas not usually though of as being tech-based were influenced, such as logistics and distribution, which were streamlined as part of a £50million investment in software. And it is this type of back-of-house enhancements – all down to tech – that are pushing the global expansions of companies like Burberry.


iPhone 5S being used ahead of its launch to film a Burberry show at LFW.

Aside from the designer brands, London-based fashion brands are in no way behind their luxury neighbours. Topshop rival Burberry seasonally for the title of most innovative London Fashion Week experience, last year Topshop’s catwalk was recreated in virtual reality in their Oxford Circus megalith for customers to experience at the same time as Kate Moss and Alexa Chung sat front row. River Island has teamed with LIKEtoKNOW.it, which can send an email to subscribers as soon as they double-tap on the products they like on the brand’s Instagram page, with a link to buy. They have also planned their website to mirror the layout and environment of their stores, even down to the fonts that are used.

When I asked Tech City UK’s Gerard Grech how the digital and bricks and mortar stores can co-exist and how both can flourish, he commented that bringing the online experience in store was crucial, that ease of shopping and being able to click and collect or vice versa, being able to recognise the physical experience in the digital platform, using London’s Oxford Street John Lewis flagship store as an example. But ultimately, he said that one thing was the most crucial: “Companies like Farfetch and Net-a-Porter have invested millions in logistics, both in the systems that operate them and the actual deliveries themselves. No matter how good the digital experience – or the same can be said for in store – getting the goods to the customer when and where they want them is the reason these companies thrive.”

When put like that, it seems obvious. After all, a website or a shop are only really exist to make money. But even to the point when your new jeans land on your doormat, tech is changing the way we see, want, buy, get and wear fashion. Did you ever think about that?

Candid Magazine Issue 11 is available now in newsagents and here.

Mikael Jack – Fashion Features Editor