At first blush, it may seem like fashion and technology have a cozy relationship. New designers are building their brands almost entirely on Instagram, and for many of us, e-commerce has fully replaced brick-and-mortar shopping. We experience entire fashion shows via live-stream; we juggle emails, Slacks, and texts 24 hours a day; and we really can’t be separated from our phones. In reality, though, there’s actually a great distance between the worlds of fashion and tech—so great, in fact, that both sides are missing out on what the other has to offer. Timo Weiland, who formerly designed his namesake label with Donna Kang and Alan Eckstein (they now run a creative consultancy group together), came to that realization with his friend Noah Gellman, a venture-capital and startup veteran. “We noticed a large gap had appeared between the fashion retail industry and the global Silicon Valley,” Gellman says. “Despite the availability of amazing new technologies and novel business models, we could not understand why the fashion industry wasn’t adopting these innovations or adapting their businesses.”
One reason may be that “tech people” and “fashion people” practically speak different languages. Their worlds are vastly different: Tech is (at least traditionally) objective and straightforward, whereas fashion is subjective, artistic, and emotional. Trying to meet in the middle can feel next to impossible, but Weiland and Gellman knew there was a way to fix this. Their solution is The Lead, which Gellman describes as “the bridge” between the fashion and technology communities. Through The Lead, he and Weiland are producing a quarterly publication; hosting industry events for fashion, tech, and retail leaders; and planning major summits to bring together influential brands, next-generation technology companies, and more of the people who work in those worlds. “We want to know what and how the other is thinking,” Gellman says.
The Lead’s first-ever summit in June focused on the “Defiant 25,” a group of leaders and risk takers whom The Lead identified as individuals who had successfully used technology to transform their businesses. That group included David Lauren, vice chairman and chief innovation officer at Ralph Lauren; Angela Ahrendts, senior vice president of retail at Apple; Gregory Boutte, chief client and digital officer at Kering (Gucci); and Yael Aflalo, founder and CEO of Reformation, among many others.
The Lead’s next big summit is already coming up on October 24, and Weiland and Gellman are shifting the focus to the brands that are moving the needle—50 of them, to be exact. “Very simply, the goal of this summit is to reveal what’s next [in fashion and technology] and to help this community get ahead of it,” Gellman says. “Researching companies for this list took several months. Our analysts focused on private companies and their execution across innovation, commercialization, media buzz, competition, team, market opportunity, and investor value creation.”
In other words, these companies are multifaceted; they aren’t 100 percent fashion, nor are they 100 percent technology. They’re a cunning mix of the two—and, unsurprisingly, most of them are direct-to-consumer. That doesn’t mean they have the same “D2C” formula, though: Consider M.Gemi, which launched in 2015 and is among the few shoe brands on The Lead’s list. “M.Gemi has always been designed as a lifestyle collection, [which is] a different approach from many direct-to-consumer brands that tend to focus on a single construction,” explains Cheryl Kaplan, M.Gemi’s cofounder and president. “We work with over a dozen family-owned specialty workshops in Italy to drop new shoes every Monday, and because of this unique supply chain, we can respond to customer demand in real time [and] re-stock sellout styles in as little as 30 days.”
For cashmere label Naadam, which recently opened a store in New York, “innovation has meant doing things differently since day one,” says cofounder and CEO Matthew Scanlan. “There has never been a brand like Naadam that uses real economic sustainability to reconstruct supply chain behaviors and relationships to change the product value for consumers. We use transparency to improve our cashmere’s quality and prices, forcing consumers to relate sustainability with [those qualities].”
For Outdoor Voices founder Tyler Haney, it all started with a simple idea: that working out (and buying clothes for it) should be fun. “We’re creating the rules to our own game by building a community of recreationists who believe in #DoingThings—activity for the fun of it, rather than the pressure to perform. We value being human, not superhuman, and to be recognized by The Lead means we’re resonating with a group of people who are active participants in growing our mission: getting more people moving because endorphins make you happy.”
Somewhat surprisingly, consignment retailers like The RealReal and Rebag made the list, too. How to take something old and make it feel so startlingly new? “We’ve removed the friction from consignment by not offering consignment,” Charles Gorra, Rebag’s CEO, explains. “Instead, we provide utmost transparency and instant gratification, both of which have brought much-needed innovation to the luxury goods marketplace. With Rebag, we put the seller first by offering a seamless end-to-end experience that yields payment [for consigned bags] in less than two business days, or within the hour at our stores. We’ve also updated our customer experience to make it even easier to buy and sell online, via our app, or in store. In just one year, we’ve been catapulted into a new, higher tier in the industry where consumers recognize Rebag as the ultimate destination for luxury handbags.”
The RealReal is a little bit different, first, because it stocks everything from secondhand bags to clothing to art to fine jewelry, but also because it offers so many ways to consign. “We make it easy with free in-home pickups, physical locations for drop-offs, and the option to send items to us,” says Julie Wainwright, The RealReal’s CEO. “We’re the only company that accepts and sells luxury pre-owned home [goods], art, apparel, fine jewelry, and watches—not to mention we are the only one that takes possession of goods. We also have a continuous supply of high-quality, beautiful products. We’re like a full-service luxury department store for pre-owned goods! Technology is the underpinning of our entire business—[it’s] what enables us to unlock a supply of $230 billion worth of luxury goods in people’s homes and service a worldwide market.”
All 50 of these brands will be represented by their designers, executives, and/or CEOs at The Lead’s summit, where they’ll participate in keynote speeches, off-the-record roundtables, panel discussions, and structured networking. “By understanding this group of rising stars, leaders across the industry can extract best practices, apply new business models, and anticipate consumer expectation,” Gellman says.