Lessons Learnt From Radical Pioneers Shaking Up The Fashion Tech Space

What happens when you get Billie Whitehouse of Wearable X, Nancy Tilbury of XO and Rana Nakhal Solset of Emel + Aris on a panel? We find out.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the Technology, Media and Telecommunications Club’s event at the Imperial College Business School in South Kensington. The topic of discussion was whether Fashion x Technology was a perfect match. The panel, which was moderated by Kristina Dimitrova of Interlaced, was made up of groundbreaking visionaries and radical pioneers who have been busy making a name for themselves in the fashion tech space for a while now. Shaking up the industry and everything around it, the audience was introduced to Billie Whitehouse of Wearable X, Nancy Tilbury of XO and Rana Nakhal Solset of Emel + Aris.

Imperial College
Organisers and panellists at Imperial College

From the start, it was easy to see that the three panellists were the perfect combination of wit, knowledge and passion. Offering a different outlook on the fashion tech space, I appreciated how open they were about their experiences so far and how frank they also were about the various challenges they have had to overcome. After introducing themselves to an intrigued audience, the discussion began.

The Future of Fashion Tech Defined

Centred around questions on the role that the latest technology is currently playing in the fashion industry, the panel discussed what the future of fashion looks like and the slow consumer adoption of wearable technology. On starting a business out of the merger of fashion with technology Nancy shared; “It’s about new business models. New business models will emerge that will change the face of fashion.” Agreeing with Nancy, Rana added, “We are at a fascinating time for hybrid brands because people are willing to receive them. Technology has a role in fashion, but it needs to have a purpose. Also, the style will also come first. People don’t want to be connected for the sake of being connected.”

Wearables

When it came to talking about the future of intelligent clothing, Billie admitted, “I am not a prophet, but I do have my version of the future that I am choosing to live. I truly believe that if we power the right people, we can build a future where objects have a personality that is charming and enchanting. This is very much to do with designers, and it needs to human-led.” As the audience nodded in agreement, Kristina then asked the panel to share the challenges that they have faced so far when it came to designing fashion tech products. “Challenges change depending on where you are in your business. Batteries have been a challenge. Bringing down your margins has been a challenge. Then there is e-commerce, which is a whole new game that made me realise that you can have the beautiful product but you need to be able to sell it” said Billie, with Nancy adding; “Building products that are authentic and desirable.” Nodding in agreement Rana shared that for her the challenges were consumers, closely followed by the challenge of creating seamless fashion technology.

“Silicon Valley is not where the money is for fashion tech.”- Billie Whitehouse

Staying on the topic of consumers, the panellists were then asked who their target consumers were. Answering first was Nancy, “We focus on 10-24-year-olds because they have such an appetite for technology, we have seen it on social media. We now just need courageous investors who will be happy to help us over the hurdle.” Passing the mic to Rana, the CEO of Emel + Aris admitted that her brand was initially targeting Gen X because “they are early adopters”. “Our target consumers expect things to do more for them. We have had to prove that there was demand for our product. Now that we have done this, we will keep creating products that we think people want” confessed Rana.

Fashion Tech
(L to R) Rana Nakhal Solset of Emel + Aris, Nancy Tilbury of XO and Billie Whitehouse of Wearable X,

On the advice that they would give someone starting their company in the fashion tech space, Nancy admitted with a smile: “Silicon Valley is not where the money is for fashion tech.” Elaborating further Billie said, “I chose to move to NY rather than San Fransisco because San Fran is such a man’s world when it comes to starting a fashion tech company from scratch. To succeed nowadays, you need to be open to criticism and believe in your product by being fully invested and making sure that the customer is visible in their product.” Open about her road to success, Rana admitted that for her it started with Kickstarter. “When I discovered Kickstarter. I was excited by the idea that you can create a buzz around your product and prove demand. It funded our first production run. Crowdfunding is an exciting thing that is happening. It is a great way of testing your product cheaply,” said Rana.

When it came to discussing how students/graduates can collaborate, all three of the panellists agreed that it is all about starting early. “Pursuing technology earlier is key. I must admit that when I see a little girl I have been guilty of saying ‘you are so pretty’ and when it is a boy I have found myself saying ‘ you are so smart’. We need to change the language and how we speak to people. I would love to see that change,” said Billie.  Rana added, “We are living in an age where you have to be a Jack or Jill of all trades. Which is why we need to encourage a lot of women to go into engineering etc. The educational system needs to also change so kids can develop the relationship (with technology) early on. There should be no set rules; we need to be open-minded.”

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As the designated hour came to an end, Kristina asked the experts on stage where they saw the fashion tech space going. Giving all three of them the opportunity to have a final say, Rana was the first to share.  “I think that it is going to continue to grow, but it is going to be slow growth. We need to ease people into it. The product should not only have a purpose it should also be straightforward to use,” she said. “There are some interesting things that are yet to come out of the laboratory. There are real elements of the skin becoming an interface. Digital skins are radical”, added Nancy. The last one to grab the mic was Bille who admitted, “I think that mycelium mushroom is exciting. Although there is a long way to go. If it weren’t so expensive, I would work with it.” With those final words, the panel discussion ended with a well-deserved round of applause.

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Founding editor-in-chief & WearableTechStylist of FashNerd.com, Muchaneta has worked in the fashion industry for over 14 years. She is currently one of the leading influencers speaking and writing about the merger of fashion with technology and wearable technology and a regular contributor to digital news sites like Wareable.