Fashion marketers prepare for supply chain sustainability — and disruption

The lead image shows a robot with multiple arms holding up shopping bags.

This article was reported on — and first published by — Digiday sibling Glossy.

It’s a confusing time for fashion marketers, just as it is for everyone else. The pandemic and its economic effects are still putting a drag on recovery, with issues like supply chain disruption causing multiple pain points that each brand is experiencing differently. 

And yet, there are also positive developments and exciting challenges for brands to puzzle over. As brick-and-mortar shows signs of life, brands are navigating the new interplay between physical and digital retail. Brands are rising to take responsibility on long-term issues like sustainability, diversity and inclusivity. And the spirit of collaboration that buoyed the industry through the pandemic is here to stay, as brands, physical retailers, online marketplaces and other partners are finding pragmatic ways to score mutual wins. 

Oh, and we’re cautiously delighted to see the return of in-person events — in fact, we just hosted one! On October 4-6, Glossy’s Future of Fashion Summit brought friends and industry leaders together in Miami. For three days, we floated ideas, discussed emerging business trends, and learned from each other’s expertise and experience on the most pressing challenges and opportunities in fashion marketing, including:

  • the search for sustainability
  • brands building communities
  • personalizing fashion’s future

Below, you’ll find some of the highlights of those discussions on the topics that will shape the future of fashion, complete with excerpts from our executive interviews with top marketers and brand leaders.

The Search for Sustainability

In many ways, the story of the next decade in fashion will be defined by how well brands and the industry at large unpack the many questions around sustainability and fashion. Sustainability is very much a challenge of untangling and rewiring systems, and there’s no magic bullet. But individual brands are doing what they can to manifest the change they want to see. 

At the summit, we heard from brands like Rebag and Thousand Fell about the solutions they’re forging to promote sustainability in fashion. Thousand Fell’s co-founders talked us through their recycling-driven approach and the experience of launching as Covid-19 gripped the world. Meanwhile, Rebag CMO Elizabeth Layne told us that creating educational resources on the brand’s platform is informing and inspiring consumers. She said we’ve only scratched the surface of what resale can do to advance sustainability in fashion.  

Executive interview

Stuart Ahlum and Chloe Songer, co-founders of recyclable sneaker brand Thousand Fell, spoke about engaging the conscious consumer and the structural challenges of building a truly circular economy to counter the rising tide of textile waste. 

Glossy: You launched ahead of the last 19 months and the rise of the conscious consumer that we talk a lot about. Has this wave and this trend really worked to your advantage?

Chloe Songer: We love the idea of the conscious consumer. We definitely felt that we were launching at the right time, and we definitely saw that furthered post-March 2020 and then post-June 2020, particularly with the younger demographic that we are speaking to with the Thousand Fell brand. 

We saw 30-40% purely month-over-month organic growth last year, following our, kind of, “Let’s just put up the website,” May 2020 launch. And a lot of that was driven by community. We built a community alongside the brand called Friend of the Future. We felt like, in the midst of everything, we couldn’t just be selling circular sneakers. We needed to have a place to build out activism, either circular education or sustainable fashion education… In July of this year, we had 770 people show up to our online Refashion the Future events.

Glossy: Do [your customers] need an incentive beyond the satisfaction of making a sustainable purchase? Is it that they want their next pair of shoes, so they’ll send back the old pair? Do they need something more?

Stuart Ahlum: We are actively testing that, and we’re basing that on some really sound data. If you look at municipal recycling writ large, one of my favorite stats is that Poland popped up a plastics recycling program in the early aughts, and the adoption was abysmal. Fifteen percent of people were recycling cans. Then they added the equivalent of a $0.05 incentive, and it jumped to 96%. 

What we’re seeing here, too, is that people need to understand that there’s value in [the item’s] material, because there is. And so having people assign value to that and having people recoup that for the next purchase is huge. We’re testing a bunch of different things: Is it a flat rate across products? Does it vary over time? How do we incentivize you to keep your product longer?

Songer: We believe that, to build circularity, you really need to build a circular economy. It’s the “economy” piece of the circular economy. The problem of textile waste is that there is no value in a fiber post-use. Eighty-five percent of clothing ends up in a landfill, and 99% of global textiles aren’t recycled. Textile waste is the single fastest-growing category of waste in the United States. Since 2000, textile waste has grown 54%, while mainstream waste has dropped 5%. 

Glossy: Considering the consumer mindset as it stands, you threw out all of these really compelling stats that would make somebody stop in their tracks. But what is the balance of content and the education that [consumers] need, versus, “Hey, these are cute shoes”?

Songer: When we pivot our messaging to education, our site traffic bumps up 70%. In doing so this past week, our sales bumped up 88%. So there’s a huge impact on sales of sneakers and people wanting to buy into this bigger vision and this mission and this community. When we’re just posting UGC or influencer photos of sneakers, you kind of lose engagement over time. 

Brands Building Communities

In 2021, every good brand has its community. Many leaned on their brand communities to endure through the turmoil of 2020, and some built communities from the ground, discovering the value of engaged superfans for the first time. Community will continue to be a driving force for marketing going forward, and many of the speakers at the summit shared what they’re doing to foster compelling community experiences and build deeper affinity between customer and brand. 

Eberjey co-founders Ali Mejia and Mariela Rovito talked about digging into user reviews and creating unique gifts for customers, to mark the brand’s 25th anniversary. They also talked about rethinking their copywriting style to connect more directly with the consumer on the basis that, “It’s a conversation, rather than talking to the stratosphere.” Ba&sh and Express have created roles to establish more formal connections between star customers and the brands, and they explained their differing approaches. And, to note: Employees are also a key part of a brand’s community. We heard from Eberjey and others about being more intentional about building connections and culture internally.  

Executive interview

Tim Baxter, CEO of Express, talked about rejuvenating “the store at the mall” by engaging the brand’s top customers, leveraging the power of community and deploying an innovative “style editor” program.

Glossy: What drew you to Express when you were hired in 2019?

Tim Baxter: I have always absolutely loved connecting people through fashion. I find that there is an extraordinary connectivity between people and Express, and when it was at its best, there was a real connectivity between trends and people, and that created a sort of community of people. I saw an opportunity to recreate that magic that had once been a part of the brand that had just sort of faded. 

Glossy: Tell me how you went about talking to your customers to find that brand purpose. Were there focus groups? What was going on there?

Baxter: It was actually a pretty unique way for us to engage with our best customers. We went into our customer file and engaged our best customers – we asked them to participate in surveys, and then there were multiple focus groups that were held. One of the ways that we’ll win is certainly by engaging the people that are already most engaged with the brand and excited about the brand. And when we landed on that with that group and we tested it in much broader groups, that really resonated extraordinarily well with people. 

Glossy: I have to ask about the community commerce program. What’s going on there?

Baxter: When you look at so many companies that have been so successful over the past several years, they’re all centered around or based on communities. Whether it’s SoulCycle or Uber, they’re communities of people. 

So community commerce is an entirely new platform for us. It gives people the opportunity to apply to be style editors, and if they’re accepted, they get to build their own Express storefront. It’s connected to, but we’re also creating exclusive product capsules for these style editors — things that will only be available for them to sell. And they get a commission for everything they sell. I think we’ll end up with more style editors than associates. 

Personalizing Fashion’s Future

As brands look to the future, they’re grappling with how fashion marketing can best drive the twin priorities of big-picture brand building on the one hand, and the day-to-day necessities of racking up sales and expanding reach. Brands that can best harness data, emerging technologies like AI, VR and AR, as well as Gen Z-centric social platforms like TikTok and whatever comes after that, will be positioning themselves for success in the future fashion landscape. 

So what will successful use of technology look like? One outcome will be the dovetailing of commerce and marketing into highly personalized services driven by data and tactile, engaging applications of advanced tech. We heard how Snap Inc. is using its acquisition of Fit Analytics to develop ever more sophisticated virtual try-on tools and product recommendations. Meanwhile Elizabeth Layne of Rebag talked about using technology to build a sophisticated seller-centric platform that will allow the brand to scale its inventory, and Darren McColl shared how Neiman Marcus uses first-party data to drive mutually rewarding engagements between style advisors and customers.  

Executive interview

Darren McColl, CMO at Neiman Marcus, talked about the future of fashion marketing and the way the luxury retailer is using first-party data and digital connectivity to treat customers as the individuals they are.

Glossy: Tell me about catering to your luxury consumer through marketing. Is it about personalization, in the vein of knowing their name? What do you have to know about them, and what do they expect?

Darren McColl: I want everyone to be seen as an individual customer. And to that end, one of our great personalization tools is our style advisor app, which is called Connect. The way we use data, as an example, is we can feed what we call the client Connect using our first-party data and the actions and the buying patterns of our customers through the sales advisor; we can say: “Six months ago, Mary purchased X, and she typically buys Y six months later.” We’ll send that to the style advisor so they can actually reach out to Mary and say, “Hey Mary, do you want to set up an appointment to come into the store, because around this time of year, you’re typically looking for ball gowns, or whatever it is. To me, that’s a really meaningful personalization, and it’s all data-driven — because our style advisors can’t remember everything and every purchase and every opportunity at the same time.

Glossy: In a prior conversation, you talked about personalization by saying you don’t do it in a creepy way. What is the fine line? Where don’t you go?

McColl: We’re very conscious of not giving people stuff they really don’t need. I was talking about meaningful relevance, which is being relevant in the moment and in the channel, but giving customers information that’s meaningful to them. 

I think the other dimension is really being authentic to your values, and luxury today is more inclusive than ever before. Five years ago, luxury was put on a pedestal: “Let’s all aspire to it.” Today, luxury is more about quality, understanding and sharing common values around things like sustainability and inclusiveness and belonging. You can help break down the creepy factor if the brand and the customer truly share similar values. If your friend says to you something that’s personal, it’s OK, because you have this trust. Building that trust is part of the brand’s responsibility, and every one of the individual style advisors’ responsibility.

Glossy: What’s the future of marketing, as you see it?

McColl: I think we will continue to try and balance the two dimensions of long-term brand value with customers and building equity in the hearts and minds of our customers. At the same time, [it’s considering] the dynamics of being relevant in the moment. 

Every little moment has to be a part of a bigger brand story for us. And I think marketing will continue to do that. The channels with which we do it will continue to change — that, to me, is the exciting part, having new platforms and just having new tools. The creativity of customers creating Reels and things like that on social is inspiring for creative people, so we start to create things in similar ways. I think being adaptive is relevant, but the great brands will still be great brands, That’s the important part, to me. We can’t let that go. Performance marketing will drive your sales up, but performance marketing will not build your brand.

Also Worth Knowing

Fashion still has a long way to go to work through the legacy of decades of exclusionary practices and habits. However, a growing number of entrepreneurs, leaders and creatives are working hard to build a more inclusive and diverse fashion industry. Sizing is just one aspect of inclusivity that is often lacking, and a number of speakers at the summit discussed the factors that restrain progress and what is being done. 

Dia&Co founder and CEO Nadia Boujarwah said that, while the costs of developing an inclusive selection of sizes has decreased, the marketing costs associated with inclusive sizing have gone up. Many brands fall into the trap of taking an all-or-nothing approach to inclusive sizing. Boujarwah said this stalls progress and urged brands to understand the virtue of incremental progress. Brands can take small steps, but they should be transparent with consumers about their plans. 

“Start talking about what you have done, and talk about the next thing that you’re going to do. Be very clear about the journey that you’re on, the roadmap that you hope to be able to achieve,” Boujarwah said. “Very few brands have the resources to go from zero to 100.”

Last Word

If the fashion industry has felt like it has been at an inflection point for at least the past year, perhaps that’s just a reflection of how much is changing and how much uncertainty there is to go around. We’ll soon find out what kind of a resurgence brick-and-mortar will enjoy, and that will impact the ways brands orchestrate the balance between the physical and virtual realms. Brands may return to the office en masse, but it’s just as likely that the future workplace will be built around remote work and hybrid arrangements — and that could have huge implications for the world’s fashion capitals. And our current supply chain woes could be the catalyst for a root-and-branch reworking of manufacturing and logistics strategies.

But as we begin to look to 2022 — and just maybe, finally, this time, the end of the pandemic? — we see a lot to be hopeful about in our industry. Up-and-coming entrepreneurs are joining forces with Gen-Z and other consumers to remake the industry in a more sustainable, inclusive and diverse image. Even if progress is incremental, the industry’s larger players are recognizing they need to be part of the solution. Brands are embracing data and technology and using both to deliver better services centered around and informed by the consumer’s needs. The end result could be a fashion industry that is more human, and more humane, than ever before.

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