Better late than never: Fashion belatedly embraces hackathons

The term “hackathon” typically evokes bleary-eyed computer engineers crunching numbers and solving algorithms until the break of dawn. Now the fashion industry is trying its hand at these “marathon brainstorming sessions” in an attempt to not just get ahead in the digital realm, but also poach emerging tech talent for their expanding digital teams.

In fashion, the relatively recent rise of hackathons — a practice long ingrained in Silicon Valley — can be attributed to the sluggish digitization of luxury retail. Liz Bacelar, founder of Decoded Fashion and currently the chief content officer at The Current, created the first highly publicized fashion hackathon in 2013, an event that convened 650 fashion and technology professionals to solve digital challenges of major fashion brands. Over the course of 24 hours, participants separated into groups and used their combined skills to tackle real-world requests from executives at brands including Rachel Roy, Michael Kors and DKNY. A team of industry judges scored their efforts, granting cash prizes to top teams.

In addition to fostering emerging talent, Bacelar said the hackathon was designed to accelerate the pace of digital growth at fashion and beauty brands. Her aim was that, if the industry witnessed the speed and ingenuity displayed at a hackathon-style event, it might inspire them to adopt similar practices. “I have an obsession with open innovation. If you open your company to let change in — especially because hackathons tend to focus on young talent and entrepreneurs — it creates ways to co-create,” she said.

Four years later, Bacelar said luxury brands remain stubborn to usher in digital practices that differ widely from how they’ve traditionally operated. Though brands like Coach recently held a hackathon in partnership with The Current to identify tech solutions (and notable fashion photographer Mario Testino staged one of his own last year), convincing brands of the value of hackathons can be difficult.

This is an obstacle Facebook knows well. At its first forum for luxury brand marketers on Wednesday, Facebook creative strategist Thomas Puckett posed the potential for Facebook to host a future luxury hackathon to audience members. As if anticipating the hesitation of luxury retailers in the audience, he caveated that it wouldn’t take the form of the traditional 24-hour sleepless event and urged them to set aside preconceived notions about multi-brand hackathons.

“A hack sounds like a scary word — [you might think of] someone hacking into your credit card — but to us, hacking is for collaborating and building something together,” Puckett said.

However, while fashion hackathons have proven successful in birthing companies like 42 Technologies — a retail analytics platform formed after the 2013 Decoded Fashion hackathon and used by brands like Rebecca Minkoff – their efficacy remains murky.

Fay Cowan, brand and content director at Decoded Fashion, said a major roadblock in executing successful fashion hackathons is the inability to identify a brand problem at the micro level. She said many of the hackathons she’s experienced have posed too broad of a question, which inhibits the development of tactical solutions.

One example was a hackathon Decoded Fashion held with AllSaints in 2014, in which the brand conceded they weren’t able to implement the tech solutions that came out of the event. The same year, Decoded Fashion encountered a similar disconnect during a hackathon event with Westfield Malls. As a result, Cowan said fashion hackathons need to focus on being more specific in their approach, in order to identify operational solutions.

“AllSaints is very much about creating a digital culture and ecosystem through their business. They’re up for experimentation, but they also know when something will create a positive movement,” she said. “The creation of technology just for the sake of it is never going to be valuable for anyone. There has to be a purpose for it.”

Though AllSaints left empty-handed, sponsor Condé Nast International was able to get a leg up in identifying future talent. The publisher’s participation was driven by its human resources team, a clear play to scout developers with digital prowess to help with the company’s ongoing digital transformation. In this regard, hackathons serve as a veritable job fair of sorts for participants to show off their skills. Leanne Luce, founder of the blog The Fashion Robot, said in many ways, the hackathons are more advantageous to coders and developers than fashion brands. “I’m not convinced that Hackathons are helping brands as much as I see them as a way for technology companies to enter new markets.”

However, another barrier is that these computer engineers often don’t want to be poached, in large part because of the vast culture gap between technology and fashion, said Bacelar. She said many of the participants of her hackathons are gainfully employed and essentially “collecting badges,” or playing for the accolades.

Luce said she anticipates that fashion hackathons may have wider reaching implications than are immediately visible since luxury brands are often tight-lipped in their operations. “Fashion hackathons have raised a lot of awareness in the community about the lack of technology in certain aspects of the fashion industry processes, but the industry itself has been relatively opaque about its own internal developments.”

One such company that has been open about its internal brainstorming is the Yoox Net-A-Porter group, which has regularly held hackathons for years, explaining on its website that it finds value in allowing its employees to experiment freely.

“We actively encourage our developers to try things out that would never pass muster during normal software development, and we hope they’ll present what happened, even if it’s not what they were hoping for,” the company states on its website.

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