Fashion, Innovation and Lessons from Silicon Valley

The birthplace of IT giants such as HP, Intel, Apple, Google and Facebook, Silicon Valley – just south-east of San Francisco - is widely regarded as the de facto capital of technological entrepreneurship. Named after silicon, the most widely used material employed in electronics engineering, Silicon Valley has its roots at the height of the Second World War, when the emphasis on technological innovation was originally deployed to defeat the Germans.

The fashion industry benefits from a similar emphasis on innovation, deeply ingrained within the very nature of the fashion cycle and the concept of planned obsolescence and renewal that characterizes the product cycle. But in order for the fashion industry to really innovate, it could benefit from injecting some of that Silicon Valley spirit into the way it works and thinks.

Certainly, the fashion industry is seeing a new wave of start-ups that leverage core digital functionalities. A fashion magazine is not just a monthly paper tome, but is accompanied by a daily digital presence that supplements additional monetization, using a combination of targeted ads, community-based engagement, shoppable videos, e-commerce capabilities to buy straight from the runway, and this is just the beginning.

However, despite much talk of trends and newness, the fashion industry takes a surprisingly narrow approach to real innovation, relegating it to a function of the product development cycle rather than a fundamental element of running a successful business.

For instance, Silicon Valley takes a healthy and open attitude towards failure. Failure has even become a core competence people highlight in their resumés, as a means to highlight their capacity to take calculated risks and internalize practical take-aways when things don’t go to plan.

By contrast, we can safely say that the fashion industry does not share this culture to the same extent - but it should: having a relaxed attitude to failure motivates entrepreneurs to try new models, take chances, learn and pivot, opening up the possibility to creating those elusive products and services that make a real difference to how people live their lives.

Across the Silicon Valley ecosystem, entrepreneurs and employees alike are actively encouraged to take on a higher level of qualified risk. For instance, Google has a policy of encouraging employees to work on their own ideas for up to 20% of their time, while Facebook arranges for regular “hackathons” to give their employees a chance to play around when it comes to digital problem-solving. Indeed, the Like button was conceived as part of a hackathon.

Does any company in the fashion industry approach innovation in such a systematic manner? So far, the few fashion companies that are paving the way are the likes of Burberry, Topshop or ASOS, all recognized leaders when it comes to exploiting the opportunities of digital marketing. Yet as an industry, fashion is yet to fully embody that Silicon Valley spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation and to apply it across the board and within the fabric of established companies.

Indeed, one of the features that defines the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon valley is that it permeates to all company employees, from founder to executive. It’s all in the attitude, achieved by focusing not on the limitations and obstacles, but rather on the opportunities and making things happen. In Silicon Valley, even the lawyers and accountants have The Lean Startup on their bookshelves. How many Paris couture houses or Milanese maisons can say that?

Certainly, the emphasis on technology and this unique entrepreneurial attitude is paying off. A number of venture capital firms have begun eyeing up the fashion industry, starting with the obvious ecommerce websites a few years ago, and the time is ripe for further investments in the sector. Tellingly, a widely held view when it comes to investments in Silicon Valley is the notion that if you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they’ll screw it up; but if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they’ll make it work.

It’s worth noting, there are certainly lessons that Silicon Valley could learn from fashion. I think a quote from that seminal film that provides an insight to the Silicon Valley zeitgeist, The Social Network, sums it up best. When the character of Mark Zuckerberg was asked when Facebook would be finished, his response was “Facebook is like fashion. Fashion is never finished.”

Navid Ostadian-Binai is a technology leader and philanthropist with a background from Scandinavia and Silicon Valley. Currently based in London, he is working to bridge the worlds of fashion, technology and business. You can say hi to Navid on Twitter at @navidob.