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Fashion Brands: Stir the Pot, Or Get Burned

Fashion brand managers and designers, both established and emerging, should take heed. Your customers are changing their decision making patterns more quickly than you are changing your sales and marketing models.
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They all say no... until they say yes.

This line has resonated for years with former high school nerds -- I'd count myself as one -- who were once passed over for the jocks, until those jocks failed to make the NFL and we, their nerdy counterparts, graduated from college and became successful entrepreneurs or corporate executives.

Speaking of executives, this line has also been true for Fortune companies that passed up the opportunities to buy or partner with more innovative, nimble companies until those same companies became their most fierce competition.

Perhaps those companies chose to rely on favoritism from government friends? Funny thing is, that line has also been very true when long-time politicians said, "no new taxes," until the economic conditions demanded new revenue... sometimes from taxing those same corporations.

But, if you ask me, it's been much more applicable to fashion brands and designers? Whether you're established and raking in millions in American malls or emerging and scrapping by on one online sell at a time, this notion of no-until-yes seems to apply far too often.

Isn't the fashion industry supposed to be known for creativity and innovation? Setting new trends and forecasting what's next? Determining what's hot and pointing a finger at what "works?"

Unfortunately, you won't see much of this if you went into the corporate offices of fashion companies or talked to many of these fashion upstarts about something off the beaten path like -- the Pandora-like company for fashion discovery. counts Tory Burch, Ralph Lauren and others as clients now, but startups like theirs often have meeting after meeting where they are literally explaining the power of social media to corporate execs and designers. Didn't Facebook do that already? Apparently not enough in the fashion world, as some companies are still debating the merits of e-commerce and Twitter accounts.

The few companies that truly break ground and invent new paths for their brands and companies are the anomalies, not the rules. Upstarts like Atlanta-based streetwear line We Are The Process are doing more for their brand through online channels than some multi-million dollar enterprises with Madison Avenue headquarters. These brands are those rare high school girls who chose to date the presidents of the math and science clubs instead of the quarterbacks of the football team. Wisdom beyond their years.

And what do you know; the NFL season is just around the corner. Jocks are back! Well, sort of. Now, with a much more humbled approach one would hope. Because the only reason the lockout even happened was because of this desire to say no until they were forced to say yes. The fashion industry should pay attention.

Here we are, in the second half of the year and, before you know it, it'll be holiday season. If ever there was a time for fashion brands and companies to create, innovate and present something off the beaten path, the holidays would be it. To most fashion industry traditionalists (no matter how old or young they are) that statement is unimaginable. "The holiday season is no time to mix it up! We've got to do what worked last year and the year before that and the years before that!"

Good luck.

Too often, these industries of "thinkers" -- in business, in politics, in fashion -- think themselves into oblivion. Many of those high school girls who loved those jocks can't seem to find good professional men to date in their 20s and 30s. The Fortune companies that shook their heads in disagreement later watched their competitors fly past them as their competitors' products flew off the shelves. Those politicians who said they'd never vote for new taxes or new healthcare/education/crime/etc. reform end up looking like flip-floppers because they were always on the wrong side and unwilling to relent.

Fashion brand managers and designers, both established and emerging, should take heed. Your customers are changing their decision-making patterns more quickly than you are changing your sales and marketing models. Your competition -- far more ubiquitous than you can imagine -- is going to outpace you with every little seemingly unimportant "can't" statement you make.

Why can't you do more to relate your brand to your customers? Why can't your site work harder for you? Why can't you use those reviews for product development instead of just for marketing? Why can't you be the first to do it?

Must you wait for others to create, innovate and invent before you before you say "yes, let's do it"? The record labels waited too long. Napster. Apple's iTunes. Pandora. Spotify. Blockbuster waited too long to develop an online answer to Netflix. American politicians waited too long to regulate Wall Street. Now, it seems, we may be waiting a bit too long to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels too.

Fashion designers like to think of themselves as the great inventors and pioneers of the style community, but they're fitting in far too nicely with some of the least inventive and traditionally minded business "leaders" of America when it comes to having a can-do attitude.

They all say no...until they say yes. They convince themselves that they have something new to offer at the same tradeshows/fashion weeks/runway events/retail stores/etc. that the brands and companies before them attended and pitched. But they have more confidence than evidence.

As the shift from fashion-to-style continues and established titans fall, it'll be interesting to see just how long the fashion industry continues to pretend we're still living in the old world. Will fashion design graduates continue to intern for companies that don't tap into their young employees' knack for Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr? Will they continue to be fashion elitist as more and more people seek inclusion in a style community?

Emerging designers are clamoring for a new model. No more poorly attended trade shows, over-budgeted fashion weeks, usual-suspects-filled runway events, and hopes of styling the next Lady GaGa. What they're really wanting is an industry that embraces something new, that says yes to creativity and innovation (even if it isn't approved by one magazine editor or pop icon), and a realization that the world is different.

The fashion world today is going to require much more entrepreneurial spirit and trial-and-error than the old model. You know what I'm talking about: repeating what already worked and letting that cascade from a few houses in Paris and New York to a handful of magazines in those cities to a few hundred taste-makers in key cities to a few dozen copy-cat designers nationwide with smaller budgets or less creative designers but with reach to a thousand mall stores who market to a million customers to generate a billion dollars.

Yeah, the future is already saying no to that. The future is about community not commodity. It's just a matter of time before these fashion traditionalists are forced to say, "yes, the world is different."