There has been a great deal written about fashion technology, everything from wearables to fit design, customization, manufacturing and social media marketing. The list is endless and incorporates, cloud computing, predictive analytics, 3D printing and much more. There are fashion labs springing up around the country even around the globe, but what are they and what do they offer entrepreneurs?
In general, these labs are designed to iterate either fashion design or technology used in fashion and retail. There is a distinction and if you are contemplating applying to one of these labs, you should know the difference. There is also a clear divide between those labs that accelerate the growth of a stand-alone company from those that are meant to be integrated into the operations of the retailer.
Six Fashion Tech Labs Retailers Offer
In general, retail labs are meant to enhance the consumer experience in the retail store or environment. People who enter these labs generally work hand and hand with the digital, e-commerce, in-store merchandising teams to develop their product or service. If these prove out, they get integrated into the retailers operations. Often the retailer is buying technology talent to integrate into their own operations. It is not likely that they will become separate companies, but rather a part of the retailers own development team. If they don't mature to a usable product or service for the retailer, they are either abandoned or spun out of the program to go at it on their own.
A case in point on this is Stylr, a New York based start- up acquired by WalMart. The company was shut down and taken inside WalMart where the founders will continue development for WalMart. In this case and many others, the retailer is buying technology talent and the founders are getting compensated for early stage development.
Each retailer lab has its unique purpose, and what they have in common is that they are trying to improve the relationship with their customers. Here are the six prominent retail fashion labs run by retailers:
Kohl's Design It! was established through a partnership between Kohl's Department Stores and Discovery World and is located in Milwaukee, WI. Students and designers can access Design It! in-person or through online classes that provide an educational forum to explore the necessary steps and feedback for a successful design. This is not so much a lab for entrepreneurs as it is for the fundamentals of design.
Macy's has initiated fashion design labs in different cities starting with Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco and Miami. The purpose of these labs is to foster the growth of design experts in different cities and to tap into new talent in design. Having design labs in different cities is one way to increase the sourcing for new design talent.
Nordstrom has reached out into the design and technology communities of Seattle and Silicon Valley to identify new talent that enhance the customer experience. In addition to providing technical mentors to these innovators, they give them opportunities to try their product or service in store to gather intelligence and iterate the product. If successful, the product or service is launched for Nordstrom's customers, or if applicable to back-end technology, integrated into their platform.
To prove that the big box retailers are not only domestic US minded, Target has opened a fashion tech lab in Bangalore, India. The types of innovation projects they undertake relate to all areas of customer engagement as well as back-end technology. Ultimately, they, like other retailers are looking for integration into their store operations and customer engagement.
Walmart was one of the first retailers to establish a fashion tech lab and they choose Silicon Valley to launch their shop in 2011. Since then, they have acquired 14 companies, all of which have been brought into WalMart to work with specific areas of expertise. These are exemplified by companies like Torbit, which is a cloud-based website accelerator that WalMart believes will make their website run faster. Another acquisition was Social Calendar, a Facebook application to remind users of birthdays and other special occasions. All acquisitions are essentially the onboarding of talent for WalMart.
6. Westfield Lab
The Westfield shopping centers have established their labs to integrate digital media into the shopping experience for their mall customers. This might range from apps to find out where in the mall a certain item might be found, or how to order your meal in advance of getting to the food court or restaurant. As shopping malls turn more and more into entertainment destinations, advance purchases for movies that has been prevalent for years now will translate into a host of other engagements for shoppers.
Five Fashion Tech Labs For Entrepreneurs
If your purpose is to take your idea and your proven prototype for fashion or retail technology and test it in the marketplace, there are at least five fashion tech labs budding in key cities where you might try your luck to get in. Generally these labs are set up to help entrepreneurs iterate their product or service through intensive mentoring by industry experts.
Generally, you will only be accepted into their competitive entry programs if you already have an operating company, have a prototype that works, and have some customer engagement. A couple programs will take earlier stage entrepreneurs who show promise with their prototype.
Location may mean a lot to you because these labs are located in four different cities, including New York, London, Paris and San Francisco. So if location means a lot to you, check out the lab near you.
1. New York Fashion Tech Lab
The New York Fashion Tech Lab (NYFTLab) is a joint effort of the Partnership Fund for New York City and Springboard Enterprises, an accelerator for women-led businesses, though this lab is open to all. The twelve week program just completed its first cycle. NYFTLab provides a select group of early stage fashion tech companies with direct access to New York's leading fashion retailers and brands fostering iteration, validation and acceleration of technologies that advance the industry. Differentiated from the retail labs in the first section of this article, these companies will go on as separate companies to build out their products and services. Common workspace is provided free of charge to lab companies who are invited to regular workshops with fashion and technology industry leaders. Importantly, lab companies get to mount pilot programs with fashion and retail companies to test their prototypes, benefiting both the entrepreneurs and fashion companies.
2. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Fashion Incubator
The CFDA Fashion Incubator is a two-year program that supports apparel and accessory companies through business development. This lab is open to early and mid-stage American-based brands. This lab provides low-cost studio space, mentorship, educational opportunities, and the support of New York's fashion community. The goal of the lab is to develop sustainable companies counted by new fashion designers.
3. Front Row
The Front Row Lab in London is offering entrepreneurs the opportunity to develop their product or service with the input of experts in the fashion and consumer products worlds. This 12-week program offers creative workspace, mentors, and marketing expertise to get these companies into the competitive space for their product or service. When completed, they also will help them with their pitch to the investor community. Front Row does take consumer products into their lab, and this means it crosses over from technology to consumer products.
4. Fashion & Technology Lab
The Fashion Technology Lab in Paris is focused on design and offers to connect young designers with experienced mentors in the fashion industry to help them develop their talents. The lab offers space and a design studio patterned after resources a fashion house might offer. Branding and marketing are also part of the lab offerings. Upon completion of the lab program, the Lab also introduces the designers to sources of funding.
5. Fashion Technology University
This lab is offered more as a university where fashion tech innovators can test their prototypes, get access to mentors and learn how to raise capital based on their product or service. The innovation companies rent space from the Fashion Tech University, and pay for each individual seat occupied by the company for the duration of their stay. This lab is focused on fashion technology and connected to the technology companies in the Bay Area.
So it is today, that fashion tech labs offer a range of design and scope. Some offer entry into big box retailers, some offer fashion design and some offer entrepreneurs the opportunity to iterate their product or service. It is best to know where these different opportunities can be found before setting out to join their ranks. Matching your objective to what they offer will help your chances of achieving success.