OPINION17 August 2017

Data – the new little black dress in fashion

Opinion Retail UK

How gamification can help identify future-focused insights and waste reduction in clothing design and development. By Betty Adamou

Clothes rack_crop

Creative people take risks. More often than not it’s unknown what people think of our work before it’s produced. We don't do the same kind of concept tests often reserved for say, package design, for things like paintings or a piece of writing. There’s intuition on what will be saleable, but with no real way to check a gut feeling, it’s a risk creatives take.

But what if being creative with commercial targets meant you couldn't take risks? What if great design was the make or break of engaging consumers and increasing sales for business survival and growth?

Fashion brands are such businesses. In a hugely competitive industry, they're relying on fresh approaches to design, innovation, understanding their consumers, and reflecting (or establishing) trends to stay ahead. And with changing political landscapes, production costs and sustainability are also concerns, especially in the face of rigid and long-established processes.

More than ever before in history, the fashion industry is also seeing less-established and independent designers gain traction via non-traditional modes of promotion (think social media). With that comes even more competition for the bigger brands.

And with more influencers, trends can change direction in a single Instagram upload. Not only are high street fashion brands concerned about the fast pace of evolving trends, but that they might not be picking up on the right trend, or doing so fast enough to get in store while it matters.

With this kind of landscape, how do high street fashion brands, particularly those producing the same shapes and styles over and over (think sportswear) stay fresh, new and competitive?

Here are some typical approaches:

  • Insights on current trends and trend predictions are gathered using sites like WGSN, industry reports, and following influencers
  • Using retrospective data to help inform the next collection: what sold well last season; what buyers liked and didn't like last Spring/Summer to help inform what to design this Spring/Summer. As researchers, we can certainly understand why such data would be a useful tool. However, by the time this data is in the hands of decision-makers, it’s already 6+ months out of date and can be (as expert Dalia Simble-Hearn explains) “muddy” – that is to say the data may be unclear, inaccurate or inconsistent – as well as old.

To stay ahead in this day and age, fashion brands need data on what people want tomorrow, not what people wanted yesterday.

So what’s the solution?

Last year, the VF Corporation (VFC) got in touch for a ResearchGame on behalf of one of its brands – Lucy Activewear. VFC has an extensive portfolio of apparel brands: Vans, The North Face, Wrangler and Timberland – and of course Lucy – to name a few. 

At the time, Lucy had 60+ shops around the US, a thriving online retail store, and $57 million in revenue annually. Lucy wanted to grow its business through understanding more about what its consumers were looking for. Specifically it wanted:

  • customers to build their ideal activewear bottoms (online via the ResearchGame) in a playful way that was enjoyable
  • to use the data from that in-game design process as evidence to support  new designs and collections.

It had also recognised that game-based research methods had the potential to significantly increase consumer response rates, response accuracy, and engage internal clients – all important objectives to the Lucy team.

To meet the criteria and engage its active, female audience (aged 20- to 49-years-old and based in the US) we developed a three level ResearchGame where participants designed their ideal activewear bottoms as a ‘Designer for a Day’. They could choose options on shape, length, colour, print, pocket quantity and more – all while seeing the garment come to life on screen.

The participant feedback was 99% was positive. The Lucy team were delighted that the game was more enjoyable for their customers compared with other surveys, and departments such as marketing and design were significantly more engaged in our research than previous studies.

Just a couple of weeks after the study closed, the Lucy team were “already putting the learning to use in new product designs”.

Tom Ford at Burberry said in 2016: “In order to compete in this market, the value of customer feedback and data is all important.” While the move to using data and insights will truly be a game-changer across the fashion landscape, it also goes hand in hand with the industry’s move to #SlowFashion, a concept-now-hashtag. Slow fashion is the idea that we buy from sustainable brands, we make do and mend, and embrace second-hand to make our clothes go further. The statistics are staggering on how grossly unsustainable fast fashion is. In the UK alone, seven tonnes of discarded clothes end up in landfill every 10 minutes. So needless to say, waste reduction is crucial for fashion (and for Mother Earth) to survive.

The ResearchGame can also aid waste reduction (waste in fabric, resources, energy etc) because if apparel brands learn more about what people want, they can make less of what they don’t want. It’s only through research and new data collection technologies like engaging games that fashion brands can stay competitive and sustainable.

Data is, after all, the fashion industry’s new must-have.

Betty Adamou is CEO, founder & chief ResearchGame designer at Research Through Gaming. She will be presenting her award winning talk at the Best of Impact event in Salford, Manchester on 7 September 2017.