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In Case You Missed It: The Future of Fashion Panel

This week we brought together some of the most disruptive brands in the fashion game to discuss The Future of Fashion: Changing the Distribution ChannelVeteran and trailblazer Malia Mills joined the footwear fanatics at Allbirds, the knit gurus at Thursday Finest, the global citizens at Apolis, and the innovative designers at Outlier to offer up insights on design, manufacturing, the wholesale model, and sustainability. (And for all those who couldn’t make it in store, we streamed the conversation live on Facebook and fielded questions from those tuning in at home). You can watch the whole video below, or read about  a few highlights from the conversation that was moderated by STORY founder Rachel Shechtman.

On Leveraging Retail’s “Human” Element

Each brand’s journey has been a uniquely personal one in terms of product development, distribution, and the eternal grapple with, “the cost of standing out” (to borrow a term from Outlier Co-founder Abe Burmeister). But despite working within a landscape that’s perpetually shapeshifting, a few panelists emphasized that the brick-and-mortar experience is anything but obsolete.

Reflecting on the launch of her swimwear separates line nearly 25 years ago, Malia Mills described the experience of moving from wholesale to retail –  for the better.

“We launched in 1993, and at the time, there was no google. The big retailers wanted to differentiate themselves from other stores in terms of style and color, and it became a very difficult business to build,” she noted during the panel.

“It was tricky to manage cash flow – some retailers weren’t paying us for 30, 45, or 60 days – and we thought, ‘we have a lot of bathing suits, and no money, so let’s have a sample sale.’ That was the ah-ha moment for us. Meeting our customers in person showed what a difference having an in-store experience could make. For the first time we had the luxury of showing women how to adjust straps, or offer different styles that were more suited to their body type. It was everything.”

Mills emphasized that their ethos lies in looking at their stores (there are currently 11) not as “retail locations,” but as “mini hubs” for women in the neighborhood that are always in proximity to places that people visit once or twice a week – dry cleaners, coffee shops. etc. “Our stores aren’t necessarily in big retail districts,” Mills added. “We realized that we don’t need a ton of customers, but we need a core of passionate individuals who are into what we’re doing and want to know everything.”

Twenty years after Malia Mills launched her first location, Raan and Shea Parton launched Apolis, but their experience operating their own brick-and-mortar location was similar to that of Mills.

“If you have a great story to tell with interesting product, retail is usually the common denominator,” Raan Parton noted during the panel. “Sometimes when things aren’t available online – or anywhere else for that matter – there becomes a sense of urgency to buy it, and the product resonates in stores all the more.”

On the Direct-to-Consumer Model 

Eschewing the retail model, Abe Burmeister of Outlier considered some of the pros of operating online.

“Outlier was accidentally founded because I was looking for something that didn’t exist on the market yet. I wanted a comfortable pair of pants to ride my bike to work in and wouldn’t get sweaty. A year later, I was still looking.” After Burmeister teamed up with Tyler Clemens –  who was looking to do the same thing, but with shirts – the two realized that what they aspired to do wasn’t so easy.

“We launched in 2008, right amid the crash, and we had no idea what would happen – but there was suddenly a big interest,” Burmeister added. “Our stuff isn’t cheap by any means, but being online allows us to stay accessible.”

Outside of making the product more accessible, Veronika Harbick of Thursday Finest believes that a direct-to-consumer model for knits is exactly what allows their burgeoning business to remain agile. “Making and distributing the product in real time allows us to rethink the product and how it’s made. We can easily differentiate what color is trending on Instagram versus what people are actually ordering, because we’re receiving and processing orders in real time.”

Nevertheless, Harbick foresees a direct-to-consumer retail hybrid in which customers can get a closer look at the production process. “The store will essentially become a factory, and it will allow customers to create something to take home within an hour, and get a first-hand look at how the product is created.”

On Sustaining Demand 

In an increasingly competitive market where the barrier to entry is quite low, perhaps the single most important question that emerged by the end of the panel was, “How do you stay competitive and sustain demand?”

Matt BurchardAllbird’s General Manager of E-commerce, noted that “being bold” is the key. (Burchard filled in for Allbirds’ Co-founder Joey Zwillinger, who was dealing with a landslide at his home – literally). “You have to be provocative in both an implicit and explicit way and be willing to ‘poke the bear’ so to speak,” he noted. “In the case of Allbirds, we only have one SKU. But we went out and said, ‘We’re the next Converse.'”

Their team realized that people started to “bird watch” – spotting the distinct shoe that’s noticeable on the street. But unlike their competitors, they’re made from all-natural materials and they deliver incredible comfort. “You can’t get that anywhere else, and we were bold enough to point out that we were doing something that the other guys weren’t.”

Burchard also added that a crucial piece of their model is to identify the ethos of other brands and create specific product collaborations with them (case in point: their uber-successful San Francisco pop-up shop with Shinola).

Parton offered that it’s all about weaving a narrative. “It’s all about the stories you can tell, he explained. “In one collaboration that we did, we underwrote 11 farmers’ annual cotton yield in Uganda, which opened the door to a global supply chain that allowed these farmers to become self-sufficient. Global citizenship, exponentially scaled. How you make and sell the product resonates, and that is what often translates best.”

By contrast, Burmeister claims that Outlier’s cult following emerged from a hyper-product focused model. “We release a new product every week, so there’s always something new and excitement builds,” he noted. “We start small and build it up – then we evaluate what the reaction is, test it, and see how much it can grow to scale.” He added that they ignore trend casters. “We want to be ahead of the curve, not behind it.”

“It’s just about hitting singles, not home runs,” Mills concluded. “It’s just telling a story that resonates to a small group, letting the word spread, and keep hustling.”