Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Barbara Atkin Speaks At Ryerson On Global Trends in the 21st Century and Their Impact On Our Future

By: Tamara Arnew


The classroom in Ryerson's Ted Rogers School of Business Management sat a small numbered group of twenty five or so students last Wednesday evening, some involved in Ryerson's Retail Management and Business programs while other's hailing from MBA's. Barbara Atkin's influential nature immediately had us hanging on her every word. Her chosen topic was one that she can not only attest to through her 26 years of experience at Holt Renfrew and position as Vice President of Fashion Direction for the luxe company, but one that commands as much attention as her significance in how it will be embodied within the fashion industry.  "Global trends in the 21st Century and their impact on our future," she is quick to point out is not specific to fashion but rather to conducting business as a whole. "Business is very basic," she notes, "smart businesses know when to watch. That's a part of the job working in the fashion offices. Buyers work in the now, whereas direction wants to know how to strategize merchandise and build new business models for a new generation of consumers. You risk falling off of the demographic table in a world of already knowing." 

This world of already knowing is something that Atkin's has been keeping her eye on. Her initial conveyed thoughts are observant of an "empowered and globalized consumer." This customer's insights have been moved by several factors " Social networks have single handedly supercharged the impact of word of mouth, they are the reason why brands are successful or why brands aren’t. The Occupy Movement made us consider what was top of mind and develop that awareness. People want the right to come to a collective wisdom." This shifted perspective has brought about seven important global trends that have set the overtone for businesses, within the fashion industry and external to it, today: technology, the wellness revolution, social responsibility, the blurring of gender roles, the idea of limited edition, celebrity culture and the presence of branding.

While she discusses in length multiple knowledgable standpoints and concepts supporting each trend in depth, Atkins continues to return to exemplifying the fashion industry. It is always, after all, in the forefront of inspired direction and she is at the helm. Technology she says will affect employment in the way that we are recognizing "Big data analysis plus consumer insights equal business solutions.  Every business will need this and in no way are we prepared." Wearable technology is observably top of mind for her,  “The goal is to offer the consumer a more seamless, personable experience. Look to  Diane Von Furstenberg who showed Google Glasses on the runway and the recent announcement of Android Wear — it's probably a watch."

To the wellness revolution she says, " We are selling the notion of wellness through creating status symbols. Reaching these levels of wellness is a status.  Lululemon built a successful business model on yoga and breathing deeply until running into fit issues. From there a whole need about wellness became important, sexy clothes that breathe with the wearer, and it's one of the most successful businesses."

She ties into her next proposed trend, social responsibility, with Holts as her foremost reference point. "We have a common fate and a crowded planet. H Project,  is the creation of affordable designer product with earnings going to a non profit of choice while “Uncrate India” support small artisans, using sustainable fabrics, and the set up of industry in small towns."

The blurring of gender roles, she emphasizes as of the utmost importance to the fashion industry moving forward. "There's an exchange in clothes and in how people want to look. Definitions of masculinity and femininity come from the 20th century, Harry Rosen’s business model was built on this vision. Now men are in confusion, and women are on the rise. Dress codes branded the corporation but the 21st century has changed this. What you wear to work and the definition of success are changed. There's a perception of the way you dress at work in that you've earned the right to be that, independent. There's a rise in fashion tribes for men, more colour more femininity and more choice. Marketing to the "new man" is one of the biggest growth opportunities today. The Holts Commons features androgynous products, a mens' and womens' closet testing these notions at Yorkdale. Menswear grooming market continues to be one of the fastest growing. Everybody purchases the same product."

Atkins thinks we're obsessed with celebrity culture, whether we want to deny it or not but sees "the Blogger as the new celebrity with voyeurism at the centre of our culture. We're engrossed and captivated, with young generations contriving a notice me and unique personal style. Fashion is a new viral landscape to launch at item in with these stewards of trend. It's about creating a niche and becoming the best source of information, there are endless opportunities to endorse products in the same way that celebrity advertising has in the past." "Social media is forcing global brands to their knees." Yet, this is where she sees the transformation of branding. "The joy and hunt to shop continues to lose it’s appeal, there's no indigenous excitement to cities. They have become homogenized place of similar brands, with an opportunity for new unique brands.  We live in a bland society, craving an injection of newness. Global luxury verses the Locavore (local, destination businesses with the potential to be top of a specific market's food chain) becomes increasingly important. We need a sense of pride in locavore. In Toronto in particular, the opportunity for the locavore has created interest and caused people to flock to it."

Limited edition she touches on, has something that our industry has revised it's positioning on. Designer collaborations and clever packaging are on point but in a market "f
illed with excess, too many products, we look at sustainability and fashion and question what makes an object desirable? And to what lengths will people go?"

"There is yin and yang in price escalation. People have to see the value, and it's becoming more difficult to see the value. The Louis Vuitton’s of the world have had to begin to understand that luxury is not about democratization. They thought we could keep elevating people but it's a failing concept to democratize fashion to the masses. The top groups, such as Hermes, still have customers lining up but it’s a small percentage. Having shopped the women’s wear market in Europe, it's shocking how high the luxury world has gone. We don’t know if we can buy this stuff, the question is how high is high (in regards to price)? Where is the threshold? But we have to buy, I’ll let you know in a year what happens."

She ends with a challenging and excitingly, inciting sentiment bringing the lecture to a conclusive height of influential thought, "Be creative, be unique, be original, be competitive, be nimble, and keep your eye on the evolving and empowered global consumer. Find the unoccupied niche. Being average is just not good enough today. Are you ready? Welcome to the 21st Century."

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