Interview with founder of TheCurrent Liz Bacelar
BY NADINE PELZER & SABINE STAHL
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 1 2017)
Smart watches, rings, handbags or jackets – where wearables are concerned, a lot of things have happened in recent years. Still, fashion and retail seem to find it difficult to cooperate with the tech business. Liz Bacelar, however, has managed to do just that right from the beginning, and she is regarded as pioneer in the field. Her brand Decoded Fashion combined tech founders and designers to bring the world of fashion and intelligent clothing closer together. In March, she will introduce her new company, The Current, with which she wants to impart innovative ideas, start-ups and technology to the fashion industry.
Liz, you are a global expert in the intersection of Fashion and Tech. Please explain us what ‘FashionTech’ is.
In 2011, Fashion+Tech was mostly early-stage wearables, mostly LED lights. My mission in creating Decoded Fashion was to make it a broader vertical that included retail tech, payments, marketing, eCommerce, devices and new production methods. After producing over 70 events – summits and meetups – in 10 countries and building a community of over 20,000 people, Fashion+Tech became all of that and more.
How did you become a techie? And how did you make your business from it?
I have always been interested in hardware and software ever since I was a little girl. As a TV producer in 2009, I had covered technology stories, but it wasn’t until I became a top executive at a public tech company that I fully understood how ideas come to life, and entrepreneurship was disrupting industries all around the world.
Before that, you successfully worked as a journalist and TV producer for many years and were nominated for an Emmy. How big was the risk to start a totally new project?
From start-ups, you learn that great risk can also bring great upside. The key is having vision, good timing and an understanding of market opportunity. My first start-up was completely self-funded with my family’s savings and it could all have gone downhill. But after a lot of hard work, it didn’t. Now I’m launching my third, and it keeps getting better since I know much more now than I did six years ago, when I first started.
What are the advantages of cooperation by fashion designers and technology experts? And what challenges do companies in these sectors have to face?
Tech engineers and creative directors are artists, creators who speak completely different languages. I love being the bridge between the two. It is extremely powerful merging both as one has a deep understanding of branding and vision, and the other has a fearless ability to solve a variety of challenges. Start-ups without a strong brand and vision can’t win, and designers without the courage to innovate have their days numbered.
What will the future of the fashion industry through digitalisation look like? Will there be any classic fashion brands at all?
There will be massive IP challenges – if a designer creates a design that I can print at home, can I print many copies and sell the items as my own? Who owns it? But all of this aside, classic brands will always exist; what changes is how they are produced, marketed and retailed.
Do fashion companies already see a broader demand or a demand from the consumer side for technological products, such as smart sweaters? Or is it still a small niche market?
Smart items have a great challenge – consumers don’t use them longer than six months. My iWatch is no longer on my wrist. And yet we crave the value that function brings to our lives. But we want function in things we already wear instead of new things to wear. Beautiful smart things. Without the worry of batteries dying. My prediction is that the new sensors that are self-charging and almost invisible – hitting the market quite soon – will create a revolution in how we view smart garments.
What smart fashion pieces do you have in your wardrobe?
A kate+spade new york handbag I helped create with the start-up Everpurse that charges your iPhone. It is classic, and the technology is almost seamless.
You are travelling a lot for lectures and events. How does FashionTech develop differently worldwide? Are there geographic differences? Which countries are at the forefront?
There are major differences. In the United States, you see a focus on enterprise tech and hardware on the West Coast and brands and marketing on the East Coast. In the UK, you see a higher concentration of brilliant ideas than in most places – it is the best ecosystem for lifestyle tech in the world. In Italy, there is a great understanding of branding and identity, but start-ups there lack the knowledge of how to compete globally. In Tokyo, founders are largely male and older, and the successful ones are those who have studied abroad. Two of my favourite companies – LINE and Origami – are from Japan.
Over the years, you have met a lot of great characters from both the fashion and tech industries. Did you have a mentor or a person who influenced you?
I had many angels – leaders who were extremely supportive when I needed it the most and who taught me a lot of what I know about the industry. Among the friends I thank for my success are Caroline Rush (British Fashion Council CEO), Renzo Rosso (Founder of Diesel), designers Uri Minkoff and Rebecca Minkoff, and Franca Sozzani, the amazing Vogue Italia Editor-in-Chief whom we lost in December.
You recently founded a new company, ‘The Current’. What is it about?
I feel like I ignited a conversation between fashion executives and technologists, but now, five years later, there is way too much talk about innovation and very little actual innovating. My goal now is to ignite ACTION. I became fascinated by the concept of open innovation and the ability to find solutions & ideas through an outsider’s perspective. Open innovation reduces costs, accelerates time to market, increases differentiation, and generates growth by creating new products & new revenue streams. There is an opportunity for companies to focus on external ideas – on partnerships with start-ups, technologists and makers to empower their own innovation processes. So TheCurrent is the bridge connecting leaders in fashion, luxury and retail with the world’s most relevant innovators and start-ups. We empower industry leaders by discovering, evaluating and selecting technologies that fit their goals, producing targeted events and a running global accelerator program launching this fall.
How will FashionTech develop over the next years and what plans do you have for the future?
I want to help designers learn with start-ups about how to defend their equity and push growth before selling their brand. I want to help retailers create delightful retail spaces that are smart not just with mirrors, but also with how they run their data, CRM and fulfilment. And I want to see an industry that taps into the power of tech to solve critical challenges, including on how to be sustainable without such an increase in cost. We have come so far in the past five years, I can’t wait to see where can get five years from now with the power of digital creativity.
Liz Bacelar is a global leader at the intersection of fashion + retail and technology. She is the founder of TheCurrent, an open innovation firm launching this March to connect fashion, retail and luxury brands with ground-breaking ideas & technologies. In 2011, she founded Decoded Fashion, the first and the largest global event series connecting Fashion & Technology in New York, London, Milan and Tokyo. The summits in NYC, London, Milan and Tokyo were produced with leading industry partners including CFDA, BFC, IMG, Condé Nast and Pitti Immagine.
Picture credit © BRYAN DERBALLA