This is a long interview everyone, but an interview that is so well worth the read. Karen Harvey, CEO of Karen Harvey Consulting Group and Founder of Fashion Tech Forum, is a rare gem in the industry. None of her responses are close to text book, and when her words flow, though long, each one is worth their weight in gold. Her experience with the fashion world is beyond other idolized veterans and her insight goes even further.
Karen, Jaclyn (of Lividini + Co.) and I met in her immaculately designed office to discuss the fashion meeting technology, the growing “Goldilocks Complex”, and her latest baby, INDX.
So this was my first time attending Fashion Tech Forum and I thought it was a huge success. I actually left with so much knowledge. What do you were some of the highlights of the day?
Well, thank you. This probably isn’t the answer you are looking for, but one of the biggest highlights for me was seeing a curated audience combined with curated panel discussion speakers and white Space Gallery come together because the energy that was created as a result of that was a big highlight for me. I felt like our intention is to create something where you can walk away and really learn something. This is not necessarily a networking event but it is an opportunity for, of course, the fashion and tech sectors we saw a huge delta between their cultures and their mission and objectives as sectors but yet, this fashion tech collision was becoming a very real sector. For us, it was to help both sides, coming from a fashion perspective as we do, really look at those intersections. We felt like the way to do that was to also create an audience that appropriately reflected that versus, which means you could have a CEO who’s 28 years old or one, like Andrew Rosen who’s 59 years old and have that kind of energy there. That was a big highlight for me.
Of course, on stage I was so honored that we had such fantastic speakers from seasoned to brand new. A personal highlight for me was seeing Yvonne and Paul Dillinger up there talking about seamless, invisible technology coming together for wearables. I’d always stayed away from that subject because I didn’t think anybody was far enough that it was worth us really talking about it.
How has the feedback been from other brands since FTF 2015?
The feedback’s been incredible! Of course, I’m my own biggest critic, as is our team. We’re about to send out a survey to everybody which we were just making a few tweaks. We’re very excited. The feedback has been phenomenal. Even during the day when people were saying, “Gosh, I just heard so-and-so say this is the best conference he or she’s ever been to.” I think there was a lot of surprise for people there and in terms of content we had people literally say Contextual Commerce was fantastic. I think that from a content perspective as well, we’ve gotten amazing feedback.
I know, it’s exciting. It’s exciting because so many people stayed through the bitter end, through the cocktail party. I don’t know when you had to leave but we had a huge … I mean, there were 800 people there. 789 or something.
I’m sure next year it’s also going to grow.
Yes. But we’ll always curate the audience and we got some flack for that.
I think it’s important that when people are taking their time, and spending their money, to participate that the people near them are people they would really be interested in talking with and spending time with. When you are asking global CEO’s of huge companies to engage, and by the way, investors and very powerful people in technology, they’re there to engage with people that intrigue and interest them equally. You have to really think about that.
Very true. With Sarah Slutsky making videos touchable and shoppable and Amber Venz Box would LIKEtoKNOW.it making shopping more accessible to consumer thanks to the innovative technology, have their been other ways that other brands have been doing that as well? Besides NET-A-PORTER and things like that?
I was just thinking about this company and before I leave I’ll get the name, I don’t know why it slipped my mind. He was in our demo lounge last year and there’s a company that basically has an online mall. I’ll think of it in a minute, it’s called, anyway, I’ll get it for you in a moment. What they’re doing is, it’s just like another retailer. From Coach to Express, all these brands, you can log onto … Wondermall is what it’s called. You can get onto Wondermall and all of these brands, I don’t know if it’s Gap but we could look at it now and you’d see … Have little shops on Wondermall on your screen and you could buy a t-shirt from Gab, a vest from Express, you could buy lingerie from Victoria Secret and check out all in one basket.
Actually, the founder of Wondermall was one of the first investors in that wonderful web site, if you’re redesigning your house, where they have all of these designers and builders and …
It’s not Apartment Therapy?
No, it’s much bigger than that. Let me get my phone. It’s something that we use, that people use all day long but they have created this online shopping mall that really, for the brands, it doesn’t cost them anything unless something is sold and then a percentage goes to Wondermall. That’s just another way. I think there will be more. The companies that are really ahead of the game in helping customers aggregate all of their sales into one shopping cart, I think that’s extremely important.
We had Cosmic Cart last year compete in our Founders of the Future challenge and I think they will continue to grow and emerge. I think it’s companies that are doing that as well as the Amber Venz Box of rewardstyle. Shoppable video will only get better.
Nikki Kaufman of Normal said we’re in a time of the “Goldilocks Complex” of wanting things just right. Who do you see taking the biggest hit?
Listen, here’s the first thing. Anyone who doesn’t understand personalization and customization is taking a hit. If I were to name companies for you I would just say they’re too long to list. Wanting everything just right, this whole Goldilocks complex syndrome, is that a good thing? Is that a bad thing? We don’t get to vote on that. The customer is voting. Truthfully, I think anyone who doesn’t realize … It looks different for different companies. But this is why I think Nike ID was so hugely successful. It may not be you and me. For me, my niece and nephew who are 12 and 14, they want their shoes a certain color, a certain way. When you say to them, “Hey, here’s a hundred dollar gift card for your birthday,” they’re not going into the store. They’re going online to say I want these. That’s just the way it is. I want my favorite color. I want it to look this way. Who’s taking the biggest hits? Those people who don’t get it.[Jaclyn finds website name]: Is it Houzz? World’s leading online platform for home remodeling. Houzz. H-O-U-Z-Z.
Didn’t Brit Morin from from Brit + Co mention them during the forum talk?
I think she might have. I heard the whole panel but maybe I missed that. She’s fantastic. It’s like Andrew Rosen said, there’s an adjustment for brands to make. Implied in that is not his own company necessarily, but is all of luxury fashion and retail having to make certain adjustments based on the impact of the new consumer.
There were many big announcements that day. You even launched INDX, congratulations! Tell us a bit about how that came along.
Thank you. INDX? Love to. I told the story, if you were there for my opening remarks, a little bit about us seeing before it was really happening. The fact that the tech sector was going to aggressively, I won’t use the words that I like to use, pursue the talent in our industry. I could see it. Listen, we sit with CEO’s and board members all day long. We have an office in London for 15 years, we are having these conversations day in and day out. It almost always starts with, we asked you to come for highly confidential reasons because we need an “X” – CEO, chief marketing officer, a whole change in leadership, whatever that is. The inevitable question is, why is this happening right now? Help me understand that. Those who were really tuned in to what was going to come understood very well that the way to talk to consumers and engage them would change.
Number one, if in fact my prediction, this is before Angela Ahrendts joined Burberry. Who I helped build Burberry from a merchant and marketing standpoint before Joe Zee went to Yahoo, I could see there could be one. We already have a dearth of talent in this industry, at least people don’t come to us for the average person, they come for top talent, the top 1% in the world. Second, whether or not we could see these changes, whether or not we wanted to admit it, our industry would change too.
What would change?
One, there were so many emerging companies that a percentage of them would be tremendously successful and some of them coming out of the Silicone Valley or out of the fashion industry from the tech perspective. New companies want hungry, young talent. They’ll have a couple of very seasoned people maybe launching those companies or in the company but we don’t, we know who the emergers are but we’re not paid for that. We start at that maybe VP level and go to CEO and board members so for us it was really, how do we deal with this because the calls were coming in like crazy. “Hey, I’ve launched a fashion company but I come from tech, can you help me?” Not really, but I want to see what you’re working on. You probably can’t afford our fees today but if I really get engaged in something I want to help you because I want to learn.
What became more and more apparent, and in this very room pounding my fist, saying look team, our industry will change, too. There will always be a need for high level executive search but far be it from us to think that the world is changing around us but not within us. We believe that this emerging talent that could include millennials but very definitely generation X would be vital to the future of some of these companies just on the simple fact of technology being native for them. To understand consumers and their behavior isn’t just data but it’s also being that consumer, really understanding the life of that consumer than particularly the hardest because we’re balanced equally between placing chief creative officers and CEO’s so we know a lot about how creative people thing when considering their next stage in their career.
It is very true that how they make their decisions, almost more than any other discipline is how they feel connected or disconnected to a brand and its potential. We decided to start with the creative discipline and to create. When you think about side-stepping the muse, which I think Catherine’s done an amazing job creating a platform for brands to talk about their culture because what she understood very well was millennials care about this. Millennials want to be in tech and they want to understand this and it’s not just the CEO talking.
There’s a lot to learn from the tech side.
We, in the fashion industry, need to take lessons from the tech sector in that way and how we’re transparently communicating about brands in our sector. Equally, talent needs to be better and better about talking about themselves, who they really are, what they want and maybe they’re not looking today but most creative people would prefer to almost get to know a company before they’re necessarily looking for a job and really understand. Or maybe they won’t say. There has to be a way, and this had never been done before, where a brand is talking about who they are, what they are, sharing content in a very live way with talent. There’s Business of Fashion which give amazing interviews or insight. Or you have brand pages or on the muse there are brand pages but never before do you have this curated group of talent that can, they can express interest in each other live together.
We felt that that seamless interaction was very important. We also know that the human element of educating both sides also was important so we decided to create this sort of online/offline brand. It was two years in the making, we made so many mistakes, we don’t come from tech. You have to hire the wrong engineer and you have to make so many mistakes until you find the right team to really help you. We were very fortunate, we have our first investor with Austin Hearst as our seed investor and as a VC in his own right it’s been incredibly helpful. Finally, we were able to launch it at Index and the response has already been fantastic. Tiffany and Coach and Kate Spade and Old Navy clients who do trust us and know the need for hiring creative talent is so important for their business have come on and paid us to do this. The brands will have paid and the design talent has to be accepted. They have to show us their work before we’ll admit them. We’re vetting the talent and we’re vetting brands based on their willingness to be transparent, to talk about their culture and to talk about how they want to improve as well.
Ahhh, so you’re also vetting brands?
It’s not for everyone because we want to create a community of like-minded. Again, it goes back to this idea of, “How are brands thinking about employer branding to the talent marketplace.” We know that individuals want to brand themselves all the time. The funny party of it is, designers are the ones that are the least thinking about that. They sometimes erroneously believe their work should speak for themselves and they have to become better story tellers as well.
Everything we’ve ever done has come together in these three businesses. Karen Harvey Consulting Group has always, myself, has always been in training and development and creating off sites for companies so creating a live conversation where there’s substantive value is where I started my career. Incubating, working with designers, being affiliated with the CFDA is part of our DNA. Search and understanding creative communities is also inherent in the DNA of our company so it just made sense in these three ways to bring these together. INDX, we think, if we execute it well, will be very powerful in connecting brands and creative did you think of it?
That actually negates my last question because my biggest concern was, how can qualified, experienced candidates insure that they have a shot and not have the job just be given to the boss friend’s daughter. Understanding it now that there is a process behind it…
Hugely. To know me, and hopefully we’ll get to know each other better, is to know that … think about a company like ours creating something like this that we’re not affiliated with a big media company … is to understand that we have always felt that we have to be authentic. That there has to be a real reason for something we’re doing. First and foremost, we’re in the service business. We serve, that’s what we do. This, we felt, was a service to both sectors. Listen, if the tech sector wants to execute on fashion tech or design commerce as John Nato put it for me, then they must realize that integrating creative talent from outside their sector is crucial and it’s not just bringing them in at the end to make something pretty. To put lipstick on the proverbial, not necessarily a pig but you know what I’m saying.
You come from the arts, you understand this very well. How can we just say this without giving them a tool to do it? I can’t stand the constant “expert” that says this is your problem and this is your problem. Great, what do I do about it? You have to have some kind of solution for people. There is nepotism in every industry and I have two kids, now one is 29 and one is 27 and we understand well asking our friends to advise them and help them and of course my clients have their kids come and get advice all the time.
Here’s what I say when kids are like, I want to do it myself. I always say that’s amazing but guess what? A connection can only get you in the door. It will not get you hired. It won’t. People who, for the most part, that I know that are the children of highly successful parents, their parents will tell them that. They’re like, we had to do what we had to do to get here and most of it’s not through nepotism. When you even thing about Andrew Rosen, his father broke ground as a manufacturer in New York but that didn’t give … Andrew worked for Calvin Kline, he worked for all these other companies to learn from other experts. So he had to recreate for himself, it wasn’t a given. Maybe that’s generational for us but most of us are telling our kids the same thing.
At Index, we are vetting the talent, it’s not the top 1%, we wouldn’t have a scalable platform. You have to think about the top 30% in the world and it’s every kind of creative. It could be visual merchandising, it could be footwear design, it could be graphics for brand creative so anything in the creative food chain that will create a brand experience, a product, it’s all of that.
And it’s global?
It will be global from day one. This is off the record, or I don’t really care, but we don’t, like any other startup, we think it’s a good idea. Other people who are coming close to investing also believe it in but it’s all going to be in the execution like everything else. We’re not sitting here thinking we have all the answers, there’s not a drop of arrogance with myself or my team, we are serious. Our passion drives us, our belief in this drives us but it’s our work ethic that will get this done and the right talent around us. We’ll hiring great teams and training them …
That’s good. Yay!
Yay! You never know, maybe you’ll have to come in and, you know … We will be partnering with a lot editors. Content’s going to be so important, as you well know. Even probably what you read separate about what you write, as a creative person, that makes you interested in the next and the next. We will really need very creative editorial and we’ll need partnerships that believe in this mission to engage the creative people around the world as well.
It’s got to be the place that creative people feel they’re understood, they can have peer to peer relationships. Remember, the portfolio that they can create have an unlimited amount of space. They have to have a consistent layout but it’s unlimited, the amount of space, and they can share it out.
Okay, hmm, that’s interesting.
We already know that the way social media works is, yes, no matter what, you’ll always have to be vetted. A friend could recommend a friend and his or or her work will still have to be vetted. So, that’s how we keep the community what it’s meant to be. Also, brands may not have a five-star culture but if they are working on transforming that culture and making it more transparent and more accessible then we’re happy to help them do that.