Last weekend, some of the most influential figures of American fashion were convened in Manhattan for "Pioneers: Conception, Creation and Innovation", the 18th New York Fashion Conference organized by Initiatives in Art and Culture (IAC). True to the pioneering spirit, the mood among the panelists and the public was a mix of excitement and anxiety for the fast and profound changes the industry is undergoing.

As the fashion ecosystem is rapidly evolving under the pressure of a new generation of digital native customers and the environmental crisis, the recurring themes underlying all the discussions were innovation, sustainability and the omnichannel challenge.

In opening the panel "Pioneers in Denim", Tricia Carey, of Lenzing Textile makers of Tencel®, promptly highlighted how denim has changed "From a basic cotton canvas to a new modern definition of denim as a lifestyle with endless options: stretch, knit, washed..." Her view was that with the adoption of high tech fibers, the industry is ready to adopt the new activewear influences as they are coming to the market. This last point was confirmed by Jean Hedegus of Invista, who cited the example of American Eagles' successful turnaround with the launch of Denim X, an exclusive blend with Lycra DualFX. According to Kara Nicholas of Cone Denim, environmental sustainability offers not only a challenge but also an opportunity to the industry. While denim manufacturers adopt new resource-efficient solutions, such as ozone washing and laser cutting, consumers can be better informed of their efforts. Thanks to the storytelling enabled through the web, the difference between the $10 jeans and the $100 jeans can resonate with customers in all its lifestyle aspirations and implications.

Tricia Carey, director business development denim at Lenzing Fibers.
© IAC
Tricia Carey, director business development denim at Lenzing Fibers.

The panel "Luxury online" confirmed this strategic approach to the online experience as a means to educate the customer and to foster brand loyalty. Rie Yano of Material Wrdl maintained that millennials look for "authenticity, participation and transparency" to forge lasting connections with brands. The session stressed the importance of the digital channels to identify the increasingly diversified customer base. Moving forward, the online luxury market will be all about understanding the different customers and their values, and using the right channel to reach them.

Where do these changes leave the large retailers? That was the question addressed in the following panel "Retail Now" moderated by Gary Wassner, of Hilldun Corp. Retail remains the only channel able to offer an actual luxury experience, but, as Robert Burke, of the homonymous consulting firm, has underlined, they should take a page or two from their online competitors. The concierge service of online retailers such as Net-A-Porter or Farfetch, for example, is far superior to the current customer experience in most department stores. Online curated merchandising also offers a better shopping experience to luxury customers. Finally, the competition for discount sales and discount retailers has eroded margins and hindered new designers. According to Burke, retailers should create valuable partnerships with brands they believe in, in order to reinforce their marketing and positioning efforts reciprocally.