Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Rachel Arthur is an award-winning business journalist specialising in fashion and technology. She contributes to titles including Forbes, Wired, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The Business of Fashion. She is also the founder of tech-focused news site FashionandMash.com and the vision behind the global #FashMash community. An expert in all things digital, she otherwise acts as a strategic brand consultant within the fashion and luxury space, future-proofing businesses by bringing them first-to-market insights and bespoke solutions surrounding the evolving retail, technology and communications landscape. She regularly speaks on such subjects at conferences around the world, including TEDx, SXSW, CES, Web Summit and the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, and serves as a mentor on various start-up accelerator programmes in London. Rachel was awarded trade/B2B fashion journalist of the year by Fashion Monitor in 2015.
Rachel, how did you get into fashion tech?
I started out my career as a journalist – reporting on the business side of the fashion industry, which over the past 10-15 years has of course meant writing increasingly about the roles that digital, e-commerce and technology play for such brands. I always had an inherent interest and aptitude for tech, which enabled me to really follow this path. Over time, my work migrated into consulting more and more with luxury and fashion retailers on areas including digital marketing, technology integrations and broader innovation. It’s an incredibly exciting time within this world, with so much change happening, but enormous opportunities to lead from the front with it as a result. Those doing it right are really thinking about how they put the customer right at the centre of everything they do, whether we’re talking about wearables, tech in the store or beyond.
You have your own business Fashion & Mash. When did you start with that business, how did you start and do you have other members in your team?
Fashion & Mash was conceived in 2010 just as big news about the likes of Burberry, Ralph Lauren and a handful of others working within the realm of digital innovation, was really starting to make headlines. I was following it all closely, reporting on much of it myself for my day job, and slowly but surely started discovering more and more in the way of really small but just as interesting launches that weren’t being picked up at the time. I launched the site in early 2011 as a result, with the intention of wanting it to become a bit of a repository basically; an archive or go-to resource for essentially the recent history of fashion and tech, or fashion and digital communications. To me, at that point, the launch of a mobile-responsive website, or a short film on YouTube, or even an amazing influencer programme on a new, relatively unknown social channel, was just as interesting and important as the big budget campaigns surrounding fashion week. It began as nothing more than a blog logging it all, and slowly but surely has grown into the much bigger news-driven site that it is today. The ethos is the same however; reporting on all the areas that are impacting the future of the fashion industry, from that same digital space through to wearable tech and beyond. The only difference now really is that what was once a really small niche within fashion, is of course now a huge entity shaping its success.
We’re a small team still. I edit and manage the site (though truthfully still really as a side project to everything else that I do), and then have a series of contributors based in London, New York, Canada and Brazil.
How long did it take you to be where you are now with Fashion & Mash? Did your previous experience as journalist help you?
It’s been six years since we launched essentially, which is a lifetime in this digital age. So so much has changed over that time period, and the site really tracks it, which is what’s exciting. When we started out, the fact that certain brands would livestream their fashion shows was headline news. Today, there are much bigger expectations on these organisations for the role that digital and tech play in their future success, and it’s incredible to see it being given due consideration at the top level for the recognisable impact it can have on the bottom line.
Being a journalist almost certainly helped me. There’s a lot of content out there these days, making it hard to really stand out, but I came in knowing that we needed to focus on a niche to differentiate ourselves, but also that the quality of writing had to be top level. Hopefully that really comes through. I bring a lot of analysis to the work that I do, and I think I’m able to from the experience I have had in my consultancy and client work over the years, but fundamentally, what I put out isn’t about my opinion, it’s a clear and consistent view of how the industry is developing and why.
What was the biggest obstacle?
Resource and it still is. We are in such a content-driven world these days that it is so easy for things to just get lost out there – the flip of that means it’s really hard to keep up with what you’re producing too. We try and publish something every day, but given how much is happening in this space, we could write more like five pieces if we had enough resource to do so. I try to focus on publishing the right things as a result, and then curating the rest of everything else that’s happening in a weekly post so that we at least remain a consistent resource.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in? How about being a female founder / entrepreneur?
The challenges honestly are all about resource. It is so hard to monetise content, especially in the business space, so you have to look at alternatives. Fortunately we have a budding consultancy and events business that makes all the difference.
In terms of being a female founder – I think about this all the time, especially as we start putting more emphasis on being more than just a content site and focus on those other areas. I know I have to work harder, but truthfully it only drives me on. I’ve been lucky to meet the most incredible women working in this industry and am so proud of how much they are slowly but surely starting to have a true impact. I want to be counted among them. Women today hold less than 25% of leadership roles within the fashion industry (let alone the tech one), which I think for anyone looking in, is quite surprising. It is beyond time to change that.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
The side I haven’t yet shared is what we’re doing with #FashMash which is our community that sits alongside the site. This is probably the thing I’m most proud of. I started it in London with a friend, Rosanna Falconer who is now the business director at Matthew Williamson, with this tiny idea to bring people together that we each knew in the industry and felt should all actually know each other as well. We wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t about stuffy networking or a talk where the people sat next to you in the audience were probably the people you should be speaking to. So we stripped out the formalities and just told people to be at the bar at a certain time. That’s grown and grown and we’ve now got 500 members globally. We run them in London, New York, Dublin, we’re launching in LA and San Francisco and we do them as pop-ups at tech events. We also now run a series of educational workshops and seminars. The whole intention of the community is to enable conversations, to share ideas and challenges, and to connect and facilitate partnerships between fashion and technology companies.
Is #WomenInTech movement important to you and if yes, why?
Yes hugely. But so are women in careers and women in leadership roles full stop. I believe that about fashion and I believe that about technology, largely because they’re the worlds I’m in, but I’d apply it to any industry today. The point is, it’s not really just about technology as a career anymore, it’s about tech being a part of every career. That’s so critical to me; especially when applied to education today. That said, I am of course an enormous proponent of women being in and running tech companies that can hugely impact what resonates in this world – encouraging young women into STEM is fundamental as a part of that. I work with an organisation called FDisruptors in the UK, which is dedicated to creating a world where the skills, career choices and life aspirations of girls and women are equally matched to the opportunities available to them across every global sector, starting with tech.
What will be the key trends in the fashion tech and wearable tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
I think the biggest thing we’ll see is somewhat of a consolidation of lots of the different pieces of technology we’ve been discussing for some time. I track all sorts, from artificial intelligence and machine learning, to virtual and augmented realities, connected clothing and beyond. The part that data, experience and sensors will play in shaping what we wear will all come together.
The area I really care about, however, is how innovation can come into textiles development in order to make the industry a more sustainable one. The future of fashion really is about connected and more intelligent clothing, but it fundamentally also needs to be based on science that can start producing fabrics that are less damaging to the environment. That has the most enormous potential to impact what this world looks like (I recently spoke about this for a TEDx talk in London - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbsGRknLYg4).
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?
“You snooze you lose”. My Dad has always said this to me and I apply it to most of what I do. It’s about saying yes to opportunities and going after them when you want them. It’s about paving your own path to success, recognising that you can shape that, but also believing (as any man would) that you can really get there too.