WoW Woman in Fashion Tech | Alae Ismail, Community Manager at London College of Fashion and DeFINE project

Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic

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Alae Ismail has worked in business and innovation across the creative industry for over seven years. She is currently managing the DeFINE (Developing a Fashion-Tech Innovation Network for Europe) community at London College of Fashion, connecting the fashion-tech, business and investment community. She previously worked as Senior Marketing and Study Abroad Co-ordinator at London College of Communication building relationships with international institutions across USA, Europe, Asia and Latin America and appointed Associate Lecture for BA (Hons) Design Management teaching communication tools to innovate public, private and multi-organisations. After completing her Masters at King’s College London in 2013, she co-founded an award winning blog and e-commerce platform called Styled By Africa, showcasing a curated selection of Made in Africa fashion and lifestyle. Alae has spoken at a number of conferences including; Oxford Business School, London Business School, SOAS and Southbank Centre on creative entrepreneurship. While sourcing and traveling across Africa including Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya she worked with innovative brands promoting trade and job creation.

Alae, tell us a bit about your background and your projects so far.

Hi I’m Alae, I work at London College of Fashion, UAL, and I manage the DeFINE (Developing a Fashion-Tech Innovation Network for Europe) community. DeFINE’s mission is to enable the fusion of technological, fashion and design industries across Europe. DeFINE is a collaborative project co-funded by the European Commission’s COSME programme and is delivered by ten consortium partners including art and design academic institutions, business innovation centres, associations and business support organisations. LCF are one of the consortium partners. We aim to build a network of fashion-tech start-ups and SMEs, accelerators and incubators, as well as, financiers and wider communities to encourage cross-sectoral knowledge, ideation and transnational collaboration. During the project which will last for three years, we will deliver a Europe-wide programme of inter-related Info Day networking events, intensive Bootcamp training sessions, mentoring support and knowledge-sharing.

How did you get into this industry?

In 2012, I co-founded a blog showcasing African fashion and lifestyle; within a matter of weeks readers would get in touch wanting to know where they could buy the outfits we featured and designers based in Africa wanting to showcase their collections to an international platform. Within six months, the blog turned into a multi-brand fashion e-commerce promoting ‘made in Africa’ fashion to support job creation, women empowerment and African development. As part of the venture, I took part in the King’s 20 Accelerator Programme and found myself in love with supporting entrepreneurs and wanting to be part of a larger network that connects a wider ecosystem. Naturally, the DeFINE project was the next step in my journey.  

What does your current job role entail?

My role varies day to day from creating communication strategies, collaborating with external partners to advocating DeFINE’s mission at fashion-tech conferences. Working closely with our consortium partners, we develop and promote the fashion-tech Info Day events, Bootcamps training sessions and Mentoring Programme taking place across Europe. By hosting these events, we aim to encourage the fashion industry to adopt technology faster, link the technology sector to the fashion industry, improve interdisciplinary skills and resources and build a network of financiers who understand the fashion-tech investment landscape.  

During my time working on DeFINE, I meet extraordinary and inspiring start-ups, SMEs and business support organisations whose work is dedicated to improving the fashion-tech industry. Each with their individual story and product idea, anything from using AI to create a personalised shopping experience to developing new materials that are eco-friendly. It’s a pleasure to use the DeFINE platform as a means to support the innovation of start-ups and SMEs, whilst working with the wider community to encourage networking and share resources to advance the fashion-tech industry.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

We are thrilled to announce that the application to our fashion-tech London and Berlin Bootcamp is officially open and taking place in June 2019. During the two-day Bootcamp we will have speakers from Microsoft, Farfetch, Marks & Spencer and many more, sharing their experience of nurturing start-ups and SMEs. Participants will also have a chance to take part in business modelling workshops and an opportunity for one-to-one mentoring with our experts in residence. Starts-ups and SMEs can also apply for the eight-month Mentoring Programme which will be launching soon.

How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges? 

After studying Biomedical Science at Queen Mary University of London (2012) and a Master’s in Public Health at King’s College London (2013) – I think it’s safe to say I took an unorthodox route to the creative industries. In the past, I never believed that working in the creative industries was an option for myself until I started running the blog and experiencing the impact it made to artisans, designers, customers and the wider community. The fashion sector is a competitive industry and getting my foot through the door was challenging, I tried to get as much fashion experience as I could from working in retail stores, styling internships to fashion foundations to build my experience and networks. Being an outsider to the traditional world of fashion, I took the motto ‘if you can’t join them, bring your own chair to the table’ which helped me create a space to collaborate with innovative fashion entrepreneurs and organisations. Looking back, my degrees gave me many transferable skills that I apply to my work today including; discipline, resilience and being innovative, original and curious through enterprise.

What was the biggest obstacle?

In fashion-tech the majority of the European fashion industry has been slow to adopt new technologies, missing out on opportunities for growth and becoming less competitive in a global marketplace. Many traditional fashion support organisations don’t have the know-how or links to the technology sector to provide tailored support required for innovative businesses. There is also a lack of access to interdisciplinary skills and resources to organise and manage collaborations that can build on a wider shared cross-sectorial knowledge. In addition, there is a lack of financier networks focused on fashion-tech. Most financiers don’t have an understanding of the value of investing in these businesses. Fashion-Tech businesses don’t know where to access funding, or how to present themselves to attract investment. All of which we are aiming to improve over the next three years of the DeFINE project.

What are your biggest achievements to date?

Within the past four months we have been able to host three Info Days in Paris, Boras and Porto reaching over 500+ communities in fashion-tech; a figure set to increase with more events and programmes lined up – watch this space.

What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you? What are the challenges of being a woman in fashion tech / STEM?

#WomenInTech allows a community of women who are typically unheard, shine bright. Women and supporters can have access to a platform that encourages decision-making, conversations and innovation in an open, supportive and inclusive space. Deconstructing the narrative of who can be involved in tech and breaking down bias is imperative and as Abadesi Osunsade, Founder of tech Hustle Crew states ‘For our future to be better than our present, diverse teams must be building tech products together.’  

What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders, entrepreneurs and designers in this industry out there? 

Your journey doesn’t end when your business idea doesn’t go to plan, it just means you have more space for better ideas to come.

In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the fashion tech and STEM industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?

  • Improved personalisation and customisation experiences with brands and services.  

  • Frictionless and easy access to products and services through mobile apps and devices.

  • On demands, online and offline connectivity to shop anytime and anywhere.

  • Rise in start-ups and SMEs tackling niche problems across the fashion-tech supply chain.  

  • Material Innovation that aim to be environmentally friendly.

Who are your 3 inspirational women or businesses in fashion tech and / or STEM?

Amanda Cosco, Founder of Electric Runway – her Instagram feed is divine and love her fashion-tech podcasts.

Brooke Roberts-Islam, co-director of Brooke Roberts Innovation Agency (BRIA) – works on innovative collaborations that are outside of the box and across sectors in fashion, health and IoT.

Muchaneta Kapfunde, Editor in Chief of FashNerd – FashNerd is always on the pulse with new and exciting information, Muchaneta is one of my sources of information for fashion-tech news.

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Website: www.define-network.eu

Social media: @definenetworkeu

LinkedIn: Alae Ismail

This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.