Lawrence Lenihan, Resonance co-CEO and co-founder, discusses the company's "Full Stack Fashion" approach where they operate in real time to deliver fashion garments on-demand

The fashion industry is about design. It’s about creation. It’s about the delight we feel when we see something for the first time ever. It’s about unique and it’s about special. We’ve forgotten this because the people who have made this industry so magical, the innovative creators whose imaginations create the unimaginable, are being inexorably crushed by massive, data-driven global supply chain companies that rob them of their creations and exploit the markets and trends they created. The fashion industry playing field is so badly tilted against them that there is no wonder that it feels like every day, a promising small designer folds up shop.

Fashion trends originate from different places and move through society along what sociologists would call a diffusion curve. Trend originates with the “Cool Kids”, the trendsetters who are always ahead of the market. They latch on to something amazing and new. The “Fashionistas” follow quickly and the trend begins to appear in media and on celebrities, embraced by the “Fashionable” crowd. At this point, the trend begins to hit its peak—the Cool Kids have long moved on to the next thing and Fashionistas are beginning to yawn, but roaring into the market come the Fashion Followers. Finally, the trend begins to die out—it’s picked up by the “Dad/Mom Jeans” crowd on its way to its final resting place, where the “Crocs With Cargo Pants” crew adopts the look. As a particular product moves through the trend cycle, it is cheapened, simplified and any sense of craftsmanship has been ripped from it.

Before instant global communication, a trend would last a few years, giving everyone in the industry time to make money. The creators of the trend would enjoy the fruits of their labor with premium prices and exclusivity, moving on as knock-offs began to appear in the market.

But, as the world sped up and data were made more readily available, what was cool became identified by big companies earlier and earlier in the cycle, meaning that those creating the trends were copied almost instantly. Data-driven products thus began to replace creator-driven products in the wardrobes of discerning consumers.

It’s simple economics. Given the finite size and finite life of a market, the sooner you can participate, the more of it you can own. This is the brilliance of Zara—don’t create the trend, identify it first and get to market broadly at a low price before anyone else can.

Wonderful for Inditex, which is now the largest apparel company in the world. Wonderful for consumers who get cheap, formerly-Cool-Kids-only styles. Terrible for the creators who had the vision to make the products that started the trend but who can’t compete with their six-to-nine month design-and-production cycle: they are crushed by those who bring products to market in 25 days. Creator-led brands are shutting down because they have neither the resources nor the capabilities to compete in a world where supply chains are orienting to faster cycles and larger, low-cost production runs.

The critical problem for fashion designers is that the cost of creation is too high (design, sample, refine, execute) and the time to capture value is too short (Cool-Kids phase) before they are knocked off. For small brands who face material and factory minimums, the cost just to show up in the market has skyrocketed.  Perhaps most damaging, these minimums force gut-wrenching editing decisions in collections that limit the most creative and innovative designs.

Retailers aren’t helping, either. For years, designers were dependent on retailers to connect them to their customers. But retailers are becoming more risk-averse every day as they look through their rear-view mirror at self-biased market data. They won’t take a chance on anything that is not what they view as “on trend” because they are perpetually one season away from shutting down themselves. As their business declines, retailers focus more on trade deals that offer downside protection for sell-throughs and margin guarantees. Retail as a showcase for innovative, unproven designs that challenge and delight is all but gone.

But the biggest problem is that these creators compete against companies that don’t have to spend any time or money on the creation process. Today, product cost and speed-to-market define success, not design.

How can you create fashion without design? By “borrowing” from people who actually design (do a quick Google search of any of the large fast-fashion brand names followed by the phrase “copies designer” if you would like evidence).  Ethics and morals aside, this approach makes sense—the financial results for these design-less companies prove it.  Why spend money on design when someone else is willing to do it for you for free?

Driving the stake further into the hearts of designers, venture-backed companies like StitchFix have taken this to the next level; 80+ data scientists produce algorithms that (with human assistance) create designs that obviate the traditional design process and, instead, are driven by predictions of what customers want. Driverless cars first, designer-less fashion next!

As consumers, we’ve enjoyed the bounty of cheap, on-trend goods, but at what cost? We are polluting our world, we are supporting (in certain cases) horrible work conditions in emerging markets where human rights protections are practically non-existent, and we have all but eliminated domestic apparel production jobs.

The most insane aspect of all of this is that we have forgotten about the creators.  If you give people of similar intelligence, similar tools and similar data, they will come to similar conclusions. That is why everything in this market looks the same. Creation is not a processing of data to identify a trend – it’s a discontinuity that comes out of nowhere to create that thing that nobody predicted. It is the essence of the surprise and delight we feel when we experience the unexpected. Without creators, there is no creation and, without creation, trend is a recycling of the recycled. A curse of living a life where we drink our own bathwater every day for eternity.

A new way forward

Three years ago, I wrote an Op-Ed piece (The End of the Billion Dollar Brand) that predicted that the future of the fashion industry lies with brands led by incredible creators who focus intensely on their specific customer.  By meaning a lot to a very specific (and narrow) target market, they would dominate the fashion industry. In this era of internet-driven infinite choice, “stuff” would mean less and “meaningful” would mean so much more.

This essay was the foundational underpinning to a much bigger idea and, in 2015, I left the successful venture capital firm I founded a decade earlier to start Resonance with my partner, Joe Ferrara. Our goal was simple to say and hard to do: enable small creator-driven fashion brands to build a business that is as perfect and beautiful as their creative vision. We wanted to enable talented creators to compete as effectively and precisely as Zara, but faster!

For us, trend data are a commodity and increased investment in data scientists and tools yield diminishing returns. Value is created in establishing the trend, not by identifying it and then exploiting it. But this theory only proves correct if a brand can scale immediately and dynamically to meet demand. To be successful, we would have to reimagine completely the way a fashion brand operates to out-compete entrenched, supply-chain driven companies.

The classical industrial construct for companies has been Economies of Scale (the operating advantages a company gains from being big) and this concept has driven the fashion industry to its current state. We have a new one: Economies of Small 1.  Today there are technologies and capabilities in the market that enable small companies to compete as effectively as large companies. For example, for $89/month, Shopify provides an ecommerce site that costs a tiny fraction of what it takes to build a site using Demandware from scratch. (It does 90 percent of what you want and 100 percent of what you need!). Who needs Zara’s data center when you have Amazon Web Services? Global supply chain and logistics? Fed Ex, UPS or others. Analytic engines are appearing daily. AI engines too.  What cost millions of dollars to develop a few years ago is now practically free. If you are a small brand, you have access to similar tools, infrastructure and capabilities of much larger brands. So, the “law” of Economies of Small is this: Given two companies who can execute their businesses at similar levels of precision, the more focused company will win every time. We enable creators to build brands with focus.

To be successful, Joe and I knew we needed to be able to transform how product is made. Manufacturing in bulk is historically cheaper, but we needed to be able to produce one single item at a time just as affordably as making huge production runs. The result? No minimums in materials and production quantities!

With no minimums, a creator can determine immediately if he has connected deeply with his customer. If a style sells well, you need to be able to make a bunch more immediately to capture demand. So, we built a capability to scale to hundreds or even thousands of units of a style if necessary so that the brand could, itself, capitalize on the trend it created rather than the data-driven, supply chain giant cashing in (Figure 4). On the other hand, if you sell nothing, you missed at practically no cost. You only made one, you did not take any inventory, you did not make any large financial or brand commitment and you did not fill any landfills with waste. You are not mining data to determine trends – you are creating and then connecting to your customer. You make only when you connect and sell.

We felt we had to rewire the basic organizational and operational approach of fashion brands. If you have organized your business into developing seasonal collections, you’re not in a conversation with your customer, you’re delivering a speech where you never listen and react. What if we could eliminate collections?  Seasons? What if you could imagine something tonight, sell it tomorrow and have it on your customer’s doorstep in two days? What if you could operate in real time, connecting more deeply by reacting to your customers’ reactions to your inspirations? To world events? To a change in weather? To anything? Not ecommerce, NOWcommerce!

We call our approach “Full Stack Fashion”. The core of our philosophy is that to operate in real time, a brand needs to look at its business in its entirety at all times, from raw materials to customer doorstep and everything in between.  It is not a supply chain innovation; it’s a reimagining of every aspect of a brand’s operations. It’s a holistic approach that is driven by machines, software, workflow, organization, culture and philosophy. It is driven by a belief in the importance of an integrated, cross-functional approach.  We have eliminated the stovepipes in traditional retail operations where distinct groups (production, design, finance, marketing, etc) operate as islands. Design works with production and sales in continuous collaboration, making decisions to deepen the customer connection in real-time. Handoffs between isolated operating silos that define today’s slow-moving businesses are eliminated.

Our first application of our approach is based on digital printing technology and a proprietary process and workflow where we print individual garments (markers printed directly on fabrics) on-demand. We threw out the current wasteful and damaging conventions of long run manufacturing operations and built our units-of one production capability from scratch. Digital printing is one of the most sustainable technologies in fashion in general because it precisely places color in nano-doses on fabric fibers rather than vats of dye that generate waste and use excessive water. Taking this further, by manufacturing to actual demand in real time, we eliminate any waste from overproduction. We own these incredible machines and we have invested a lot of time, energy and money in creating the proprietary systems that enable us to achieve this level of production. In addition, we don’t move materials around the world – everything stays in our factory throughout the process, greatly reducing carbon emissions.

We believe ardently in the ideal that, while we make clothing that is as high quality as that made by anyone in fashion, we can also provide jobs, skills training and opportunities for the incredible people on our factory team and that the creation of this beautiful clothing can touch our environment as lightly as possible without compromising aesthetic and design. The biggest problem in fashion is the complete lack of accountability for the environmental and human impact by large fashion brands. These companies avoid responsibility for what they do by outsourcing to subcontractors (who often further outsource). When things go wrong, these brands deploy their PR machine, proclaim their “shock” at the conditions they fostered, and then move to another factory in another country. We can’t and we won’t – we own our facilities, our people work for us and our name is on the building for everyone to see.

Sounds like a wonderful dream? It’s reality – we’re doing it right now. You can see a video here and we’ll be putting out more information on our Instagram.

Our business model is to take significant equity positions in brands and work with them to build their business. We invest people, capability, insight, and, of course, capital. When our creator-led partner brands first come on, we handle almost all of the business functions on our team. As they grow, we grow their team. Our goal is to build independent, value-creating, profitable brands where the creator retains a very meaningful ownership and creative control of the business. We still believe in focus, so some of our brands might be smaller, others larger. But each will grow to the level they should be – no more and no less, generating profit and value for both us and the creators.  We have three incredible creator-driven brands on our platform: Tucker, JC#RT and THE KIT. We will add four more this year and grow from there.

Every creator-driven brand on this planet will be in the fight of its life in the coming years as Zara and Amazon become increasingly dominant. It’s a battle for the continued existence of heart and soul, of design, of art, of vision, of creation. And it is a battle between good and evil. These two giants imagine (and plan for) a future where you, the creator, do not exist because you do not need to exist. We imagine a different future. A future where creation wins because it matters more and because creators can match or even beat these giants in business performance. A future where art and commerce don’t just coexist, they thrive.

Lawrence Lenihan is the co-founder and co-CEO of Resonance. Founded on July 1, 2015, Resonance is a venture operating company that invests in early-stage fashion brands using a unique combination of capital, venture investing experience, fashion industry insight and expertise, manufacturing knowledge and capability and technology vision. Prior to Resonance, Lawrence founded FirstMark Capital, an early stage venture capital firm whose portfolio includes Pinterest, Shopify, Tommy John and other brands and technology-based solutions for retail, fashion and other industries. 

The fashion industry is about design. It’s about creation. It’s about the delight we feel when we see something for the first time ever. It’s about unique and it’s about special. We’ve forgotten this because the people who have made this industry so magical, the innovative creators whose imaginations create the unimaginable, are being inexorably crushed by massive, data-driven global supply chain companies that rob them of their creations and exploit the markets and trends they created. The fashion industry playing field is so badly tilted against them that there is no wonder that it feels like every day, a promising small designer folds up shop.