Fashion Thinking: How Learning from the Fashion Industry Helps Other Retail Businesses Thrive
Updated: 1.11.18 Merchandising

Fashion Thinking: How Learning from the Fashion Industry Helps Other Retail Businesses Thrive

By: Hayley Matthews

In today’s increasingly competitive market, the only way for retailers to thrive is to supply what consumers want before they want it. But how is that even possible?

The fashion industry knows— it’s been doing it for centuries. And the retail industry can learn from their secrets.

Get in Touch with Culture – And Be Unafraid of Risk

Before sorority sisters knew they absolutely needed vivid squiggly-print shifts, Lilly Pulitzer was scribbling away at palm trees and pineapples.

“I didn’t set out to be unusual or different; I just wanted to do things my way,” she said.

A photo of Lily Pulitzer store

Lilly Pulitzer, a multi-million dollar apparel retailer, wasn’t afraid to think outside the box for creating exquisite fashion.

As socialites tend to do, Lilly did exactly what she wanted—and because she said it was good with the confidence of a supreme tastemaker, consumers said so too, immediately taking to her designs. Nearly six decades later, they still say it with their designer wallets by spending more than $100 million each year.

In order for businesses to cultivate the kind of profitable relevance the fashion industry has, they have to start thinking like fashion designers. That’s not to say you need to drape your restaurant’s tables with leopard-print cloth or adorn your office supply company’s printers with cubic zirconia—but it does mean you need to be in touch with culture and unafraid of risk.

Add Meaning & Value to Your Retail Business with Fashion Thinking

Industry experts Natalie W. Nixon (Director of the Strategic Design MBA at Philadelphia University), Johanna Blakley (Managing Director at the Norman Lear Center) and Valerie Jacobs (Vice President of Trends at LPK) have coined the term “fashion thinking” to describe the framework designers have used to add meaning and value to products through the dexterous use of inspiration, beauty and open-sourcing.

“If your goal is to be an organization that can fluidly and flexibly adapt to complex environments, then consider incorporating elements of Fashion Thinking. This is increasingly important as customers expect companies to incorporate digital technology that makes the shift from providing physically fixed products to just-in-time products and services,” Nixon said at Inc.

Use the Elements of Fashion Thinking to Spur Innovation

At its core, fashion thinking is about innovation. As Nixon and Blakley write in Fashion Thinking: Towards an Actionable Methodology, “Too often fashion is conflated with apparel, but if we revisit the etymology of fashion we are reminded of its function as a verb: to fashion something is to take action, to create where something did not exist before, and, in the best case scenario, to innovate.”

A photo of models on a runway

Fashion thinking can help get the creative juices flowing for retailers.

Companies in every sector–even outside of the broader retail industry – can use the elements of fashion thinking to spur innovation.

Find Inspiration Everywhere

To a fashion thinker, no aspect of life is mundane; no society, out of reach; no trend, boring. Inspiration is everywhere, and it’s there for the taking. Just look at how Pulitzer got started: Staying open to inspiration is how an orange juice stain launched that big, bright brand.

In an interview at NRF, Nixon said, “So many times, companies stay within their wheelhouse and draw from the same well for inspiration. Fashion designers are the opposite — they look under any rock, from any subculture to the upper echelons of society, to create something that’s meaningful for consumers.”

Make Beauty Essential

Successful fashion thinkers incorporate beauty and design in their offerings because aesthetics aren’t optional—they’re essential. Today’s consumer market is so flush with choices, our eyes can glaze right over, but when you appeal to the natural human desire for beauty, you capture our attention.

Blindfold my 13-year-old daughter, and she would be hard-pressed to tell a $5 Frappuccino from a $2 milkshake—but let her sip it at a Starbucks location, and she’ll fork over a hefty chunk of her babysitting earnings from that sleek leather chair.

Stay Open to Open-Sourcing

Fashion thinkers see the value in co-creation with their consumer base, paying attention to what customers care about and incorporating it into their products and services. And, importantly, rather than being afraid of technology’s ability to disrupt the industry status quo, fashion thinkers embrace it as a new opportunity to offer consumers the customized experiences we love so much.

I don’t care how big their executives’ bankrolls are, no one loves LEGOs more than the kids—and great, big, grown adults—who build them. Because LEGO harnesses that passion to create its products, you can now buy sets that customers have dreamed up from Doctor Who to The Big Bang Theory in the LEGO Ideas Store. (And in case you do care, the owner of the LEGO Group, Kjeld Kristiansen, currently has more than $9.7 billion in his bank account.)

Connect with Customers by Looking to the Past, Present and Future

Fashion thinking also requires a triple view of desire: retrospective, present and prospective.

Recognizing the power of nostalgia, fashion thinkers intentionally use history to impart meaning to consumers, and, in return, we impart our cash to their pockets. It’s why Colonel Sanders is back to serving buckets of KFC; it’s why twice as many people read Timehop as they do The New York Times; it’s why I splurged on vintage accessories for my 2015 wedding.

A photo of Colonel Sanders

Bringing back Colonel Sanders attracts customers to KFC through the power of nostalgia.

But fashion thinkers never get stuck in the past—they’re in touch with what their customers want and need right now, and they find ways to deliver before the moment passes.  Not only does Oscar de la Renta keep his customers engaged with a customized social media idea board, but he keeps it pulled up in real-time on a screen in his office.

And, of course, fashion thinkers are always a step ahead, leading their customers to the next big thing. They are never complacent with what sells now—they’re always preparing for what will sell next. And this, of course, entails risk: You could be Apple, or you could be LaserDisc. Fashion thinkers are willing to go for it either way.

Transform to Turn a Bigger Profit

No matter your niche, fashion thinking can transform the way you engage in business, connect with customers and, ultimately, turn a profit. Adding meaning and value to your offerings keeps your business relevant among swaths of competition. Being willing to take on risks keeps it flexible in a rapidly changing consumer culture. And whatever your industry, innovation is always in style.