Hipsters, Wearables, and Getting Paid

Back in 2013, I wrote a column about how the fashion world was slow to embrace digital opportunities. The piece ended with a 2010 prediction from Natalie Massenet, founder of the luxury online retailer Net-a-Porter Group Ltd.: "Media companies are going to become retailers and retailers are going to become media companies." 

Fast-forward to the 2015 London Fashion Week and it certainly looked as if the industry had more than caught up, with wearable technology leading the way. British designer Henry Holland collaborated with Visa Europe to kit out VIPs attending his House of Holland show with wearable payment technology in the form of a ring. The rings, designed by Holland, included integrated near field communication (NFC) payment technology, enabling the lucky few to purchase items directly from the catwalk.

The rings, it turns out, were preloaded with about $765, and the exercise was, essentially, proof-of-concept. But the initiative got mainstream media coverage in the U.K. It promulgates messages about the viability and desirability of NFC payment systems and also conveys complex messages about the accessibility and shopability of high-end fashion. Secretive couture clients and months-long waiting lists have been replaced by social media and instant gratification.

I'm just as interested in the fact that the experiment was created in partnership with Visa Europe Collab, a new innovation hub from Visa Europe that's set up "to find the most promising new ideas in financial technology, and to help their creators turn them into commercial reality." Visa's U.K. Collab is based in London's Shoreditch-aka hipster central-with other hubs located in the financial technology hot spots of Tel Aviv,  Israel, and Berlin. The Collab methodology is to rapidly run through a "100 day innovation sprint," which takes ideas from initial scoping, through market testing and design to proof-of-concept and live testing within 3 months. According to Visa, this means that by the end of the first year, there will be at least 20 working proofs-of-concept, with five commercially viable services being handed back to the main Visa business for further development.

What's encouraging is that the frothy fashion week stunts orbited around the process of payment, arguably the most unglamorous-and most fundamental-of business functions. In many ways, it's a stark opposition to the early days of online publishing when "information wants to be free" was the catchphrase, and paying for content seemed to be the last thing that anyone would consider. In various respects, we've been rowing back from there ever since.

The ever-expanding digital footprint of Vogue is a case in point. The magazine's website now has a large team with a relentless and specific digital focus. It's all about creating immersive stories that engage readers on a wide variety of platforms. According to The Financial Times, audience figures for vogue.com have grown by 80% since it relaunched in late summer 2014. The day after the 2015 Met Ball, vogue?.com recorded 58 million page views. Advertisers are supportive of both print and digital: Speaking to The Financial Times, Vogue's publisher and revenue officer, Susan Plagemann, described "exponential" growth in digital advertising.

But how do wearables fit into all this? Assuming that we are still some way off from wearing embedded devices that can deliver content directly into our brains, do wearables have a part to play in delivering content to media consumers? With smartwatches still in their infancy, many people's first encounter with wearable tech tends to be activity bands such as a Fitbit or Jawbone-functional, but not necessarily glamorous.

It's probably too early to say how this particular opportunity will play out. And the advent of wearables has prompted some concern in Europe around issues of privacy, data protection, and intellectual property. But at the same time, as luxury watchmakers are creating timepieces that are both beautiful and Bluetooth-enabled, it's clear that wearables offer a significant opportunity. I'll leave the last word to Leta Shy of POPSUGAR: "Lately, it seems like no outfit is complete without a wearable fitness tracker." I'm off to accessorize mine now-see you at the (virtual) mall.  

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