A Hacker Perspective: Recapping the World’s First Fashion Hackathon

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This past weekend I teamed up with four crazy smart teammates to compete in the first-ever Fashion Hackathon.

The event was a blast and, I think, a pretty big success. It was the most diverse Hackathon anyone could remember – by a lot. The competition was tough, and people worked hard. Some honest good ideas emerged. Judges were fair and asked the right questions. It felt a little bit like Group Week on American Idol.

A month ago hackathons were an exotic notion, the terrain of guys like the genius 23-year-old developer who built me the website of my dreams. Now it’s something I’m looking forward to doing again next year.

The weekend kicked off with a diverse panel of articulate fashion insiders. They shared frustrations and ideas. Distilling what we had each just heard, my team and I quickly aligned on a few observations.

Given our backgrounds – two of us were lawyers, two have MBAs, one is a legit MD from Stanford Medical School – we came to see the industry’s problems as systemic, structural, and epidemic in nature. Everywhere you turn, you find just-slightly-lagging technology; and everyone you meet seems to feel things ought to be way more futuristic by now; but nobody has really defined for the industry yet what that is gonna look like, and people are tiring of humoring the notion that a radically different future awaits.

“The industry’s problems” may be the wrong phrase for the thing we diagnosed Saturday afternoon. But something smelled fishy, especially when we stepped back and assessed, as outsiders, the performance or health of the industry as a whole.

8446686645_9b8d8ff3f2_bAt almost every link in the value chain for fashion goods – in design, production, runway shows, curation/merchandising, distribution, pricing and markdowns, inventory forecasting, targeted marketing, and so on – people can intuit that they ought to have more data and stronger analytical tools guiding their decision-making. But nobody’s yet articulated what a good solution looks like, or how the killer app of the future differs from all the other fake-bespoke database tools already in widespread use today.

We observed that data are not at all scarce in the fashion industry – quite the opposite: there’s a ton of data, all around us, everywhere you could think to look.  The problem plaguing all these pools of information is illiquidity.  That is, knowledge fails to flow.  Ideally, information should move from the parties generating or observing it, to any or all other parties who might valuably use it.

All the information anybody could possibly want is already, today, in someone’s reach, but it’s usually in someone else’s reach.  And you can bet he or she is guarding it – jealously.

Perceiving this dynamic, my team and I explored ways we could use other people’s information to create value. We asked, if we could know anything anyone else is capable of knowing, how could we use that all-access knowledge pass to create real, lasting, exponentially-growing value for the fashion industry as a whole? A company that could do that would be everyone’s friend in no time.  So we brainstormed ways new data sets might help grow overall-industry sales or lower overall-industry costs.

Then, for each idea, we spent a couple minutes cooking up product ideas and rapidly shooting most of them down – giving serious thought only to the few that we actually made sense as products someone would use or buy.

We were supposed to find ways to use sponsor-company APIs, but we wound up exploring ways to turn fashion companies themselves into APIs.

By imagining we could tap into an existing, worldwide network of hardware, software, and information, we couldn’t help feeling – and I continue to feel, strongly – that we have at our fingertips, in 2013, all the component parts of some newer, bigger, badder fashion industry. One that makes sense for, and stands to make money in, the twenty-first century.

This was the kind of thinking that had previously led my teammates Jill and Alain to found Modalyst, and the kind of reverse-problem-solving that led me to design and build The Shoplift in 2012. Last weekend, it led our team to unearth serious structural problems we believe trap creative potential, preclude discovery, set arbitrary speed limits on trends and slow down fashion as a whole, and lead to wasteful overspending on all kinds of things.

These are big challenges, too tough to resolve in 24 hours and tougher still to pitch about in two minutes.

Which is not at all a dig at the Hackathon format, honest. I found that the two-minute pitch timing nicely reflected the reality of an industry in which everyone is terribly busy, first impressions matter a lot, and success sometimes means making a scene.8446092266_0a2463f3a1_b

Fashion insiders are furiously self-oriented people. When put on the spot to innovate, they mostly propose ideas to make their own jobs marginally easier. So far, blissfully missing out on the really important opportunities, they have steered the industry clear of the biggest revolutions, in favor of one-off features, simplifying tools, and easier ways to do business on other people’s terms (tricks to get more Likes on Facebook, for instance).

A mid-panel exit by Rachel Roy – looking amazing but ducking out early for a conflicting Saturday-morning commitment – nicely illustrated the industry’s tendency to hurry-up-and-get-back-to-work when new technology comes up in conversation.

This tendency is dangerous. It’s the kind of thing that can really hold an industry back. If we don’t decide for ourselves what the future looks like, we’re doomed to accept decisions people in other industries make for us.

I’m psyched to see how the finalists do next week. My pick to win is Fashion Dashboard, because if it doesn’t exist already it totally should.  But it’s definitely still anyone’s game, and I wish all of the contestants the very best of luck. They’re currently working round-the-clock to finish their apps in time for their big day during Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. (If you don’t have tickets yet, it’s not too late.)

Look for me there or check back here for my reactions after the show.

Author Brandon Fail is the founder of The Shoplift, and the Fashion Hackathon was his first-ever hackathon. 

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