Karen Harvey: The Woman Bringing Fashion and Tech Together
By: Jessica Michault
Karen Harvey is a rare breed. She is the CEO of Fashion Tech Forum and the founder of the renowned consulting group that bears her name. And what makes her so exceptional is a singular skill set. She is a 21st-century luxury translator.
Harvey can speak both fashion and tech.
Two languages that historically have had a hard time being understood by those who are not naturally bilingual. And in an age when luxury needs to find ways to incorporate technology into their businesses to stay viable, Harvey has become a sought-after interpreter who can get messages across the creative chasm that still separates many fashion and tech companies.
In 2012 Harvey created the Fashion Tech Forum conference to help CEOs and industry leaders in both fields connect. A safe place where they can build a new common language that everyone can understand.
On Oct 6th the conference will be taking place on the West Coast for the first time. Los Angeles will be the epicenter for the next evolution of this new creative language that is being developed by Harvey, speakers like Angela Ahrendts of Apple, Mike Dennison of Flex and artist Will.i.am as well as the curated c-level guests attending the event.
Here Harvey opens up about the reason she created FTF, why using data is key to the future of fashion and what new technology is making the hair stand up on the back of her neck.
Q: You are about to do your fourth conference in Los Angeles on October 6th. How are these conferences different from all the other luxury conferences out there?
A: We create a safe space. Our speakers don’t just get up on the stage and talk about the good stuff. They speak honestly about what they are worried about. The conference fosters real conversations and helps support collaborations so that going forward both sides, the fashion industry and the technology industry, can get what they need from one another. We create an event that is transformative.
Q: The conference is invitation only, is that right?
A: Well, it’s invitation-only because you try to deliver a room where the audience, not just the speakers, is at the c-suite level in their own companies. So that when they all get together in the same room they can really benefit from talking to each other because they are all in positions where they can indicate change, and make key decisions and choices for the company they represent.
Q: For this conference, you have teamed up with a company called Flex. What made them the right fit for FTF?
A: We were really fortunate this year to partner with Flex. They are a 25-billion-dollar company that nobody knows about. I developed a real affinity with the president of their consumer technology group, Mike Dennison. He is brilliant, he is so forward thinking, and I said to him that I think, in the future, the companies in our two industries will be hybrid companies. The truth is that to be born into one specific discipline or industry and then to be able to move into another requires a certain kind of open mind, a real hunger, curiosity and desire to be part of what is happening next. What is so great is that Flex really gets this truth; it is why they became our title partner.
Q: Tell me a bit about the White Space Gallery.
A: It’s where we highlight some incredible startup companies that we think have big potential. Investors can come and take a look at a very small, curated group of companies that have innovative ideas that could change the way this industry works in the future. Last year I think 30 to 40 percent of those who were chosen to show in the White Space Gallery got investment after the FTF conference.
Q: What, in your mind, is the biggest challenge you face when you try and bring the worlds of fashion and technology together?
A: Well, there are a couple of things. First of all, when you think about technology companies, even those like Flex, they are committed to working with industries like fashion but they are so used to building things on such a large scale, and well, fashion…we don’t scale well. Technology likes to iterate, it likes to go fast and technology companies like to make things that will be big and change the world.
With fashion, typically what we don’t understand, we don’t do. Part of the problem comes from when everyone tries to be too literal about what they are trying to create. Like tech designers will look at something and believe it should look a certain way and are not as concerned if the result is aesthetically pleasing and looks beautiful, as long as it gets the job done.
But that is never going to be ok for someone who works in fashion. Where everything needs to feel good and it has to look good too. That is just as important as the functionality of the item. You really need to have a respectful dialog where everyone is doing what he or she does best but also staying open. So, it’s about dropping your mindset or your belief system about what something should look like, which as you know, is a really difficult thing to do. Perception is a big issue, but at the end of the day we need each other.
Q: What about this whole issue with data. I get the sense that fashion brands are reluctant to use it and have a hard time understanding how it can be beneficial to them.
A: There has been an allergy to embracing data since the beginning of, well, my time in fashion…especially from the creative side. There is this fear of letting the marketplace tell you how to design something versus following your gut or your heart. There is this belief that if you allow yourself to hear the data, that it will get in the way of your creative process.
But the truth is data is invaluable. I do believe that the demise of certain companies that we have seen in this industry was brought about in part because of the lack of appreciation for data and how it helps us understand what consumers are thinking about, what they want and where they are going. Without data, you can’t even provide good customer experience, not even getting into the whole aspect of data changing ideas around products.
But on the other hand, data is not the ultimate answer. All the data in the world is not going to make something beautiful. Creativity is still a fundamental necessity.
Q: And what about this entire other issue that people are bringing into the fashion and technology mix, that of making products more sustainable?
A: Well, that is a great example of how data is helping point us in the right direction. Data is able to give concrete proof that sustainability is, in fact, something that consumers are becoming more and more concerned with. Which means that, besides the fact that it’s good for the environment, there is a real growing market for products that incorporate sustainability into their design. Quite frankly, sustainability is not an option anymore. It’s a responsibility.
Q: You have your finger on the pulse of the latest innovations in both fashion and technology so I am curious to know what product, or idea makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck?
A: This is probably going to sound really crazy, but I would say I am equally scared and excited about AI. You have this world we live in where people are walking down the street fumbling with their phones, always looking at the screen instead of the world around them. That is not the answer for how we want to live. The idea that we are more distant from the people we are with in the moment because we are catching up with people on our phones…well, we need to fix that. So I am really intrigued by seamless technology that allows us to be more present.