A Day in the Life Interview with Rachel Arthur from Fashion and Mash
This week we are joined by journalist Rachel Arthur from Fashion and Mash, the leading daily news site covering all the latest news and trends on the digital innovation of the fashion industry.
- First can you tell us a bit about your job? What does your company do?
I’m a journalist by background. I’ve always covered the business side of the fashion industry but focused heavily on digital communications and technology, so that spans everything from how technology is disrupting the supply chain and retail all the way through to digital marketing, social media and beyond. Then of course, there’s what’s happening with products – so textile science, wearables, the lot. That’s one half, I spend the other half of my time working as a consultant with fashion and retail brands, helping them through digital transformation, doing innovation workshops and so forth. Fashion and Mash is the website that anchors all of that essentially. It started out as a side project about six years ago and it was purely based on the fact that I was seeing all of this stuff happening in the industry and the majority of places that were reporting on it were covering the big guns – like Burberry launching something amazing, Topshop doing something, maybe Ralph Lauren in the US. But there were all these other little bits and pieces whether it was a mobile responsive website or a cute little Youtube video that didn’t really have anywhere to live, so I just started dumping them on the website and that then became what it is today, and as I said, sort of anchors all the other work I do and the community that I run for people that work in the technology and digital side of the fashion industry.
- So you started out as a journalist, would you say that’s what brought you into the area or were you focusing on technology beforehand?
It’s a bit of a weird one actually because when I look back on my history I’ve always had an interest in both sides. But I guess it was quite organically that I ended up doing it. I went to London College of Fashion and studied a business degree, that was quite focused on marketing. Then I went to journalism school after that and got my postgrad, worked in a few newspapers for a while. Then I ended up at WGSN doing trend forecasting and I was in their news team writing stories about this thing called ‘Twitter’ that brands were starting to use. That was obviously a long time ago now and it’s exploded from there. So it sort of organically happened in terms of right time, right place, but I’ve always had an interest in this side of things anyway so it aligned quite nicely. Weirdly I’ve ended up using both my degrees.
- What time does your day start, and what does your typical work day schedule look like?
It is very different every day but one of the things that I feel very fortunate to have is a completely flexible way of working. I was lucky in my old job I had that as well – I used to live in New York and I had a similar sort of setup – now I’ve been back about 18 months and in doing so I really wanted to ensure that I could maintain a way of being very flexible in my output to benefit myself with this whole work life balance thing, which I’m not very good at! So I start really early – or try to – I’m on my laptop straight away setting up content for the day, that’s the first thing that I do. Essentially my week is split so I’ll do 2-3 days a week in meetings as one of the most important parts of my job is to meet as many people as possible all the time and talk to them about what’s happening in the industry, find sources for interviews and source more consultancy work. So whether that’s attending events or actually meeting people in person I try to do that at least 2-3 days a week. Then the other days I’m at home or based somewhere and I’m working solidly on producing things. My flexibility comes in through the fact I force myself to book things like a yoga class into my schedule at least twice a week and they are in my calendar so I can only book meetings around them. That’s been a real learning curve but it is genuinely one of the things I’m loving about being flexible.
- Did you find having a work life balance a struggle earlier on in your career?
I think I’m – as a lot of people are – very wired to work all the time and when people say work life balance it genuinely doesn’t make that much sense to me because (and I’ve talked to a lot of people about this), my work and my life are very intertwined. It’s not just that I’ve got friends in the field but everything does cross over and so it’s very easy for me to be merging into a dinner in the evening that’s really still a work dinner. I’ve never thought of it as an issue – I know I work very long hours – I will get home and work for a few more hours before I go to sleep and that kind of thing. So I’ve had to re-engineer my thinking to ensure that things like health are quite high up on the list. It’s really easy to be super busy and completely forget about that, and I’m not the type of person who will go to the gym at 5am! But a 10am class – I’ve already done three hours work by then which works for me.
- What do you consider the greatest achievement in your work to date?
I suppose as a journalist there’s something enormously satisfying when you have your work published in print – which is very ironic thing to say as a digital journalist obviously! Not necessarily just print but to have your work published in an amazing publication is always very satisfying – that your idea is strong enough and your writing is competent enough that they want to actually pay you to put it in their publication. There is still a lot to be said for the authority that goes with a very traditional newspaper or magazine. So I love that since being freelance I’ve done some amazing work for WIRED, The New York Times, The Guardian and a variety of other places. But genuinely I think the thing that I’m proudest of is the community that I run which is called #FashMash which runs off the back of the website. That started with myself and a friend called Rosanna Falconer who is now the business director at Matthew Williamson, and we started it in London as this tiny idea to bring people together that we knew in the industry and felt should all actually know each other. We wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t stuffy networking or wasn’t made up of a panel where you’d probably heard the panelists speak before and the people next to you in the audience are probably the people you should be speaking to but it’s not facilitated in that way. So we stripped out the formalities and just told people to be at the bar at a certain time. That’s grown and grown and we’ve now got 500 members globally. We run them in London, New York, Dublin, we’re launching in LA and San Francisco and we do them as pop-ups at tech events. We aim to bring people together to have conversations about what they’ve seen on the ground. Things like SXSW, CES and Web Summit, any of those kind of events that are not our industry as such but are increasingly crossing with it, we’re trying to help facilitate that. The whole intention of the community is to enable conversation, to share ideas and challenges, and to connect and facilitate partnerships between fashion and technology companies.
- What is the one app you could not live without?
Probably Whatsapp, that’s without a doubt the one that I will use the most. I don’t want to say my email but that probably follows closely behind; that’s the bane of my work life balance! That’s what I’m normally doing as I get into bed. But whatsapp is top – obviously I use it personally but professionally I have various groups that are really useful when we are at things like SXSW and so forth. Then for #FashMash it’s probably Facebook because we have a very active Facebook group where everybody shares things all the time – sharing contacts and stories, asking for contacts or posting job openings.
- Who is your professional role model?
I’m going to say someone completely abstract to what I do – and it’s a bit of a cheat because she’s a friend of mine – but there’s a woman called Emma Barnett who I went to Journalism School with and she and I followed a relatively similar path in that we both went into early news roles. She then ended up at The Telegraph as their technology correspondent and she set up Telegraph Wonder Woman – the women’s site for the Telegraph. That sort of exploded. She recently left there and she now runs a daily show for BBC Radio 5 Live. The reason I say her is because I have never known someone who is not only so phenomenally ambitious, but when she knows she want something she sets her mind to it and goes and gets it. I think everybody needs a role model in their life that is an absolute go-getter and doesn’t believe that there’s not a possibility for success and opportunity just because of the fact that you’re female.
- What makes London a good city for startups?
I look at it very wholeheartedly through the lens of the fashion and retail industry, and having lived in New York then returning to London (I was away for four years), it’s become really clear to me how much London has shifted. When I left here for New York it was 2011, and don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that there was nothing happening here – there were amazing ecommerce businesses – we are very fortunate to have Net-a-Porter, ASOS, Farfetch, Lyst etc. that are London born and bred. But New York felt like it had the most exciting stuff happening in fashion and digital, and with technology too, and I think that’s because on the whole as brands they are much more commercial entities (I’m very much generalising). When you then start looking at the startup scene the US is just that little bit more complicated because traditionally the media and the fashion businesses are on the East Coast, then you have all these insane retail businesses all across the country that are not near anything else, then you have the tech companies on the West Coast. Now obviously there are differences in that and there are shifts happening, but when you come to London you’ve got everything in one place. You’ve got all the fashion companies, all the media companies in one place. Of course there are retail business up North and across Europe but when you look at the startup scene here I think one of the amazing benefits we’ve got is access to VCs, to the retail businesses, to the journalists and to the agencies, all in one place and I think that proximity makes a massive amount of difference for making things happen and it feels like a really, really exciting time in London for startups. There are these amazing mobile retail businesses like Grabble popping up all over the place and doing really great things.
Also I think culturally, launching something in the UK is perhaps easier – startups may completely disagree with me on this – but my feeling having experienced working in the US is that New York consumers are not like the rest of US consumers. There are all these pockets of consumers in America because it’s such a vast country whereas in the UK obviously there are much smaller differences so it is much easier to become a UK-wide entity. It’s very hard to become something big enough across the US in comparison, so I think just in terms of that infiltration it’s probably quite different from one country to the next.
- Which tech trends are you most excited about?
Loads! The ones I’m tracking the closest are virtual and augmented realities in terms of looking at how that can impact experiential retail and shopping in general. It’s really early obviously for any application that works with fashion but there’s a lot of very exciting stuff happening that I think will massively impact the future of computing and consumers lives, and therefore will impact retail at some point as well. Artificial intelligence I’m undoubtedly keeping a close eye on too, just in terms of the very nature of how we discover products, the personalisation that goes with it all, and the very nature of how retailers are wired. I think that’s going to have an enormous impact on businesses across the board. Then I’m still tracking quite heavily around wearables. It’s quite an interesting one because when you talk about wearables today it’s still about smartwatches and fitness trackers – that’s not really for me. Obviously I do look at that space but really I’m looking beyond to what the actual future of fashion from a clothing perspective will look like. It’s not about gadgets and devices, it’s about how we can get any sort of connectivity into soft garments and what does this looks like? What’s the future of textiles? I guess that’s what I’m really interested in at this point in time – exploring new textile developments and that starts to get really interesting when you apply technology and sustainably – which I can talk hours on! There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening at the moment around how we can develop textiles in the future that are less damaging to the environment therefore making the fashion industry less impactful on the planet. It’s right at the beginning but you can see lots of retailers and luxury brands having to explore the impact that they have environmentally and I think that tech will become an increasingly massive part of making that a possibility whilst still operating a profitable business. I think that’s when tech becomes really interesting to the fashion industry and it’s completely behind the scenes rather than the other stuff I’ve talked about – particularly VR – which is very immersive and customer facing.
- Would you say fashion and tech have always had a close relationship?
I think as far as the industry is concerned, or the world is concerned, if you look at fashion the last thing you think about is technology, there’s no way you would associate the two hand in hand. You don’t think of innovation or intelligence – with the fashion business you think of clothes and as far as the majority of people are concerned it’s a frivolous entity. It’s quite fluffy, quite vain, quite vacuous – it’s not something that is important maybe – I’m talking very much extremes – and it’s certainly not something that is innovative. However my argument is that it’s always been an innovative business. For example just after the Second World War it was innovation around polymers by DuPont that made it possible for us to have nylon stockings, and it’s things like that which we absolutely take for granted – the fact that we wear tights, that’s a massive piece of innovation. So is the fact that our shirts our crease resistant, that our gym clothes are moisture wicking, even that we have bras. All of these are pieces of innovation that we take for granted. Even polyester and other manmade fibres, all of those entities that are now seen as quite damaging, all of those were innovations at some point in time. So when I talk about sustainability it’s about how we take what we’ve always known to be innovation in the industry and scale it in a different way that’s beneficial as opposed to damaging just for commercial reasons. So yes, I do think they’ve always lived hand-in-hand.
Some of the most exciting stuff that’s happening in tech and fashion is around data insight and CRM, textiles, supply chain. These sides aren’t sexy but they are so fundamental to business working and the business continuing to succeed and that’s the stuff people don’t really think about. There are things like virtual mirrors and cool social media campaigns around fashion week and so forth, that are great and serve as amazing PR opportunities, but there are all these other bits and pieces behind the scenes that make a massive impact on these businesses, and in fact make entire businesses possible to exist in the first place. Some of the best ecommerce companies are founded on just data.
- And finally, what is the one piece of advice you would give to an entrepreneur starting out?
I’ve got 2! The first is ‘if you snooze you lose’. That’s my Dad’s favourite phrase and I apply it to everything I do. Basically if an opportunity comes your way and you don’t take it you lose out, if you don’t work hard you lose out and there’s no excuse not to absolutely go and get it if there’s something you want. The other one is ‘eat the biggest frog first’ so if you’ve got a plate of frogs (doesn’t have to be frogs, it can be anything you don’t like!), and they’re all different sizes eat the biggest one first because it then gets easier as you eat the rest of the plate. And I mean that as in actually getting through your to-do list day-to-day. I wake up and think what’s the one task I don’t want to do and just get that out of the way because it makes the rest of the day a bit more manageable and allows new opportunities to open up.