Nussbaum: What Fashion Can Teach You About Innovation

Nokia, P&G, Lenovo, Ford, Tata, Boeing take note: Fashion can show you the way.



Before joining the faculty at Parsons, I subscribed to the standard prejudice against fashion held by many intellectuals: Fashion was all about consumerism and rich people. No longer.

One serious look at New York’s Fashion Week highlights how Fashion has morphed into a very sharp leading edge of innovation and design. “Fashion designers are relentlessly driving creativity,” says Simon Collins, dean of the School of Fashion at Parsons The New School of Design. “Keanan Duffty’s guerilla show on the Lincoln Center plaza, MAC&Milk live streaming all shows on, John Patrick Organic at the forefront of sustainability from his Upstate eco-friendly base, all covered live by bloggers and sold online, often bypassing traditional magazines and stores.”

While big corporations everywhere struggle to adapt to the 2010 world, Fashion is already there. When it comes to technology, sustainability, consumer co-creation, business models and straight up and down new talent, Fashion is doing it better than 99% of other global industries. Nokia, P&G, Lenovo, Ford, Tata, Boeing take note–Fashion can show you the way. Here’s how:

1) Technology Because Fashion is a youth-centric business in both the making and the consuming, it is incredibly close to the latest technologies. Social media, big-screen visualization, data streaming, on-line marketing and sales–all are now integral to fashion. This Fashion Week has major designers streaming their run-ways live to big store screens where people can watch and order. Fancy brands have private social networks where they have mark-down sales–but only to a selected group. My favorite fashion technology is the butt screen. A few years back, IDEO helped design a downtown NYC Prada store with look-behind screens that showed how your butt looked in jeans. It also came up with inventory-control tags that let you order exactly what you wanted directly from China (Okay, they’re still working out the kinks), and on-off frosted glass to provide privacy–or not.

Few industries and fewer companies empower young talent as the fashion industry.

2) Open Source Business is all talk when it comes to co-creation or consumer-led design and the few exceptions are in fashion–t-shirts and sneakers. But take look at the huge number of blogs and sites by talented fashionistas around the world showcasing their own work. It’s stunning.


3) New business models I can’t think of an industry that has generated more new business organizations than Fashion. “>The Gilt Groupe started the members-only private luxury sales social media business. It’s a roaring success

Nau pioneered the sustainable outdoors clothing mini/online store concept. Merchandise was shown but not sold in very small stores. Orders went directly to inventory and were delivered to your home. A collective of designers, artists and enthusiasts create the clothing and the clothes are based on the lifestyles of the wearers (biking to work, outdoor sports, being sustainable, etc.)

Nau gives great voice to its customers. It tries, like Apple and Nike, to be one with them. Hmm. Come to think of it, both are really Fashion companies, aren’t they?

Fashion is also in the forefront of the sweeping DIY movement. This bottoms-up, consumer-centric model flips the producer/consumer paradigm and is perhaps one of the most revolutionary business movements of the day. In Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Shirt Gallery (notice the word “gallery’) works with people, especially on its site But then again, google “diy fashion” and check out the ocean of opportunities.

4) Values Fashion is incredibly attuned to the values of its customers. When bling was in and the rich and famous were, well, rich and famous, it was there. With the New Normal, fashion is leading big business into the world of sustainable, authentic values. Online, Etsy is a leader in this. It builds community between producers and consumers of craft around the world through social media. Japan’s Muji is a run-away hit on a global scale and celebrates simple, plain, modest and inexpensive.

In materials, Fashion is pushing fast into eco-friendly materials, such as bamboo. And recycling is getting huge.


5) Talent There are few industries and fewer companies that not only recognize but empower young talent as the fashion industry. The only real example I can think of is hot young Stanford or IIT (India) -trained engineers. They are empowered in their industries as quickly as the young design graduates from Central St. Martins, Parsons, Royal Academia of Fine Arts, and FIT-trained fashion designers.

Fashion is very much a venture capital model. Each year, a new crop of designers is heralded. Their work is showcased, discussed and voted on by both consumers and businesses or financiers willing to back them. It’s a creative, vicious system that tends to bring the best to the top very quickly.

6) Fashion is global All the best fashion schools have a student mix that includes Asian, European, Latin American and North American students. In the U.S., just look at the current group of Asian American fashion designers moving up fast.

So it’s time we all (including we graphic, industrial and strategic design folks) dumped our negative feelings toward Fashion. In fact, Fashion is one space that can teach all of us about the future.

[Top image: A shot of the stunning laser-light installation that United Visual Artists recently created for a Y-3 runway show]

About the author

Bruce Nussbaum is the author of Creative Intelligence (HarperBusiness, March 2013). He is "Mentor-In-Residence" at NEW INC, the art/technology incubator of New Museum