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Championing digital transformation for the fashion and apparel industry

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From breaking into India’s $ 35 billion online fashion sector to becoming one of its favourite e-players, FashionMarket.lk, has been creating waves in India and beyond. The Lankan entrepreneur behind it all – Linda Speldewinde, shares her journey with Daily FT in an exclusive interview:Untitled-1

 Q: We want to hear more about your success in India and internationally. But even here, everyone’s been talking about FashionMarket.lk. What’s creating all these conversations? 

A: Our success is really rooted in design and the fact that we have ownership over this massive design movement we’ve created with AOD and the young talent that it creates. So, over the years, we have produced the kind of designer who sees eye-to-eye with the aesthetic and product ethos that stands for who we truly are, and this rich pool of design talent has been at the core of where we source our pieces from. And people here at home and in India really resonated with this.

When it comes to nailing our signature aesthetic, it’s really about deriving our philosophy into a look; it’s a design-driven, very simple yet high quality way of living that doesn’t impact the environment and is in sync with modern thought patterns and ideologies - it’s pared down and minimal, honest and considerate. It creates a very aspirational product that people genuinely want to be part of. 

Q: What’s making you tick in India? Everyone has been trying to crack India but it seems like you’ve got it? 

A: The Indian customer loves our product and the design and I think this is what really drove us into their market. India already has a very strong design aesthetic that comes deep from their culture. But what we offer to the Indian customer is very different to that, and they recognise it and value it. Coming from Sri Lanka, our brand philosophy remains true to a very tropical, island-like simplicity, with a modern twist that’s relevant to the entrepreneurial-spirited person who wants to make the world a better place; we have had enormous success in translating this vision into a visual aesthetic in clothing. This makes sense with how a lot of modern Indians think and act, given the changing social contexts of the county. So, our Indian consumers really embraced it. So I would say our success there really boils down to offering a product that resonates with the times, the minds, values and the tastes of people.

Q: What do you find most exciting about the future?

A: The numbers are great and if you can crack those numbers over there, the impact you can create is phenomenal. I believe the biggest transformations in the fashion industry will come from disruptors outside the industry and this is because the skill-set needed to make it in a digital world is completely different to those needed for the formerly successful brick and mortar businesses. I find it very exciting. 

With the consumer generation that has grown up in the online world, the way trends work has also changed significantly, making trend cycles much, much shorter responding to the short attention spans. This of course presents bigger sales opportunities for fashion brands in the future but also increases the seriousness of bringing in responsible discarding of products and managing price points which pose new challenges, which are quite exciting.

I think still, even the most successful digital retail experiences are built from desktop experiences but the future is in mobile with a predicted 80% of sales traffic coming via this medium. So, hyper-personalisation of mobile retail experiences will be huge in the near future and it’s an exciting development we’re fully on board with.

Q: What made you start this? 

A: I realised that we were creating designers, increasing production in villages and also forming a distinct aesthetic – a style signature of our own. These are all key things to build a successful fashion retail model. So, how do you scale it up from there? I think this is where the primary inspiration came from.

Also I saw the apparel industry structure and its dependency on the traditional retail model which was inevitably going to be collapsing in the near future. I was determined to do our part for the apparel industry, and build a different model rooted in what works for the new future- and this was digital. This completed the full circle for me – from the homegrown talent pool, to the grassroot level development to impacting our most commercially-significant industry.

Q: How come not many can still crack the digital? 

A: I think it’s because most people still think that digital is about building a website – basically something that aids their traditional brick and mortar business. But, it is not. It’s an entirely different ballgame, a selling platform on its own – it’s really a state of mind, a world of its own with own rules and skills.

There is no doubt, working in the digital space means you have to be so fast paced, live in that space to be able to really move with it and master it. The pressure is tremendous but so is the power and potential when it works.

 Q: What are you proud of? 

A: We have some really powerful, intelligent women who have gathered around us, because they understand what we do and truly value it for that. It’s really the best thing to see how honest, simple style solutions that maintain the integrity of a working woman can transform so many and give them that extra strength they need to go out there and do what they do a little better, to be who they are a little more confidently. I am very proud of that and it is what reminds me and my team every day what drives our core purpose and gives incredible meaning to what we do.

Q: What kind of consumer are you targeting?

A: The consumer who is driven, entrepreneurial, strong and intelligent and is comfortable enough in her own skin to trust what is simple and unpretentious. At the same time, this consumer has a deep sense of connection to the world she lives in, from the designer who envisioned her clothes, the village artisan who wove them, the planet we all share...she values the thought and consideration that we put into these people and places and that is a big part of why she wears our clothing.

Q: What’s the potential for industries? 

A: I started working closely with the apparel industry few years back at the very beginning of its transition into a value-added, design driven industry that was outgrowing its former production-only role. I continue to play a role with that to this date. But now, our work with them has evolved to the point where we’re connecting the industry to new potentials, new ways of disrupting old business models and going directly to the consumers etc. As part of this, last year we live streamed the SS17 travel collections designed and made by our fashion industry, worldwide for the first time. It was such a big win for Sri Lanka, because suddenly, the global fashion industry took notice of a small island talking about a big, previously-unheard of product proposition that brought together the modern consumables of fashion, travel, history, culture and material quality together.

As much as this is huge potential for the fashion industry, it also opens new doors to many other industries in our country from travel, hospitality to SMEs in craft related production. 

Q: What is your vision with all this? 

A: I want to inspire our industries to use this platform to their benefit. Because, digital is really the future – actually, I would even say it is the present. It is already here, and there is no way around it. What our industries can do with digital is incredible, and we have shown examples of how it can work by retailing online to reach new consumer markets directly bypassing traditional blocks and inspiring worldwide audiences with our new propositions. What I hope to achieve by demonstrating all this is, inspiring our industries to get on board with the digital and exercise its potential, because they need it. Sri Lanka needs it.

Q: What support do you have or need from the Government?

A: Currently we pay tax to sell in India and our Indian customer is paying for all of that – this is a challenge we are looking to overcome. Right now, we have the numbers to use the FTA so that is one facet of our solution, but at the same time we need to look outside the box and find other avenues too. This is where we need to really work with the Government and related authorities because overcoming these barriers means we’re blazing a new trail of possibilities for all the businesses looking to tap into these global markets – especially those very close to us like India and China.

Q: What are your future plans?

A: There are many, but among the most recent future plans that we’re working on is a platform that speaks to the US market. The consumers there are different to those at home or in India, so it’s an entirely new challenge. But our philosophy is something that resonates with the educated, intelligent and seasonless fashion consumer there, and it is a matter of crafting the product and its delivery to in a way that tallies with their buying and consuming patterns. It’s quite exciting and I’m confident we can make it happen for Sri Lanka to open up a new door for our fashion business.

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