In Conversation: Imran Amed Talks the Business of Fashion

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Canadian-born, London-based blogger, Imran Amed, cut his teeth in business at McGill and Harvard Business School, respectively, earning the education and experience necessary to turn a critical eye on the fashion industry. In 2007, from a cozy couch in Notting Hill, Amed began to write up dispatches and dissertations on the state of fashion, and quicky gained a following. Thus, Business of Fashion was born. In eight years, his website has become the most valuable news source in the industry, and an even more valuable resource for students, emerging designers, and those seeking to understand and navigate the complicated junction between business and fashion. Rather than a left-or-right brain approach to issues, Amed’s perspective is all-encompassing. Business of Fashion is a place where you can read an in-depth analysis of how China’s economic backslide is shifting the way luxury brands do business, alongside an illuminating interview with Karl Lagerfeld, breaking news on the latest designer departure, class sessions on how to market your start-up fashion label, the latest fashion career postings in every sector imaginable, and a list of the 500 people that are transforming the face of fashion as we know it.

Amed was one of Fashion Forward: Season 6’s keynote speakers, which provided Savoir Flair the good fortune to sit down with him and pick his brain about everything from Business of Fashion’s transformation into an actual, thriving business to the problems of sustainability that are currently facing fashion. Read below for a fascinating conversation with one of the most brilliant analytical minds in the industry today.

In the course of running BoF, have you ever ruffled any feathers with your reporting or reporting by others you post on the site?

Almost on a weekly basis.

Without getting into the nitty gritty, because I’d prefer not to re-ruffle feathers, I’ll just say that in the beginning, when I was writing, it was for me. You don’t write a blog in the beginning with an audience in mind. At least for me, there were ideas I wanted to get out there; I enjoyed the process of it. Writing it all down was a great way to clarify my thoughts, so I didn’t spend much time thinking about how people would react. I didn’t worry about what ‘so-and-so’ would say, because none of ‘those’ people were reading it at the time. In fact, I think it was that independence, that freedom, to write down whatever interested me without having to filter it for a specific audience, that made BoF so appealing to people. It became a source of independent analysis and opinion. Over the years, as more and more people began to read it, we had to become more and more vigilant about maintaining that voice. I firmly believe that the opinion, the reflection, and the analysis that we share with our readers is genuinely what makes us a distinctive voice in a very noisy fashion media landscape.

In the book “Fashion: A Philosophy”, Lars Svendsen says that there is no such thing as objective criticism in fashion because fashion publications are beholden to advertisers. But, BoF is unique in that it has risen above that, and has a dominant role in reflecting fashion back onto itself. You are the vanguard. How does it feel to have that role?

Long gone are the days that I was blogging from my sofa and writing without the knowledge that people were reading what I wrote. We take the responsibility, we take that position that we have very seriously. We use our voice responsibly. Regularly, as a team, we debate things. As the company grows and we develop more relationships and build a business, we are faced with increasing challenges, especially when it comes to maintaining our independent, critical point of view. It’s one thing to be a blogger on a sofa doing it for passion, and another to be a growing media company, with 30 employees, multiple revenue streams, investors, and all sorts of commercial relationships. We navigate the challenges with great care. But, as with many things, we learn lessons along the way. We’re not perfect. I don’t ever hold BoF up as a perfect entity. It’s not. We make mistakes, but we also work very hard to learn from them, acknowledge them, and do better the next time.

It’s interesting that Business of Fashion has itself become a business. What was it like when you made the decision to receive investor capital? Was it the natural next step in your evolution? Were you trepidatious about it?

All of the above. [Laughs] Of course I thought about it very carefully. Even in the early days of BoF, investors approached me, but at the time I wasn’t thinking about it as a business. I was motivated only by the feedback that I got. My return on the investment was the e-mails I got from readers or the comments they would leave. People would come up to me and say, ‘This really made my life better. This improved the way I look at fashion.’

As a young person growing up in Calgary (Canada), I can relate to that feeling, standing on the outside and wondering how this fascinating industry really works. I appreciate that curiosity. It’s part of why I started BoF to begin with! But, at a certain point, the growth of the audience and the responsibilities I had to them could no longer be managed out of my apartment by myself with a rickety infrastructure. My ability to finance and grow the business was so limited. In order for BoF to continue on its trajectory, in order for it to evolve, develop, and realize its potential, I needed to find investors.

So, it came more as a necessity along a very organic, gradual trajectory, as opposed to something I had planned and calculated for from the beginning. I also knew that the timing was good because the market kept approaching me. I knew I had something of value, which I might not have created for that purpose, but which other people were able to see as something valuable. That being said, the value I take from it is that the journey has been amazing. It’s been so fun. And I will say that I have been incredibly lucky to be able to hand-pick investors that really get me, and get what BoF is all about. We insisted when we took on the investment that we will retain editorial independence. We actually enshrined it in our shareholder documentation, both as a legal measure and as a message to the people who were investing, to let them know how important this independence was to us, and they have given us their full support to do so.

Let’s backtrack a little bit. Given your experience, your education, and your intellect, you could have applied this model to many different industries. You could have done “Business of Sports” or “Business of Architecture.” Why fashion?

I wasn’t one of those kids reading fashion magazines at the age of eight, but I was interested in fashion. I did like clothes, though, and I watched Tim Blanks on TV growing up, but I also liked music, and analyzing data, and all sorts of things. When it came to the time in my life when I started thinking seriously about what I wanted to do with my career, I kept returning to that passion for fashion. It beckoned to me. I was interested in businesses that had both a strong creative component, but were also vibrant, thriving industries. When I left my job at McKenzie in 2006, I started talking to people in lots of creative industries and what struck me is that fashion was thriving, vibrant, global, creative. It was exciting!

Do you think you’ll ever start charging for content on BoF?

Media companies can make money many ways, as you know yourself from working at one. You can charge for advertising, you can sell things, or you can charge for subscriptions. We do the first two, but I wouldn’t rule out the third. For that moment, our priority is making BoF as accessible as possible so everyone can benefit from it and its resources. In most of the world, BoF is very well known, but there are still people who have yet to discover it, and we don’t want to create any kind of barrier to them finding out about it and reaping benefits from the site. We don’t want to limit its potential to grow.

Where do you think real innovation is happening in fashion in the present day?

I don’t think it’s location-specific, necessarily. I think the main area where we’re seeing real innovation is in the intersection of technology and design. You have Mary Katrantzou, Peter Pilotto, and Erdem doing amazing digital prints, for instance. But, I love understanding and exploring “smart fabrics”, like the “heat tech” textiles at Uniqlo. That’s a pretty straightforward example of how you can use technology to make well-designed garments that also serve a useful function. If you can add functional utility to design, that makes fashion more interesting. I think we’re in the early days of that. Everyone is making a big deal out of wearable tech, but we think the real innovation will happen in fabrication. These kinds of technologies are being developed all over the world. It’s still nascent, though. It’s a long time away from hitting the mainstream, but it’s really exciting to see what will happen in the next five to ten years.

Since I have you here, I want to apply your analytical mind to runway shows. It’s not cost-effective for a brand to put on a huge show and create clothes for the runway when only a fraction of that is produced for their commercial line. Do you think runway shows represent good business strategy for brands? Do you think there’s room to improve upon them?

I’m not sure the problem is just with runway shows. I think the entire fashion system needs to be reevaluted.

I agree.

I think there will always be a place for experiential fashion shows. Whether that should be targeted directly to the industry or consumers is still a question mark. How often that should happen throughout the year, that’s another question mark. Where that happens is also a question mark. But will there be a need for runway shows, and will there be a need to see clothes that way? I think there always will be. I think the end goals are rapidly shifting. I also think we can’t get rid of the sense of community, interaction, engagement, and cross-pollination that comes from Fashion Week. Everyone thinks of it as this glamorous thing, but when you really think about it, Fashion Week is just a big industry trade conference — yes, one that happens to be filled with and attended by beautiful people in beautiful clothes attending beautifully curated events, but it’s a trade conference nonetheless. We still need that interaction. There’s something really exciting and magical that comes from having that interaction.

I look at the way Tom Ford did his Spring/Summer 2016, where he didn’t show at Fashion Week, and instead released a video for it starring Lady Gaga. In doing that, he also shot his lookbook and social media campaigns in one fell swoop. It was interesting to see that, and made me think maybe that’s the way Fashion Week will start happening. I agree that we still need that human connection to others in the industry and to the collections themselves, but I think we’re long past the days where we’d be weeping at a show, like what happened in the 1960s at Yves Saint Laurent.

True, but that being said, there are a couple of moments that I’ve had that were like being at an Yves Saint Laurent show in the 60s. Let me give you an example. Raf Simons’ first show for Dior, it was… you felt something electric in that room. Part of it was palpable excitement, part of it was being there with so many people feeling the same anticipation as you, part of it was awe because he had the sheer audacity to cover an entire building in flowers, and the other part of it was this amazing collection that seemed to draw a line underneath a very difficult period in time for the brand, one that really showed how he was going to project Dior into the future. It personally moved me. I will never forget it. So, while those moments are few and far between, the fact that they exist at all is proof that putting everyone in the same room to experience something together is still an important part of showing a designer’s work. Emotion is still a part of fashion, and I hope it always will be, otherwise it’s just selling stuff.

Otherwise, it’s just business.

Exactly.

Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to be in a designer’s shoes, to spend all of your waking hours focused on creation, under the pressure of a business that keeps accelerating, in a spotlight that keeps getting bigger and bigger in front of people who are very quick to judge. That’s not for everybody.

Let’s talk about Raf leaving. Did you anticipate his departure at all?

No, I was taken completely by surprise. I was actually quite impressed though. For someone in that position with that level of talent at that brand in this moment to just walk away? To have that self-awareness to know it was no longer the right thing for him? There’s so much humanity in that. That’s not easy to do. Those kinds of roles come with all sorts of perks and prestige and status, but also so much pressure. I think that says a lot about Raf Simons as a person of character, integrity, and substance. I was disappointed, but I was also so impressed.

Does it raise questions for you when you see designers placed in these prestigious roles at major brands burning out after a few years? Do you feel like too much pressure is being put on them? Is the business side taking over the creative side?

I think we wouldn’t be the first ones to think that the system that we’re working in is not sustainable. If you look at the series of exits, some more dramatic than others, it does make you think about what is being expected of these designers’ creative output. People at the end of the day are just people, just like you and me. Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to be in a designer’s shoes, to spend all of your waking hours focused on creation, under the pressure of a business that keeps accelerating, in a spotlight that keeps getting bigger and bigger in front of people who are very quick to judge. That’s not for everybody. When I interviewed Karl Lagerfeld, I asked him about this. Of all the designers in the world, he’s probably the most prolific, but somehow he manages to do it. I think it takes a certain type of character to be able to do it. Karl? He’s just always in the present, and when he creates something he doesn’t wait for someone to tell him that it’s good. He just moves on to the next thing. Is it a good or bad thing? Who am I to say? It is what it is.

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