Navigating Post-COVID-19 Opportunities at WWD’s 2021 Tokyo Retail Forum

LONDON — The rise of the e-commerce titans, sustainable fashion and the future of retail, post-pandemic, were among the many themes that emerged during the 2021 WWD Online Retail Forum Tokyo.

Usually a live event, the forum took place online this year with speakers including Anne Pitcher, managing director of Selfridges Group; Doug Stephens of Retail Prophet, and the designer Heron Preston. They talked about how they are staying competitive in the increasingly complex market, and pivoting their business models in what has been a challenging year.

“The fashion industry in Japan had been facing many issues even before the coronavirus. The fact is that we now need to address those issues even more urgently. While dealing with the work we must look at the time after coronavirus and develop growth strategies for the fashion and retail industries,” said Yuji Morimoto, president and chief executive officer of Lumine Co. Ltd., which partners with WWD on the forum.

Retail Prophet’s Stephens kicked off the event, sharing his take on the future of retail in a post-pandemic world.

“I look at COVID-19 not just as an acceleration of things that might have happened anyway. I think it’s almost sort of intellectually lazy to think about it that way,” he said. “I think this is a unique window in time, where we as an industry are pulled from the industrial era of retail into once and for all the digital era.”

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He predicted that since Amazon, Alibaba, Walmart and are benefiting so much from COVID-19’s disruption to traditional retail, they are going to become “apex predators” when businesses emerge from the crisis. As a result, national retailers are going to build marketplaces to compete with them, and other smaller retailers will have to rethink their positioning in order to thrive in the shadows of these giants.

“Purpose is the new positioning. I don’t mean your corporate value or vision statement. I am talking about why a consumer needs your brand in the first place,” Stephens said, adding that brands that know how to inspire and educate consumers; showcase good design and values; save consumers’ time and effort, and provide the best service experience, will be more likely to succeed in the near future.

Pitcher of Selfridges Group talked about the role of sustainability in retail, the five keys elements of rethinking retail, and retail’s place in society. She also addressed how the business can reflect and shape contemporary culture, and what leaders need to be doing to make all these things happen.

“At Selfridges Group, reinventing retail started with transforming ourselves into a sustainable business,” she said.

“Our sustainability commitments underpin the way we shop for the future and changed the way we do business. In practice, this means we are setting targets that ensure the most environmentally impactful materials used in our business are from certified sources by 2025. We are driving an ambitious carbon reduction plan and to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050,” she added.

Her insightful session was followed by a presentation and audience question-and-answer from Tal Zvi Nathanel, CEO and cofounder of Showfields, about how his company is going to make retail exciting again.

He believes that retail feels dull at the moment because doing interesting physical retail is extremely hard compared to creating an engaging website. He set up Showfields to help brands open exciting physical stores and making the process as easy as designing a website. Now he is expanding his business into the Japanese market, and aims to have an official presence in Tokyo by the end of this year.

Outerknown’s CEO Mark Walker talked about the journey of the brand, which was founded by world surfing champion Kelly Slater five years ago. He explained how the brand plans to go from sustainability to circularity by using organic and recycled materials and committing to fair labor from the start.

He said that Outerknown wants to get to a place by 2030 where “everything the brand uses is something that’s already existed.”

Designer Heron Preston, in conversation with James Fallon, editorial director at WWD, during WWD Retail 2021 Forum. Screenshots/WWD

Preston discussed his unexpected collaboration with the New York Department of Sanitation, how he experimented with upcycling before he even knew what it meant, and why there is no “finish line” when it comes to implementing sustainable practices in his collections.

“We are constantly changing and adapting. This is going to continue, to be a reality in our lives, not necessarily because of the pandemic, but the world is changing, and we’re having to adapt to that,” he said.

Preston said he’s often encouraged by friends and colleagues and the information he gathers from them to push his sustainability efforts farther.

“One example is that there was a time I felt I have hit a goal with introducing organic materials, and then I met a friend. She was like, ‘That’s not the finish line. You can go beyond organic.’ She started to educate me about [consolidating materials, production and supply chain] and cutting down travel times — instead of having a farm in one part of the world and then shipping your cotton across the globe,” he added.

Lisa Yamai, president and CEO of Snow Peak Inc., said the brand is proud of being an “outdoor lifestyle curator” for the past 60 years, and “working only with nature and connecting people in nature.”

The Detox Market’s CEO and founder Romain Gaillard later shed a light on how the pandemic has, and will, accelerate clean beauty.

“We first saw a surge of orders online from hand sanitizers and hand creams, things we excepted from the time of a pandemic. But then we saw the demand for body care and skin care increased significantly. We acquired more customers during the lockdown than ever before. Some categories did well, and some didn’t. Makeup was very challenging, but clean beauty did so well,” Gaillard said.

He concluded that the rise of clean beauty can be attributed to one factor: people have more time to do research and read into what ingredients work on the skin. They can also experiment with new products and turn the bathroom into a spa, and focus on well-being as the pandemic has put a stop to our daily routines.

Looking to the post-pandemic world, Gaillard said he believes that providing more detailed information online, better customer support, integrating an automated suggestion engine, and running “a high-visibility curated branded experience” will enable the clean beauty category to achieve sustained growth.

Jill Standish, senior managing director and global lead, retail at Accenture talked about the idea of adaptive retail and how to embrace change and plan for recovery, while Thredup’s CEO and cofounder James Reinhart talked about why the resale marketplace model offers a more sustainable future of fashion.

Fashion designer Tomo Koizumi in conversation with Kelly Wetherille, special correspondent, Tokyo, WWD. Screenshot

Designer Tomo Koizumi spoke about his inspirations; how his larger-than-life colorful creations took New York by storm in 2019 with his first fashion show, which took place in Marc Jacobs’ flagship; his collaboration with Emilio Pucci and Sacai, and his plan beyond the pandemic.

“I have loved big dresses, haute couture and designs with elaborate details ever since I was in junior high. Even now, I have a strong admiration for them. That said, I also realized that I could use my Japanese background and culture that doesn’t exist in other countries when I thought about introducing my designs to the rest of the world.…I also notice that I was influenced by everyday things that were around and I took for granted when I was young,” he said.

“For example, my mother’s relative ran a funeral home. So I was always around flower wreaths for funerals and Buddhist decorations. When I was growing up, I sometimes notice when I see my own creations, their design is greatly influenced by things like that,” he added.

Koizumi also said he is not the kind of designer who will change completely from one collection to another. Instead, he tries to focus on a single or a mixture of elements and give them depth each season.

Speaking about the future, the designer said he would like to collaborate with companies outside of fashion. His ruffle design, for example, can be used in interior design or food.

“I can be anything. What’s most memorable about my designs are the colors and decorative ruffles. I want to use them to make people happy,” he said. “Also, I have not made anything commercially. I would like to make my creations available to more people. “

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