My Work: Katie Baron

Portrait of Katie Baron

Interview: Haris Stavridis // Portrait: Courtesy of Katie Baron

Could you please describe your role at Stylus?

I’m the global Head of Retail, Trends, Insights and Innovations, which is essentially a combination of trend analysis and future scoping. To understand what will gain traction in the future we have to look at what’s happening culturally, socially, technologically and across a host of different industries. For instance, with fashion it’s not enough to look at what’s happening in the fashion industry alone; it’s essential to understand the way we’re consuming music and images and how we are communicating with one another in order to steer our clients towards what’s not visible yet—the opportunities they can leap into to get ahead of the curve.

What is your typical day at the office like?

I pretty much start working (checking emails) the moment I get on the bus, around 8:15am. I’m usually at the office between 9 and 9:30am, always kicking off with a massive mug of green tea. My days are a really mixed bag of directing my team, research, writing, editing, meetings, doing presentations and brainstorming. I’m also travelling about once a month, usually for conferences.

What do you enjoy most in your work?

I’m in the rather unusual and privileged position to be both an expert and also constantly learning, since I am dealing with industries constantly in flux. To do my job well, I have to embrace this as well as going beyond my own comfort zone. I also get to work with incredible people; the Stylus internal team (a group of industry experts) and an unusual mix of artists, designers, entrepreneurs, technologists, sociologists, psychologists, educators, and brand directors (among others) who challenge me and serve as a sounding board.

Which are your three biggest headaches at work right now?

Not enough hours in the day, a tricky, takes-too-long content management system (I’m very impatient), and hiring!

Are there any tools, applications, or services that make your everyday business life easier?

Skype and Evernote Notebooks! Pinterest is relatively useful as a scrapbook for aesthetic references, but I’m a default mind-mapper so I often go old school and email the team scans of my (probably quite unintelligible to anyone else) sketched notes.

When it comes to fashion and business news, what's on your daily reading list? Any great business books you'd like to recommend?

Daily reading involves anything from Huffington Post to Mashable. Regarding books, it's something that changes all the time. The last really useful business book I bought was The Daring Book for Boys in Business, an investigation of how brands in traditionally male sectors can and should be reaching out to women.

Could you tell us about the biggest setback you have faced in your career? How did you respond to it?

My first book, Stylists: New Fashion Visionaries, came out of the bones of an idea that was not really workable for various reasons, but mainly due to fashion industry politics. This book was a major turning point in my career and without the initial setback I would have never written it. Joining Stylus at the same time was also a massive blessing. I learned to write in a way much more analytic, probing and thorough than before, an approach hugely useful to fashion writing. It taught me to be much tougher on myself, to really confront and dissect my own motivations and references, something I’m very grateful for.

According to American entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreessen, “Retail guys are going to go out of business, and e-commerce will become the place everyone buys. You are not going to have a choice.” Do you agree with this notion and if so, why?

This is already an outmoded concept, or perhaps it’s just the phrasing? E-commerce is retail. The shrewdest retail brands have already acknowledged that it’s not a case of pitching physical retail against digital, or even virtual retail, but connecting the dots between numerous platforms in a relevant and seamless way. Consumers don’t draw neat and tidy dividing lines between their worlds—we all now roam around multiple ‘plains’ on a daily, even hourly basis, so it’s entirely illogical that retail would be any different. The physical space has a huge role in that—which is why e-tail monolith Amazon has opened a bricks-and-mortar flagship in Seattle.

Additionally, as much as retail is still a significant recreational activity in itself, it’s also an ‘accidental’ past-time; it’s increasingly happening in either the micro moments of our downtime, or at those junctures where inspiration hits far beyond traditional retail venues (from TV shows to magazines to music videos) which renders the idea of fixed boundaries a major nonsense.

As e-commerce continues to grow, how do you see physical retail spaces responding to this challenge? Do they need to focus more on creating concepts and offering a richer in-store experience?

As mentioned above, it's a necessity for brands to understand how to use their various channels and allow them to feed/fuel one another. Having said that, there is certainly a shift towards physical brand spaces morphing into hybridised, socialised hubs—forums for surprise and communal, experiential, explorative versions of commerce. Earlier in 2015, I wrote a report called Beyond Commerce: Rites, Rituals & Culture Clubs. It examines the future of the luxury sector, including the importance of crafting fleeting, ‘now-or-never’ moments, kinship, participation and physical concepts that counterbalance the potentially damaging sense of ubiquity digital retail has generated.

Are there any new retail concepts/initiatives that have caught your attention recently?

One of my favourite recent concepts was the Nike SNKRS pop-up store in New York—devised to promote its new SNKRS e-commerce app (alerts users to new releases). It looked like an oversized shoebox wrapped in LED screens and advertised the app and the limited selection of trainers inside, a selection that changed hourly and was accessible via online RSVP only. Once you got in and had received the code for the app, you’d have an hour to get busy shopping. It’s an excellent example of a crossover concept that straddles physical, digital retail and marketing—a brilliantly interdependent, connected cycle.

I also loved Raf Simons' pop-up concept with the American artist Ruby Sterling in 2014, a limited edition, staggered release online store (inthenameof.be) that was so popular it later spurred a physical store (also a staggered release) in Antwerp. I’m also a fan of Hunter’s London flagship store and Everlane’s recent Room Service concept.

What are the biggest trends when it comes to fashion retail?

In terms of engagement (selling, marketing, communications) there are many: embracing ephemeral moments, personalisation, new forms of limited edition or covert items, hidden commerce, embracing humour and self-deprecation (luxury brands), and the rise of concierge culture (in all levels of the market) are a few key ones.

Where would you advise fashion retailers to focus when it comes to the design of their stores and the experiences that they offer?

Fashion retailers need to maintain a high degree of individuality. It’s true that we’re now in a generation of ‘consumer creators’ who actively expect the brands they deal with to allow them to exert their opinion and even express themselves through their product or space, but brands need to maintain a visionary status at all costs. Brand fans need cult leaders.

They should also create seamless connections between the digital brand experience and the one enjoyed in-store. Consider contextual relevance. Consider the flagship store something of a temple to brand values and personality, in which your fans can congregate with other like-minded people. Create spaces consumers can lean into, as they are now hyper-stimulated to the point of choice paralysis. Therefore, sanctuary-like pockets of space which counteract that are becoming increasingly essential.

What is the most solid, specific piece of advice you have for anyone wishing to work in fashion?

Be prepared for extreme competitiveness, hard graft, and levels of organisation you may never have associated with the industry. Try to carve out, or at least nurture, your own perspective and voice as early as possible. I feel that while blogger culture has democratised the industry in some ways (a good thing, of course), it’s also created a space where it’s now acceptable to aspire to do nothing more than posting your favourite outfit of the day. Fashion doesn’t need more of that—to remain vital and progressive it needs bravery and opinions grounded in not simply accepting the status quo but pushing for bigger, better, and different.

Who would you like to recommend next for My Work?

Becc Gray, owner of PR agency Bloody Gray.

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