YNAP: How to keep the human touch in fashion retail

Fashion retailers will have to work increasingly hard to ensure they maintain the delicate balance between the human aspects of their businesses and automation, because going too far down the technology route would be a mistake.

This was the message delivered at the Wired Smarter conference in London this week by Federico Marchetti, founder & CEO of Yoox Net-A-Porter Group (YNAP), who highlighted how he had worked on this balance when setting up Yoox.

“I brought luxury and technology together in 1999. I was a technology guy and you would see me at the fashion shows and I was balancing man and machine. The former is emotion, beauty and feelings while machine is about speed, information and power. Could they co-exist? It was about striking the right balance,” he explains.

Marchetti revealed that the Yoox name comes from the y and x male and female chromosomes, which embrace the two ‘o’s’ that represent digital code. This indicates how he was marrying the two world’s together from the outset and maintaining such a balance has become even more relevant today as YNAP is embracing new powerful technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

He highlighted how this is manifesting itself within the company including its packaging that involves a fully automated logistics operation except for the final component that touches the customer: “We have people that make the last part of the packaging,” he says, adding that this involves smart boxes with ribbons wrapped around to give the personal touch.

AI-enabled colleagues

Another area that has seen dramatic change involves the stylists whose roles have evolved but who are still vital to the company. “They’ve been doing this for 20 years but we decided that we wanted to have AI stylists in the sense of [the software] collecting data on taste from our stylists and then giving this to our personal shoppers. This solution gives the best recommendations for outfits,” says Marchetti.

A private label range is also soon to be launched that has used data and AI in the early part of the process but the design is still done by the creative team. “We use the data but the design is done by the creative team. We use the data and let our creatives better determine what the customer needs in the future,” he says.

Although Marchetti believes it will probably be easier to ultimately let machines do everything the issue is that the product will lose value this way: “If it is not an exclusive design, if its drone delivered and then 3D printed.” He suggests this argument is applicable to luxury fashion and most other industries.

This is behind his decision to “nurture human talent and not let technology stop this”. Marchetti paints a picture of the future where a single label will convey quality – ‘Made by Humans’ – in the same way German cars, Italian fashion and Swiss watches represent a high level of quality in their specific categories.

“Luxury is about emotion. And human talent cannot be replaced,” he says.