Business of Fashion: In conversation with Imran Amed
"We need to once again become innovators"
Silvia Bombardini speaks to the founder of digital portal Business of Fashion about the evolution of the online landscape, the relevance of print, and expanding to China
A harmony of right and left brain, of discipline and creativity, is at the core of your work. To what extent does this balance come naturally to you? Or is it something you occasionally have to remind yourself of?
It feels pretty natural. I think in a way we are all born in certain ways, with certain talents or gifts. From a very young age I was creative, I liked working in groups of people to put on performances. I was always very aesthetically and visually attuned. But then I was also very analytical. So it's a real pleasure for me actually to have stimulation on both sides of my brain, that's when I'm the happiest.
I'm really lucky, you know, that on a given day I might be doing analysis of some businesses, but I might also be talking to the team about our next cover, or looking at a young designer's collection. The mix of those things, moving smoothly and kind of fluidly between them, makes me very happy. And yes, our team is also the same way. We're a bunch of fashion nerds and media geeks. Some people might be skewed more one way or the other but everyone really appreciates both sides, and that's how I hire them.
It's hard to believe it now, but eight years ago the Business of Fashion began as a typepad blog with only a handful of readers. But there was a great appetite for independent thought and information and the site grew. Do you think the online readership is still looking for the same content or has it evolved?
I wasn't really looking for a void at first, because it was a very personal project. It wasn't really done with any kind of market or audience analysis. I simply thought that the intersection of fashion, and business, and ultimately technology was really interesting. Second, I often thought that the fashion industry was shown in such a superficial light, and dismissed as frivolous, with flaky people who go to parties, hang out and don't work very hard. But the more I met them, the more I learned that they were actually fascinating; and the companies they worked for and the global nature of the industry was also fascinating. So finding a way to explore all that was for me very interesting. And, as it turns out, it was for other people as well. That's how the readership grew.
Times change as well as readers' needs. Now we have launched a new platform on BoF called BoF Voices. The idea of BoF Voices is to create a platform for conversation and debate about important issues that the fashion industry is grappling with.
Especially because the fashion industry is really hard to breach from the outside. BoF is now considered as one of the most reliable and respected platforms by fashion insiders themselves. How difficult was it to reach this level of credibility?
Building credibility isn't done overnight, it actually takes quite a long time. Eight years doesn't sound like a long time, but it's been a long journey. People don't immediately trust you, it's like a friendship. Many of our readers, they think of BoF like they would their friend. And I think what helped was that our friends referred us to their friends and the credibility really came from word-of-mouth at first.
Social media also helped: it took that word-of-mouth recommendation and it just turbocharged it, took it to a whole new level. But I'm also really conscious that trust is something that can be taken away very quickly if you don't live up to what people expect, so we don't take it for granted. We are still doing everything we can every day to build, earn, and deserve that trust. It's core to what makes BoF different from other media organisations.
And now you also have a bi-annual print publication. The fact that more people have come to accept, rely on, and consume news and opinions through websites, what makes a magazine special enough to be owned in print?
Well, from our very first print edition, we did it to launch something online. It's kind of a funny thing right? To launch in print something digital. At the time, we had just come up with this idea to do the BoF 500, which is our list of the key people shaping the global fashion industry. For many years I had been asked if I would ever do a print edition and I didn't know, but I didn't rule it out. I thought if there was ever a time when it made sense, then I would certainly try it. And that moment came when we were doing the BoF 500. We managed to convince Tom Ford to be on the cover. Nobody knew we were doing a print edition, it was all a big surprise for everyone. As it turns out, doing something in print was a really great way to launch something online. So every print edition that we've done subsequently has been associated with a bigger purpose.
if you don't somehow inject innovation into your business... it's very likely that you'll become irrelevant
BoF China was introduced in late 2014. How well has it been received? How important was it to localise content?
From the very beginning BoF attracted a global audience. I knew it for sure in the August of 2007 when someone wrote to me from Korea asking for an expert comment to include in an article for Korean Vogue. You know, somehow the industry, although it is global and reaches people everywhere, still feels fragmented. Especially with regards to the separation between emerging new markets — China, India, Brazil and Russia — and traditional Western European and North American markets. It's important to tailor our voice to specific markets, because while there are always going to be things that are interesting to everybody around the world, the Chinese fashion industry is a $300 billion one, and Brazil has its own native fashion ecosystem and so does India.
For BoF China, which is actually our second foreign language version because we have a French version in partnership with the newspaper Le Monde, we took really small steps at the beginning because I wanted to learn from the audience what they were looking for. So far the response has been really great because there's no resource like BoF in China. So if we can contribute the same kind of analysis and intelligence that we've done globally, but for the Chinese market, then I see a massive opportunity.
If there's going to be another BoF, where do you think that would be?
I really don't know. We actually get e-mails almost every month from someone in some part of the world asking whether we would ever do a BoF Brazil, a BoF Japan or a BoF Israel. I'm definitely not ruling out further expansion, but for the time being our main focus is on China.
You took a great risk by leaving a comfortable career in management consulting to start something new and uncertain. Who would you like to see take more risks in the fashion industry?
It was very hard for me at first. I had a very secure, prestigious, global, high-paying job. But at the end of the day it comes back to what we discussed at the beginning: that job just ended up being too left brain for me. If you know yourself, and know what your talent or passion is, and you can align that passion with a career, I think that can be really powerful. It was risky for me, but at the same time inside my head and inside my heart, I felt like I didn't have a choice but to take that risk. And taking risks subsequent to that has become easier and easier.
Who would I suggest to try it? Well, I think probably the biggest brands. Fashion has become a very formulaic world. As it has become a very big business, almost by definition it has become harder for certain kinds of companies to take risks. It's interesting that an industry that's built on change, and newness, and innovation, sometimes is such a risk-averse one. People are so stuck into old models of doing things, but we need to break out of these models and start thinking about how the world is changing rapidly. You know, the rise of technology, the way we all live together in this global community. We can't stick our heads in the sand and pretend the change isn't happening, it's happening now. And that requires a nimbleness, a flexibility and a willingness to try new things.
Even if it means having more to lose?
Well, obviously the hardest thing for a big company to do is to put its core business at stake. But what happens over time if you don't try new things, is that you just become slowly obsolete. So if you don't somehow inject innovation into your business, especially in an industry like fashion, especially at a time like the one we're living in now, it's very likely that you'll become irrelevant. So yes, you have a lot to lose because you're a big company, but you also have a lot to lose if you decide not to change.