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Fashion and Retail Tech Advisor
With a career spanning nearly 25 years, several continents and various industries, Singapore-based Debra Langley is no stranger to taking risks and adapting to change. Her work has placed her at the crossroads of technology, retail fashion and venture capitalism, and she has a penchant and passion for disrupting traditional business models.
Previously, Debra was the founder and CEO of Inverted Edge, a retail platform for independent fashion designers that was acquired by Gnossem in 2016. Before that, she was the President of DKNY Jeans International and the Vice President at Hearst Magazines International.
Debra currently advises and consults retail, fashion/tech and media brands, is an advisor to Singapore Fashion Week and the Zip Code Summit, and works with Full Circle Partners, a global investment platform that helps fund and scale high-growth companies.
What are some of the most important decisions you've made in your career?
My career path is the direct result of pursuing opportunities in different countries and different industries, so the important decisions for me were risks including a new job, new country, and new life. I moved from New Zealand to London, Hong Kong, New York, Boston, California and now Singapore, and from international media (The Economist and Hearst), to start-up ecommerce (healthy living and fashion) and international fashion retail (DKNY). Currently, in what is a well-timed confluence of everything I’ve ever done, I work with fashion/tech brands and two VC groups, one based in the UK and the other in Singapore.
What are some of the worst professional mistakes you've made and how did you overcome them?
I’ve made a beauty pageant of mistakes, and I couldn’t even begin to rank them. Mistakes are very painful at the time, but as everyone will tell you, that’s how we learn and grow. I know that sounds obvious or a platitude (or both), but it took me a while to realize fully that life is about making mistakes and you just make different ones as you go along. Failure is not the end of things. What matters most is what you do when you get back up.
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned throughout your career?
I think the biggest lesson is that there are valuable skills that you can develop and apply to different sectors, and those skills are a combination of instinct, being able to identify shifts and trends, and being open to alternative ways of thinking. This helps you to see opportunities early for things to be done better or differently. So the ability to lead or add value in this way is an incredible asset, no matter where you are in your career or what sector you’re in, although it helps of course if you’re crisscrossing industries that are complementary or even converging – as in my case.
It's also important to be constantly aware of how industries are morphing as technology becomes faster and more ubiquitous, and how commercial models need to change in response to that, and then being able to course-correct your business accordingly and maintain momentum. For instance, media, content and retail are converging, and that’s driving massive change in how we interact with customers. And this is happening at light speed. Two years ago, we were just toying with ideas around AR and holograms in retail, and now we’re implementing holographic runway shows and in-store AR experiences.
What is your biggest ambition right now?
I’m increasingly interested in innovative business and investment models—especially in fashion and fashion/retail-tech—that not only have strong commercial appeal, but also the potential to make a social impact. I’m referring to businesses that deliberately pursue the highest standards of social and environmental performance, that are accountable and transparent, and that bake these objectives into their commercial model and then execute accordingly. I’m not saying everyone should become a certified B Corp (although a nice thought), but in any industry, this kind of rigour is game changing. So my big ambition now is to be involved in supporting those kinds of companies or to be part of building one.
Who inspires or influences you and why?
There is an army of people I admire, but what really inspires me are human actions, and these can come from anyone, anywhere. It’s when individuals make change happen and take risks to create benefit; when they pay it forward even in a small way and there’s a domino effect; when people persist, turn things around, go outside their comfort zone or overcome tremendous physical, mental or financial obstacles. I’m inspired by people who speak up, even at great threat to themselves, and by those who listen to that and use their abilities to take the agenda forward. Why? Because every positive action disrupts stasis, and we need more of that to become better as humans.
What trends or technologies do you think will shape consumer behaviour across the world?
In terms of retail, I think companies like Amazon, Alibaba, Walmart and others will get bigger and smarter, so in-home assistants like Alexa will take over the grind of regular shopping and become much more embedded in our lives. Alexa was a room fixture at the Ovolo Hotel in Sydney, where I stayed last weekend, and that was incredibly useful and entertaining.
In fashion, I personally hope the new textiles economy picks up speed. It's just starting out, but it’s critical for our planet that it gains traction and fast. This is where clothes are designed to last longer and be worn more so they can easily be rented, resold and recycled, and they don't release toxins or pollutants. US brand Eileen Fisher, with The Tiny Factory, is already doing this by turning reclaimed clothing into commercially viable remade, reinvented garments.
There are also a number of niche fashion brands emerging that do one or a few things really well, and they’re at the opposite end of the spectrum from fast fashion and AI-based private labels. These brands have an authentic story around why they exist and what they’re creating for their customers, which makes for an emotionally powerful proposition to which I think we as humans naturally gravitate. Even if they start online, these brands will eventually build compelling offline experiences—a.k.a. the new stores of the future—that will be where self-selecting, interest-based communities will want to hang out. Eventually, these brands will form ecosystems, not just to get better efficiencies and to leverage each other’s like-minded customers, but also to innovate. In that context, I think the recent announcement that NYC department store Lord & Taylor will be converted into a WeWork space is a prescient indicator of things to come.
I’m a fan of Brené Brown, the social scientist, and her book, Rising Strong. You can also listen to her on TED. Her thesis is that rising strong after a fall and regaining our footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested most and our values are forged, and that makes us who we are. And if we own that story, despite how difficult it might be to admit to or how vulnerable it makes us feel, we get to write the ending versus being characters in someone else’s story. This is in line with what I said earlier about failure, and maybe that’s why this book resonates with me.
I’ve just downloaded Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. You can also watch him here. Basically, he says Google is "digital truth serum" whereas Facebook is "digital brag to my friends about how good my life is serum". So the power in Google data is that people tell Google things they might not tell anyone else, which makes sense because if you want an accurate result, you write precise search parameters, right? And what Davidowitz presents after analyzing mountains of this data over four years are these incredible insights into the human psyche.
I really like the Reply All podcasts on Gimlet. Their content is quirky, fun and insightful. #112 The Prophet is a really good example. I also like Saints of Somewhere where cultural leaders talk about whatever has inspired them. And I love the videos on Broadly, which is Vice’s channel for women (quite ironic given recent press of Vice Media having to apologize for its bro culture, but that’s another story!).
Websites or Blogs to bookmark right now
I have many, but here’s a selection:
- The Current Daily
- Business of Fashion
- L2Inc and L2Daily (especially Prof Scott Galloway’s videos)
- Anand Sanwal at CB Insights
- Think with Google
- Time Inc Global Media Report
- Fortune’s Broadsheet
- Sallie Krawcheck at Ellevest
This year I’ll also be following PassionFlix, a series of romance and passion movies for women launched last year by Tosca Musk, Jina Panebianco, and Joany Kane. They've already gotten great traction because they’re so laser focused about addressing the interests of this surprisingly underserved market.