Three's a crowd, Nine is just ridiculous

Just around the corner from my desk something strange is happening.


Miles and miles of hair is being teased into place, bucket loads of make-up are being applied and delicate feet are being squeezed into heels higher than some low rise buildings.

As I haven’t been recruited into the Rocky Horror Picture Show (yet), the crimping and primping must be in aid of Singapore fashion extravaganza  - Audi Fashion Festival.

An appearance by Lady Gaga’s stylist has created the most column inches, but for me taking a look at the way local fashion is embracing online is a more interesting exercise.

Most noteworthy is the appearance of Future Fashion Now at the Singapore shows. This innovative e-commerce concept allows people to watch shows being streamed live and pre-order items they like (almost) direct from the runway.

It’s doubly interesting because it’s yet another (albeit temporary) entrant into an already crowded market place.

It would be an understatement to say that e-commerce portals specialising in Asian brands have been the growth industry of 2012.

In the middle of 2011 there were more or less no retail portals dedicated to selling Asian brands. Fast forward that to May 2012 and you can’t throw a Louboutin in the air without hitting one on the way down.

A brief countback in my head saw me come up with NINE sites (there are probably more). All in a market which hasn’t exactly embraced the e-commerce model.  

That’s right. NINE sites. Keep that number in mind while I add some context to that. Singapore’s biggest fashion ‘marketplace’ site (with 50,000 retailers on board) achieved revenues that average out at S$60 per registered user or S$1,400 per merchant in 2011. Yep. NINE sites.

So the three immediate questions which arise from that are 1, Why are they all here?  2, Will they all work? And 3, who will succeed?

I’ll leave the first question up to people with far more knowledge of fashion than me. Namely Singapore based stylist and writer Rana Wehbe, who runs 'Bonjour Singapore', one of the most popular local fashion blogs in the country.

She actually says even through most of the sites privately say they have a bigger audience in the US - they are trying to pre-empt a curve that doesn’t really exist yet.

“Asian American designers are really getting popular in the West. And as people like Jason Wu (who dresses Michelle Obama), Alexander Wang and Richard Chai grow in popularity, so has the interest in their heritage.

“I think there was definitely a niche in bringing designers still based in Asia to the attention of the world. Unfortunately everyone either had the same idea at the same time, or there were quite a few copycat sites. It’s now in this odd position of having very mainstream pretentions without really having even been proven as a niche yet."

And she’s right. There is no rhyme or reason for quite so many sites to be entering an unproven market at the same time.

There is absolutely no hard data that supports the notion that Asian based fashion e-commerce is a sleeping cash-cow shaped giant.

When you have a minimum of NINE sites occupying the same space, and pretty much the same mission statement, something has got to give.

My personal opinion is that half of this new crop of e-commerce sites will fail – primarily because they forgot to do one important thing - their homework.

Flicking through the sites and you can see the problem. From a UI perspective there’s quite a bit of Net-a-portitis going on. So they feel the need to not just sell clothes, but sell a lifestyle too, throw in a bit of editorial and away you go. 

What they seem to forget is that Net-a-Porter has access to the biggest selling brands on the planet, editorials by some of the fashion world’s leading lights and 100 odd million sophisticated consumers on their doorstep. This just isn’t possible at the Asian level, especially with the level of exposure these brands are getting. 

In short, you can grow a brand on the back of Gucci and Prada. But if all of your brands are smaller, you need to invest the time and effort to actually help grow the (for example) Depression brand in order for it to be mutually beneficial.

And because they didn't appear to do their homework extensively, some of the sites spend a great deal of time cannibalising each other’s business instead of developing their own niches. Yes many of them have their own USPs (cash on delivery or starting 'local movements' for example) but for the most part they are cosmetic/gimmicky and not game changing. Indeed, many of the sites offer similar propositions, the same designers in rotation and the same online magazine format.

Five years down the line, my best case scenario will be for two or three of the smaller sites to join forces to take on the Rocket Internet backed giant of Zalora, with perhaps one or two innovative players forging their own path.

The sites I see having the greatest chance of long term success are the e-tailers prepared to recognise that your business model has to adapt quickly – that your home market is where you need to focus in the beginning, and that in Asia it often means engaging with your consumer offline as much as online.

One such example is Eriin.com, which quickly realised that targeting foreign markets should be a long term strategy and that staying nimble and building your brand identity is the key.

In the space of six months, Eriin has gone from being a “site bringing Asian fashion to the world”, to a multi-faceted brand, known for interesting offline collaborations, serious editing of collections and a desire to raise the profiles of ‘their’ labels into the bargain.

As an aside - they also spent considerable time and effort building their brand socially before the site even existed. A smart move for anyone considering operating a small web based business.

And that – in a nutshell – is the solution.

No matter how much time I spend writing about the differences between online in Asia and the West, there is one universal truth. Adapt or die.

It's a bit of a cop out but its simply the truth for start-ups in Asia, the US, Europe, even the North Pole. Thinking laterally, finding your real USP and being flexible is the only way to survive.

Let's check back in five years time and see if I'm right.

PS: For those fashion minded people. The NINE sites that I came up with off the top of my head are listed below (in no particular order). You might want to check them out. 

  • A Curious Teepee
  • Asia Fashion Inc
  • Doorstep Luxury
  • Eriin.com
  • Future Fashion Now
  • Gnossem
  • Shop The Mag
  • Unestablish
  • Zalora
  • Picture Credit: A lookbook shot from Singapore label Noel Caleb/Cornelyus Tan 

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    Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

    Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
    Surprising Science
    • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
    • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
    • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

    The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

    But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

    What's dead may never die, it seems

    The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

    BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

    The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

    As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

    The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

    "This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

    An ethical gray matter

    Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

    The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

    Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

    Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

    "This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

    One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

    The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

    "There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

    It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

    Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

    The dilemma is unprecedented.

    Setting new boundaries

    Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

    She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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    GoFundMe/Steve Munt
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