As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Julian Hensolt, co-founder and CEO of Dresslife. The German fashion tech startup delivers the most accurate personalized shopping experience in the online fashion marketplace. By integrating user feedback into its fashion-specific artificial intelligence (AI), the technology helps shoppers find items that accurately match their personal style and fit requirements. Before launching Dresslife, Julian held positions as a purchaser and strategy consultant during a 10-year-career at Daimler AG. He earned a Diploma in Business Engineering and completed his Ph.D. (University of Bolton) in Supply Chain Management. While working on his dissertation, he identified major disadvantages within the fashion supply chain, resulting in the development of the idea for Dresslife.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Originally, I come from the automobile industry. I worked at Daimler AG, where I also wrote my Ph.D. dissertation. Over the course of my research, I examined different supply chains and noticed that the fashion industry is one of the least innovative. Apparel continues to be produced in batch sizes, returns are between six and 16 times higher in fashion than in other e-commerce sectors, and 75% of the clothes in our closets are worn less than four times during a lifetime. So, I decided to transfer the findings of more innovative supply chains to fashion and began thinking of ways to make improvements.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
When you found a start-up, extraordinary things happen pretty frequently. One episode I certainly won’t forget was when, during an early presentation, a well-known investor told us to “get the hell out of that market.” He urged us to find something else to disrupt because the fashion industry is too tough. Obviously, we didn’t take his advice. Instead, his words pushed us to work harder and get even better. I deeply believe that you learn most from the toughest setbacks and, more often than not, they lead to some kind of epiphany or breakthrough experience.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
With Dresslife, we use AI to make it easier for shoppers to discover and purchase items they love and that fit. We aim to contribute to a future of fashion in which fewer returns are made, and there is a more personalized way to discover and shop online. Our technology enables 1-to-1 personalization for fashion with exceptional accuracy, by integrating human feedback into a specifically-developed AI. This generates product recommendations for online shoppers based on their personal style preferences and fit. The goal is to elevate conversions and reduce returns to a competitive level. Global marketplaces, such as Amazon, push 1-to-1 personalization and already reach a revenue uplift of 35%. Our technology allows fashion retailers to establish a competitive user experience and avoid losing market shares to the larger platforms.
How do you think this will change the world?
Data fuels everything. Meanwhile, fashion utilizes its data so inefficiently. That’s why there are massive amounts of overstock in the market, even leading some companies to burn their inventory. We were able to fly to the moon decades ago, but we remain unable to produce clothes on demand. Our tools help utilize all the data and generate incredible insights. We believe this will be the basis for the future and will have an immense impact on fashion and apparel production in general. We’re not against fast fashion; we just want to make it better. We aim to enable retailers and customers to produce and shop more efficiently. As a $3 trillion global industry, fashion is one of the biggest global markets. It is also one of the largest industrial polluters, contributing around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions due to its long supply chains and energy-intensive production (UNFCCC). So, if we can improve this by even a small percentage, it would have a massive impact.
Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?
As far as fashion is concerned, the biggest fear right now is the so-called “Retail Apocalypse.” Many believe that online shopping is killing the brick and mortar business. However, we think that it is far from true. You see hugely successful D2C companies, like Bonobos or even Amazon, opening offline stores to expand their brands, create personal experiences and leverage continued growth. The retail experience must simply be so much better than before. The traditional way of doing things is no longer enough. We focus hugely on not only optimizing e-commerce with our technology but also connecting the offline experience. There are so many synergies: for instance, improving in-store demand planning, or directing consumers to the right products in a store immediately without them having to try on numerous items that won’t fit. To the consumer, the experience matters most.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
It was probably more of an analytical process because I am probably a more analytical person. But a major tipping point for me was when I had to buy suits for my job. I could never buy off the rack because my pants’ size is different from my jacket size. My only option was to buy tailored suits. Buying a tailored suit is a whole other ballgame. It’s time-consuming. I like to dress well, but I find the process to be immensely ineffective. Online, you spend hours browsing irrelevant inventory that you’ll end up returning because half of it doesn’t fit. Offline, you have to search forever and try on everything. Hence, my strong motivation is to eliminate this hassle for everyone.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
We are looking for fashion retailers that are innovative and demand new technological solutions. We target those who already understand the potential of 1-to-1 personalization and its benefits, such as revenue increase and return reduction. We’re also looking for those who are willing to test the waters with us, to find the perfect position from where to scale quickly.
Recently, we acquired a $1 million innovation program in collaboration with the Institute for Artificial Intelligence at the Leibniz University of Hanover, to continuously advance our AI.
To create the best solution for fashion retailers, we have also launched the Dresslife consumer app, which is available on iOS and Android. Here, we receive direct feedback from the consumer from which we can learn, iterate and adapt. Users get the personalized shopping experience on their mobile devices. We curate inventory from major retailers, like ASOS, Macy’s or Nordstrom, in addition to leading and up-and-coming brands. The app acts as a styling companion. The user experience focuses on ease and playfulness. Onboarding involves taking a short style quiz — with questions ranging from body shape and clothing preferences to a list of the user’s favorite brands. Exemplary products are swiped to learn about a user’s style preferences by like or dislike. Five levels, from Fashion Novice to Fashion Icon, indicate how accurately the app understands the customer, depending on the volume of data collected. A key feature is the Recommendation Score, which is displayed for each item. This feature predicts the customer’s satisfaction regarding fit, personal style, and value for money. The score serves as the main indicator of the decision of whether or not to buy a product.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- It takes a long time to build a start-up: Everybody reads about extreme success stories that raised hundreds of millions, and it’s communicated like it happened overnight. But for almost everyone, it actually took quite some time. That is why persistence is the key to success.
- The fashion industry is tough (the investor was right about that): It takes time to find the right partners and clients willing to bet on new technology. Many prefer to wait until everyone else has already done it before they take the leap. But we are seeing that those who start early reap the most benefits, which is something more and more retailers understand.
- It’s a lot of work to build a startup: It never stops, period.
- Experience matters: It’s really about learning and iterating constantly and garnering small and sometimes big wins as you continue.
- You’ll always make many mistakes. So, just go ahead and make them.
Thinking about it, it’s probably better that I didn’t know all those things in advance.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
I recently saw an interview with Jack Ma, where he said, soon there won’t be just smarter people but also smarter computers. Yet, creativity and ideas are areas where people will always shine through. I believe the interface between creativity and technology is extremely important. My advice to anyone would be to learn and keep learning. Be open to technology and creativity, and you will find your place.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
Our overall vision is a fashion market network that connects all stakeholders of this industry, from the brand to the retailer, the manufacturer, designers, stylists, and, of course, the consumer. Everyone contributes data and benefits from each other. It would lead to a perfectly circular system. The effect on the fashion supply chain would be highly beneficial. So, I’d invest $1 million in that because the potential is incredible.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
First: Work extremely hard because it is seldom the case that someone increases his chances of success who doesn’t. Second: You get what you put out into the world. If you do the best you can and keep a positive mindset, things will happen for you. Third: See the big picture and focus on the solution rather than the problem.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
I believe asking others for advice is probably the most important thing, while also knowing which advice to ignore. In addition, one must be laser-focused, while maintaining the flexibility to shift focus rapidly once a hypothesis has been proven or disproven. Nobody knows what works, otherwise, they would have done it already if it produced a $1B uplift. You have to test and fail a lot! Be prepared to deal with the setbacks and try to turn them into something positive.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
From our perspective, there’s never been a better time to invest in fashion tech. With the rise of more evolved AIs, startups that introduce concepts to revolutionize this industry have a real chance to solve the major issues. With Dresslife, we enable “taste-making” for fashion retailers, or as we call it, 1-to-1 personalization. That being said, I recently read that Ben Evans is focusing on our market and Mike Duboe just went to Greylock from Stitch Fix. I would certainly like to speak to both of them.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find Dresslife on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. And you can connect with us on LinkedIn.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.