When you listen to some of will.i.am’s electro-pop hits from the past 15 years, his body of futuristic work as the founding frontman for The Black Eyed Peas sounds to be well before its time.
As it turns out, the musician and beatsmith was always about the future, even as an artist.
Since last putting out a solo album in 2013 and one with BEP in 2010, will.i.am has refocused his energy, vision and career as the founder and CEO of i.am+, a consumer brand that combines fashion and technology to create wearable products.
In between, he’s been a founding investor in Beats, plied his craft as Intel’s director of creative innovation, served as 3D Systems’ chief creative officer and more recently, served as an executive producer and judge for Apple’s Planet of the Apps.
“I try to dream up new ways to interact with things,” will.i.am told the audience at the Fashion Tech Forum in Los Angeles.
Whether it’s wearing the hat of a tech entrepreneur and investing in start-ups like Mira and Emoticast, acquiring smart home platform Wink and machine learning company Sensiya, debuting the device-agnostic virtual assistant AneedA, launching smartwatches or simply making gaudy $315 phone cases, will.i.am’s sole focus is innovating the future.
“We live in unusual and unlikely times, and more importantly, a point in time where the fabric of culture is moldable,” will.i.am said. “We live in this Play-Doh state—the way we live today is not the way it’s going to be in 2030. It could be that way if we don’t invent, innovate and dream up new things.”
will.i.am, born William James Adams, went on to talk about a variety of topics around fashion and technology, and how brand executives need to innovate their businesses—or face extinction.
Below are the highlights, as told by will.i.am himself.
— Manouk Akopyan (@Manouk_Akopyan) October 7, 2017
On the importance of brands needing to innovate:
“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh my gosh, what are we going to do?’ But what are they talking about? In 2006, everyone was talking about dial-up phones and old internet and no one saw iOS coming—no one saw that. They couldn’t see how their world was going to be disrupted. Not even hotels could see Airbnb—they changed lodging. Uber changed travel. Apple Music and Spotify changed how we all share music. Start thinking. The storm is a-comin’—just don’t make an umbrella.”
On what executives from the fashion industry can learn from the mobile phone revolution:
“The future of fashion is going to be a tech company unless fashion gets up to speed right now. To design stuff that people are asking for, you’re just going to be making the same stuff over and over again—and then you make a jump and you leap. A good example is with phones in 2006. You had PDAs, and that wasn’t the future. You had the phone in your house, and that didn’t really change except for it went from rotary to a dial. Then the iPhone came and changed it all. Apple was not even phone makers, but they took the breakfast, lunch and dinner and the house of all the phone makers because they created a platform that changed everyone’s concept of what a phone is. You could never see a phone the same after the iPhone. The same should happen to fashion, or else you will be Nokia and Motorola. The unlikely candidate that never makes apparel—a jacket, a bag, a hat, glasses—that will be the new norm. That is the urgency. If you don’t see that coming, then you’re an opossum. When the bright lights come, opossums just stand and get hit.”
On how the fashion industry needs to understand and cater to today’s consumer:
“I love fashion. But as an industry, it’s kind of blind to what’s actually happening in the world right now. The world of fashion does not realize how their jobs are not going to be around 10-to-20 years from now. It’s not going to be you guys because of how slow you’re moving to innovate. Car manufacturers are, because they realize that millennials don’t care about having a vehicle the way I did when I was 18. When I was 18, I dreamt, ‘Oh I can’t wait to get a car.’ It’s different now. They want an Uber account—they don’t want to have a car. It happened to the music industry. People wanted to have an awesome collection. People don’t have 2000-piece record collections anymore, they just have Spotify and Apple Music. They don’t have to have physical products. Fashion will have the same fate as the music industry and the car industry if they don’t realize the urgency to innovate.”
On the potential effect Google and Apple can have on the fashion industry:
“We wear fashion not because it’s the most comfortable. That’s going to change tomorrow—and it’s going to serve other purposes than just looking good. What company is it going to be? What industry? The tech industry? Or the fashion industry? . . . Start thinking about what the product does. Let’s start with bags. Make a bag do more than just carry shit. When it comes to extreme weather, fashion does nothing for you when it’s really, really hot. There’s not one garment you can give me, or shoes, when it’s hot as fuck. There’s nothing you can do. A girl can’t wear an even smaller G-string, or put on a smaller bra when it’s hot. I don’t care what kind of Speedos you got my homie—when it’s hot, it’s fucking hot. You provide nothing when it’s really, really hot. Nothing at all. Why? Because it’s 19-freaking-10? Because it’s 1710? Because all you do is sew this lapel to that lapel. You better start thinking of how to bring new things to people, or the ‘G’ is not gonna be for Gucci, that’s just gonna be Google. Real shit. You mean to tell me if I had the same jacket that Balenciaga made, or Apple made—what jacket am I going to have? I’m going with that Apple jacket because it’s going to do more than the Balenciaga jacket does. You know it’s true. You know when that day comes, when the giants come and give you a product—look what they did to the watch. You don’t think the jacket is coming next? The bag is not coming next? Get the fuck out of here if you think that they ain’t coming for you. [The Apple jacket is] still going to be beautiful, though. It’s still going to look awesome. It’s just not going to be made by the same crew that’s doing it now. How hard is it for Google to hire awesome shoe designers that are 15 years old today and doing awesome stuff that’s using their tech? This urgency, this weather report from me to y’all is ‘let’s get busy.’ That’s it. Let’s start innovating. It’s a different world and we need to start thinking about different people to collaborate with.”
On building successful teams:
“The biggest surprise is when you see a future, a plausible, awesome future . . . We see this version of reality that in our head is already there. The friction is stopping and starting to execute that reality slower than you actually see it. Because it’s so awesome; it creates angst, because you want it already . . . The secret sauce is to try and expand. If you have two people doing design, don’t add a third, fourth and fifth. Go over to a different discipline and bring someone in that’s a computer scientist. Get someone that understands data. You need data crunchers and data scientists. Create a different type of world, an assembly of minds. You have to be flexible in the future no matter what type of business you are in—and it starts with the people you have in your crew—your assembly.”
On accepting failure, and embracing the future:
“When I was 18, I met someone who said, ‘you should pray to your future self, and pray to your past self.’ I am here today because at one point of time in my life I prayed that I can learn from my failures. I’m in contact with my future self as much as I am in contact with my past self. Too many people are afraid to fail. You cannot be afraid to fail. Failure is school. The only way to learn is to taste the ground. The only way to learn is to fail, and you cannot be afraid of that. I saw myself a certain way coming out of the projects—on welfare. I designed myself to have success in music. Now, I’m in the tech world where we raise lots of money. And now, at 42 years old, I’m designing myself to be just as dynamic in culture but in a different way than when I’m 62. So yeah, I’m from the future because I talk to that motherfucker every day.”