What Fashionable Leaders Are Wearing

Posted 03.31.2010

Streepprada If your house is like ours, there are certain movies that you watch again and again. The test of a movie like that is if you’re flipping through the channels on TV and you see a favorite movie and you start watching it all the way through from that point forward. I have to confess that Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is one of those for me. I like really stupid humor. However, one that my wife and I can both agree on is The Devil Wears Prada with Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway. It’s a fun movie on a lot of levels not the least of which is Streep’s performance in which she sends up the real life editor of Vogue magazine, Anna Winotur. If people in real life are as scared of Wintour as people were of Streep in the movie, then she must have a lot of power.  From what I’ve read, Wintour’s power comes from her control over Vogue which, historically, has set the agenda for the multi-billion dollar fashion industry.

Polyvore So, it was with the Prada movie in mind that I read an article in the New Yorker last night on a web site called Polyvore. The simplest way to describe Polyvore is that it’s an online destination for over 6 million visitors a month to cut and paste clothes they see elsewhere online into sets of items that they think look good together. As someone in the article said, it’s like the cyber version of playing with paper dolls. 

For me, the article was interesting because of the larger implications it held for leaders in the digital age.  Not to oversimplify, but it seems like the command and control leadership style exhibited by Streep/Wintour in the Prada movie is a relic of the analog age. The people behind Polyvore seem to have figured out what it takes to engage and lead people in the digital age. Here are a few of the ways I think they’re doing it:

A Polyvore VP said in the article that, “Our mission is to democratize fashion… To empower people on the street to think about their sense of style and share it with the world.”  The digital age makes it easy to ask people for their opinions and organize their responses. People are beginning to expect to be asked their opinions.  Leaders are going to need to get good at doing that if they want people to be engaged.

Performance Transparency: Another thing the digital age does is make it much more transparent about who’s doing the best or most interesting work. One of my favorite scenes in the article was when the Polyvore staff invited one of their top users to come to their headquarters so they could learn more about how she used the system. When she arrived, one of the Polyvore staffers said to her, “You’re like the Anna Winotur of Polyvore!”  Savvy leaders are figuring out who’s doing the best and most interesting work and building on it.

Openness: The woman who came to Polyvore headquarters has more than five thousand items in her virtual closet that any one of the more than six million Polyvore users can take a look at. By creating an open system, Polyvore is tapping into the human urge to look in someone’s closet. In my experience, the most creative environments are the most open. There are new opportunities for leaders to do more in this space.

Mutual Support and Community: People are more productive when they’re having fun, feeling supported and sharing with each other. Polyvore completely taps that idea. As the article says,” the Polyvore community values kindliness, mutual affirmation, and tact. Most of the comments that users make about other people’s sets are full of smiley faces and exclamation points; flamers are quickly ostracized.”

What are you noticing about how the conventions of the web are changing the demands on leaders?  Anyone out there planning to check out Polyvore? What are your favorite web sites that might provide some interesting lessons on leading in the digital age?