Innovating Innovation with Van de Velde’s CEO Erwin Van Laethem

What started out as a 5-day inspiration tour in Silicon Valley organized by BNP Paribas Fortis for 10 Belgian entrepreneurs and CEOs in 2015, transformed into a structural peer-to-peer network of 100 like-minded thinkers and innovators. Meet the Change League, a unique community gathering 100 forward-thinking CEOs who want to get to the future first by embracing change as an opportunity and not a threat.

The goal of the Change League community is to create a Silicon-Valley-like ecosystem through unique peer-to-peer learning initiatives. One of the community activities, stimulating the act of openly sharing best and worst practices, is the bi-monthly Xchange sessions where members exchange experiences and thoughts on strategic topics. The first session, which was held this March, was organized around Innovating Innovation.

So, what is a Change Leaguer’s take on innovation? We met up with Erwin Van Laethem, CEO of Van de Velde, the global luxury lingerie brand founded in 1919 in Belgium, to hear about his take on innovation.
Erwin Van Laethem of Van de Velde
Considering your experience, how should innovation be structured within an organization? Who oversees innovation and what is the role of senior management in this?
When it comes to innovation, it is key to actively create the right environment. Everyone agrees innovation is important, yet at the end of the day, in many organizations, the time invested in innovation is beyond what is needed. An innovation environment requires a disproportional time investment by senior management, including the CEO. The CEO must be the real owner, not the CIO (Chief Innovation Officer) or the Innovation Manager. As CIO, I used to say, “The moment people point at me for innovation, I am in trouble and so is innovation”. The ownership must be at the top, this to make sure there is enough traction from those taking (investment) decisions and so you can instantly tackle any frictions that may rise.

Which themes or innovation platforms are interesting for innovation at Van de Velde? 
Important in innovation is to define so-called lighthouse projects, these are themes you define, around which you center your innovations in the years to come. These themes will provide traction within the organization and serve as a magnetic pull for people as well as the necessary budget. Similarly, at Van de Velde a disruptive board was organized where the different horizons for innovation were defined. Examples of themes relevant for our business are digital fitting (room), the digital customer journey, the role of 3D imaging, which are innovation platforms our R&D and innovation team can work on. As a strong believer in open innovation, the next steps are to look at venture capital and create innovation hubs around some of these themes. Innovation can’t just happen within the walled gardens of an organization, and so it is important to create the right context and ecosystem.

What is your take on agile innovation and how does it work for a fashion brand with the mission to provide the perfect fit? 
Besides open innovation, it is about embracing design thinking, by creating a learning organization, where you do something, launch it and learn from the feedback. Yet this is something that is somewhat counter-cultural and will take time. Van de Velde is about creating the perfect fit and it is evident that the minimum viable product thinking won’t be applied when it comes to the core of the business, our products. Yet when looking at customer experience, it is about trial and learning from your experiences and the feedback you receive from the various stakeholders.

How do you bring inspiration internally?
We have a beautiful inspirational office, yet it is important to take people outside. On our last big team meet-up, which is organized everything two years with the last edition being held in Amsterdam, I asked the teams to think about “What is relevant for Van de Velde?”, “What does world class look like?”, “Find a proxy for world class in the ecosystem of Amsterdam” and “Go visit the city and bring back the top three insights”. This initiative was highly inspirational, with teams visiting companies like TomTom, G-Star, Nespresso…. What is interesting about these types of visits is not only the new patterns, similarities and dissimilarities they reveal, but also the afterlife. People get inspired, come back to the organization and then it is important to follow up on what happens with that inspiration. Far too often, people do not deploy what they took in. It is important for management to understand how people can take the inspiration further and how they can apply this within the organization.

Which innovation are you most proud of?
At Van de Velde we recently developed a smart 3D mirror that is placed in-store, where women can see what size fits best as it shows the product as if you were wearing it. This is a recent innovation that is now being rolled out in-store.

As Erwin Van Laethem puts it, “Innovation is a world of plenty”. Rather than defining whether an innovation is incremental or disruptive, it is important to empower the right people in the right context and environment and just do it. Clearly we will hear a lot more about Van de Velde in the years to come, with this CEO’s drive and enthusiasm for innovation.

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