“Who do you turn to when you can’t decide what to wear? Your best friend, maybe. Instagram, probably. Fashion magazines, maybe. But soon, perhaps, it will be none of the above. Instead, you will try on an outfit, turn to a wall-mounted, five megapixel camera with front lighting and dual-antennae WiFi connectivity, and ask: “Alexa, how do I look?” and within a few seconds the 1.6 watt speaker will deliver the data-driven, empirically-founded assessment.
The metric of a style algorithm that is based on likes, whether fed to you as feedback on your selfies or as a subscription box of suggested seasonal choice of clothes, will steer you towards a polished, palatable, mainstream look. “If the algorithm is based on mass approval, it is not going to propose you wear a weird top with one sleeve,” says Alistair O’Neill, professor of fashion at Central St Martins.
Stitch Fix: This is a online personal styling service, primarily available to clients in the United States, which sends its 2.7 million active American clients ‘suggestion boxes’ of clothes chosen by cross-referencing a client’s stated preferences with the recent purchases of others of similar age and demographic.
They could be programmed to surprise. Brad Klingenberg, vice-president of Stitch Fix, states that the aim is to “delight” clients, rather than just please them, suggesting an element of the unexpected.
But maybe the truth also is, we are more like the robots than we’d like to think. “The majority of people have already developed an algorithm for style, even if they don’t think of it like that,” says Simon Lock, founder and CEO of Ordre, which offers fashion buyers a digital, streamlined alternative to physical showrooms. “For instance, I wear black and white, a slim fit silhouette, always Thom Browne brogues. Essentially, the eye captures a look and the brain informs the wearer whether you like it or not based on history and personal taste. Artificial intelligence is perfectly suited to perform this role for us.”
“Online shopping, as we know it, is a lousy experience, because you are essentially looking at an inventory. One day in the future you will be sitting on your sofa next to a virtual Diana Vreeland, or Alexa Chung, who will be talking you through the selection of virtual clothes,” she says.
Retailers are already experimenting with incorporating data from your calendar — about a future trip, and what the weather forecast is for that location, for instance — into what gets served up as cookies. Artificial intelligence could sprinkle fairy dust on the online shopping experience, so that instead of scrolling through a hundred skirts, you are matched with one you fall in love with. “The entire industry is focused right now on what the consumer-facing aspect of AI in retail will be. It has to be something meaningful.”
“I think it’s inevitable that pretty soon we will each be represented in the digital sphere by an avatar,” Hackford says. ‘It will compare available prices on everything you want to buy. It will sit in the hold queue on the phone to buy a train ticket. It will do all the things that technology does better than you can and allow you more time for being human.”