Hi-Tech High Fashion
As high fashion goes hi tech, Stitch Fix, an online personal shopping service, presents a more practical, personalized and perhaps profitable model for future collaborations between fashion and technology.
Google Glass first made its way down the runway in 2012 as part of Diane von Furstenburg’s Spring/Summer 2013 collection. Each pair of glasses complemented the show’s color palette of corals, blues and grays. The augmented reality glasses could check calendars, receive messages, take pictures and record video, which one model did to share the show from her vantage point. “Uberchic met ubergeek” headlines abounded, and Sergey Brin was a breakout star of New York Fashion Week.
In June 2014, luxury online fashion retailer Net-a-Porter announced it would sell limited edition Diane von Furstenberg Google Glasses, but the collaboration never got off the ground. Each attempt to cross Google Glass into fashion fizzled, and Google closed Google Glass in early 2015. Product cost was certainly a factor, lenses cost over $1,500, but the product was also flashy, intrusive, impractical and maybe just too strange. (While Google Glass failed in fashion it did prove useful in fields where professionals can benefit from being able to record without using their hands. This summer Google re-introduced the Glass Enterprise Edition for businesses).
This summer’s high fashion hi-tech wearable was the Louis Vuitton smartwatch. Of the wearables, smartwatches are the most mainstream, but there seems to be a stubborn desire to bring tech into the high-end fashion market. Apple collaborated with Hermes to make a luxury smartwatch costing over $1,000 and the Louis Vuitton watch costs over $2,400. Vuitton also has plans to go further make other connected products. Perhaps these brands see tech integration as key to their products as well as their brands or perhaps they see a mission to counter the ugliness of wearables, but they are playing in a small and rarefied space.
Meanwhile, on October 19 online personal shopping service Stitch Fix publicly filed for an IPO to raise $100 million, though the number is likely a placeholder. This followed a confidential filing on July 28 and early reports had indicated that the company might be looking for a valuation of $3-$4 billion. Stitch Fix announced that it generated revenue of $730 million, profitably, in its 2016 fiscal year ending last July and estimates cited by Recode and TechCruch right after the confidential filing expected that Stitch Fix’s revenue had grown around 33% in the first 11-plus months of its current fiscal year, making 2017 revenue just under $1 billion. Stitch Fix looks like a very rare case of a profitable tech company heading for an IPO.
Stitch Fix was started in 2011 and has expanded in size and scope — into men’s clothing in 2016 and plus size this year. They use algorithms and human stylists to curate boxes of clothing and accessories based on a customer profile detailing his or her size, body shape and style preferences. They then ship the box of clothes to the customer who can choose which of the items they’d like to buy. Customers pay an initial $20 styling fee that can be used towards purchasing clothing they keep, and get a 25% discount if they purchase every item. The service has been especially popular in middle America among busy professionals and people without easy access to a wide range of shopping options.
Competition for Stitch Fix comes from other smaller established players like Trunk Club for men, Dia & Co. for plus size, Rent the Runway for dress rentals, and from Amazon, especially given Amazon’s launch of their own try-before-you-buy service, Prime Wardrobe. But Stitch Fix does what it does well, and the appeal is obvious. You don’t need to browse endless store racks or site pages, for something you like that suits you, they do it all. And that is where the tech really comes in. Stitch Fix’s Chief Algorithms Officer, Eric Colson, came from Netflix and put his expertise to good use. Stitch Fix gathers data on every attribute of every piece of clothing and algorithms propose pieces for customers based on preferences and past purchases. Human stylists work off those recommendations, and together they create a styled box.
The world of fashion that dominates screens and magazines is an unattainable aspiration, miles from the average person. Wildly expensive Google Glasses and stunning smartwatches fit in that realm, automatically-generated boxes of blouses don’t. The social world of fashion is the space between aspiration and real life, where many fashion consumers live. Stitch Fix doesn’t quite fit there either. With platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, the social world of fashion emphasizes fashion choices as expressions of individual identity. Fashion is expected to be about personality, not data-driven personalization. Social media remains the dream world we wish to inhabit, the elaborate, curated facade of the life we want. But when it comes to making a purchase, consumers may still dress for the life they have, and want a little practical, personalized help doing so.