In the real world, I have always loved how clothes allow me to express myself. Mixing and matching different items, from different brands, allows me to create my own style. Like a lot of people, I gather inspiration from various different sources: people I pass on the street, movies, influencers, videogames, and more. The one source I never go to for inspiration? Posed lookbooks and in-store mannequins. Because, if my goal is to look and feel unique, then a brand-approved template is the opposite: it’s an example of how countless other people will look, with the same or similar combinations of garments, footwear, and accessories.
Today, it’s perhaps easier than ever to look unique – but harder than ever to curate your own choices. With so many brands building their business models on the basis of volume and variety, so many different product categories, and effectively endless inspiration from all the different data sources I mentioned, there are more possibilities than any one person can possibly account for.
This is, of course, where personal stylists come in. As long as there has been a glut of options, there have been people with fashion expertise whose job it is to help their clients narrow down their choices, and to select outfit combinations that suit them.
To some extent, the role of the personal stylist has already been digitalised. Numerous retailers – especially at the luxury end of the market – offer human stylists who shoppers can reserve appointments with, and as physical retail recovers from the worst phase of the pandemic, I’m sure we’ll see a resurgence of retail associates, armed with extensive product knowledge, who can assist high-value consumers with identifying the right products.
But I find it odd that we haven’t seen more progress being made towards digital stylists: machine learning models that synthesise customer knowledge, cross-brand product insights, fit and trend data and other variables to make intelligent outfit recommendations.
Some action has been taken in this area at the outfit level (services like Stitch Fix are built on a combination of machine learning and human stylists, although the long-term viability of that model is looking unclear) and a much more rudimentary version of a digital stylist is part of most eCommerce websites, which feature product recommendations based either on tags or some level of logic.
It’s peculiar, though, that brands and consumers seem to have collectively decided that AI is not up to the task of making genuine style recommendations. This runs counter to the degree of trust we place in technology in other areas: curating our photos, writing our newspapers, pairing us with romantic partners, and diagnosing and treating our ailments. Why is it that we let machine learning take on those tasks, but not the more subjective job of curating outfits for us?
More importantly: could this be about to change now that we’re increasingly likely to be dressing for the Metaverse in the near future, and entering the world of digital fashion ownership? Will we fall back on asking a human stylist to curate our digital outfits, or could this be the tipping point where consumers and creators start to place more trust in intelligent style recommendations?
For the past 10 years, customers have been in the driver’s seat when it comes to the direction of fashion brands. Influencers create new fashion trends on TikTok and Instagram, dictating to the brands what designs are popular and which combinations should go together. Today, customers are exposed to countless creators, brands and sellers offering thousands of options at a click, and increasingly the task of curation is falling to those influencers – who are driving not only the direction of brands’ design and development, but how those styles are worn in combination with same-brand and other complementary products. Even if we constrain ourselves to looking only at physical fashion, enormous amounts of items are at our fingertips.
Brands have tried to borrow some of this influencer cachet by creating their own new channels and experiences – frontend ways of streamlining the pathway from consumer demand to merchandising teams and buyers. Some examples: interactive look-books which curate various outfits and gather live data from social media, social games to learn about customers personalised preferences based on likes, votes and purchases of compatible items.
These methods are not a replacement for a digital stylist, but they do allow brands to smooth the onramp to their collections, and they do enable them to simultaneously offer the incredibly broad range (the famous “infinite aisle”) that eCommerce is known for, but without the paralysing amount of choice.
Now, though, with the adoption of virtual worlds, social gaming, and digital fashion ownership, the experience and balance is changing. And if the infinite aisle of physical products has been a task too large for human stylists to properly manage, then the same concept completely unmoored to the need to physically produce the items is likely to take the concepts of volume and variety to entirely new levels. When creators and collaborators can make almost anything, how can any one person hope to find what works for them? Shopping in an immersive world, then, is going to feel like shopping online but taken to new heights.
And the same will be true of what shoppers want: new ways of exploring and expressing their true selves rather than what society wants them to be. In this new era, cross-selling technology will be crucial: mix and match solutions to guide us and help us find rapidly what outfit we want our digital self to wear – whether or not we then go on to wear similar garments (provided brands and creators build physical counterparts) in our physical lives.
To grasp the scale of the problem, consider the enormous amounts of new creative minds and legacy brands that are building collaborations today, for Web 2.0. This already creates a frustrating and poor experience when shopping online: too much variety, and not enough curation. Thanks to Web 3.0, the mixing and matching of legacy brands with new creators could lead to present a new, decentralised fashion industry, where new creators are promoted with legacy brands, and gamers can share the success of the creation by bringing those styles into the favourite universes and IPs, or by acquiring them as digital fashions. Although the Metaverse is still being defined, one thing we already know, it is based on creators and most of us are hoping for a Metaverse where it is about collaboration and connecting with one another, as well as being about individual expression in a way that’s fully liberated from physical constraints.
Most likely marketing in this new medium will not be about ads with models. It will be about creating an experience in which people feel a part of something, or part of a community – which is going to require curation on both a grand and intensely personal scale. The new generation sees their online persona as an extension of one’s physical self and they make sure to dress it and accessorise it to represent their individuality. Therefore, displaying collections should be done in a different way.
Today, in this new ecosystem that blurs the lines between brands and consumers, there is a need for acceptance of new technological solutions which can give the brands a direct line to their loyal customers. Using technology to validate new collections through votes of gamers and communities. After all, these virtual worlds are a different experience; shopping in an immersive world is all about exploration, rewards and personalization, true personalization.
With the evolution of a new medium, it’s ‘skin’ on! Which encourages new creations and richness of offering. To keep pace, brands and game publishers need to accept the assistance of rule based and ML software to improve the gamers’ commerce experience – a digital world of unlimited possibilities demands a smart digital stylist. For Gen Z and Gen Alpha, self expression through style is now a matter of not just mixing and matching physical products, but also building a cohesive and unique digital identity in the Metaverse. It is no longer about matching only clothing items and accessories. In this virtual world, the next generation of fashion stylists will need to curate ‘skins’. The right style of hair, skin, nose, mouth, eyes, physique – and only then find the right clothing and accessories to define that digital identity.
Or, to put it another way, in a world of digital ownership and decentralised, interoperable avatars, the huge possibility space and the near-infinite number of permutations of avatar characteristics and items will require brands to lean on technology to provide style advice and curation at an unprecedented scale.
And at the same time, the adoption of smart technology to rearrange collections by curating aesthetic ‘skins’ to create digital look-books is not only about connecting items from different categories – it is about offering recognition to the creators of those items. Promoting new creative minds alongside legacy brands – in collaboration or in competition – and allowing gamers to understand all the possibilities and styles, so they can find their true, unique identity.
After all, that is what a true decentralised fashion industry will need to look like in the era of digital fashion ownership.