Browsing clothes using an app. Image Credit: Agency

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.

Consider the Echo Look, launched by Amazon. It’s a digital “style assistant” that analyses your outfit through a combination of algorithms and (human) “fashion specialists” — and is revolutionising the relationship between technology and style. Just four years ago, the cutting edge of technology in fashion was Tommy Hilfiger’s solar-powered phone-charging jacket. Horse-and-cart stuff, compared with what is going to happen to fashion next.

The real point of fashion isn’t the fabric or the clothes themselves; it is how we think and feel about those clothes. And it is this human, emotional part of fashion — style, if you like — on which artificial intelligence (AI) now sets its sights.

The retail model needs to change. AI makes it possible to adjust manufacturing in real time, responding to customer design as it happens.

- Matthew Drinkwater, head of the Fashion Innovation Agency, London College of Fashion

But can there really be an algorithm for style? Here’s an example of how human quirks and preferences can trump AI.

In 2003, Kate Moss found a lemon-yellow 50s chiffon dress in Lily et Cie, a vintage store in Beverly Hills, and wore it to a dinner at New York fashion week, where the entire room fell in love with it and a million copycat versions were born. The important thing to note here is that the dress wasn’t in keeping with that season’s catwalk trends, or colours, but it was somehow absolutely right for that moment. So, will an algorithm be able to replace the je ne sais quoi (I do not know what) of Kate Moss? Will algorithms get quirky and be able to follow the sheer unpredictability of the human choice-making process?

Is there a uniformity to algorithm-based choices?

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. “It’s going to knock the edges off your preferences and guide you towards an aesthetic that is sort of ambient.” In other words, if you have an off the wall sense of dressing, you may find algorithms may not give you the edge.

Can subversive, individualistic fashion sense thwart AI?

The subversive, iconoclastic, individual aspect of fashion is important not just to its cultural weight, but to its commercial clout, say experts. The power of fashion to make us spend is the strongest not when we are presented with another version of the type of pencil skirt we already have and like, but the moment when we see, say, a kilt, and realise that, despite never having wanted one before, we simply have to have one right away.

“Fashion needs audacity,” says Simon Doonan, fashion writer and consultant. “Look at what has happened at Gucci, which Alessandro Michele has reinvented. When he took over, Gucci was quite conservative. If he had tested his crazy ideas against the data about what Gucci clients were buying, there would have been smoke coming out of the computer. And yet somehow it worked. It was his gut instinct and for whatever reason the powers that be were brave enough to go along with it. And here I am now, standing here talking to you wearing silk Gucci slippers with cats embroidered on them.”

But can’t algorithms adapt?

They perhaps could. 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. (Stitch Fix is currently guided by people as well as data. “We rely on our human stylists to empathise with clients. For example, when a client writes in to her stylists that she needs something to wear to her ex-boyfriend’s wedding, only a human can understand the gravitas of that request,” Klingenberg says.)

The robots are not necessarily the bad guys. AI could hold the key to making fashion more sustainable. “We are producing too much clothing and throwing away too much clothing,” says Matthew Drinkwater, head of the Fashion Innovation Agency at the London College of Fashion. “The retail model needs to change. AI makes it possible to adjust manufacture in real time, responding to customer design as it happens, so that waste is minimised.”

The opportunities for personalisation — from monograms to bespoke tailoring using 3D measurements taken online — hold the promise of clothes that we will value more, and wear for longer.

And there’s more. An AI takeover of the power traditionally held by the population of magazine mastheads and the fashion week front row to anoint the “best-dressed” could bring about a democratic revolution in an elitist industry. That the industry is still riven with snobbery and unconscious bias — or worse — about skin colour and body shape is evidenced by the way so-called “streetstyle” galleries on fashion websites, and the upper echelons of the “influencer” world, are dominated by thin white women. Algorithms could be used to avoid the bias and snobberies that hold fashion back.

Should AI display affection as well as intelligence to calm our fears?

At the heart of our unease about AI — not unique to fashion — is a disquiet about the changing power dynamic between human intelligence and the artificial kind. We sense the robots creeping up on us, we imagine them breathing down our necks and we worry about how we will compete. And the more AI advances into those areas of our thinking that we experience as creative and emotional, the more spooked we get. AI already guides your car to the fastest route home; it probably won’t be long until that mapping app communicates with your home hub to put the kettle, music and lights on for your arrival. That is intelligence, but it will feel a lot like affection, which we think of as a human-to-human interaction. In the same way, algorithms that know your spending power and established habits already manipulate what you will see if you search online for, say, white trainers. But if one day soon you get dressed in the morning and your phone beeps to tell you that your look is lame, what will that feel like? Cyberbullying?

Not so long as we programme the robots to be kind, Doonan says. “I personally don’t like the idea that there’s a right or wrong way to dress. I have a Moschino jacket that says on the back ‘Good Taste Does Not Exist’ and I believe that. But the reality is that many people are very insecure about how they look and they want stuff to wear that helps them feel confident. When I talk to customers at Barneys about how they decide what to wear, a phrase that comes up a lot — particularly among men - is the need to ‘get it right’. So I am sympathetic to some kind of mechanism that reduces anxiety.”

The surprising truth: You already have your own algorithm for style

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.” But maybe the Gen X won’t be so perturbed. After all,

today’s teenagers have an ever more porous boundary between their real and online selves.

Just some ways of how new fashion norms are slaying it

Stitch fix website Image Credit: Supplied

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.

The Matchesfashion.com website Image Credit: Supplied

Matchesfashion.com: This one is pushing the boundaries. It experiments with personalised 3D avatars that will be able to “try on” digital samples so that you can see how the shape and size will work on your body. So in a way, you will be seeing yourself trying on various dresses and colours and shapes even while you are sitting at home in your pyjamas.

Net-a-porter website Image Credit: Supplied

Net-a-Porter: It’s trying out a technology that scans your data for information on forthcoming trips and events, and tailors its suggestions accordingly. So if you are headed to a beach holiday, it will suggest suitable fashions. Going for a wedding? Ditto.

So what can we look forward to?

1) To futurist researchers such as the United Kingdom-based Sophie Hackford, we are wrong to romanticise the way fashion works now. “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 you can see being modelled in front of you, and it will seem so funny that we once scrolled through two-dimensional skirts on the internet,” she says.

2) 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. Sandrine Deveaux of ecommerce unicorn Farfetch is working on a “Store of the Future” that hopes to seize the momentum with a new, better customer experience. “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.”

3) The boundaries will blur even more, the futurists say, once the online version of you is able to operate independently, a kind of digital alter ego to whom you can delegate. “I think it’s inevitable that pretty soon we will each be represented in the digital sphere by an avatar,” Hackford says. “Your avatar will check when your parking permit needs updating. 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.”

— Guardian News & Media Ltd