March 14, 2014 6:30 pm

Virtual virtues: mixing style and technology

Liz Bacelar of Decoded Fashion©Steve Hall

Liz Bacelar of Decoded Fashion

The fashion crowd may have tottered home from the recent circuit of catwalk shows in New York, London, Paris and Milan but a new type of fashionista is adding an additional destination to their itinerary – Austin, Texas. Dubbing themselves “StyleX-ers”, this fashion-focused crowd mix style and technology and are an increasingly prominent tribe at the interactive segment of the annual South By Southwest festival (SXSWi), which is dedicated to all things digital.

This week’s festival included the unveiling of a range of fashion-technology innovations that aim to revolutionise the way we shop.

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“Visual search is finally here,” said New York-based Liz Bacelar during a panel discussion about the future of shopping. Bacelar is founder of Decoded Fashion, a group that aims to foster creative partnerships between start-ups, fashion designers and retailers.

Cortexica, a fashion image-recognition company, is a visual search pioneer. The details of how visual search works are complex but the potential benefits for shoppers are clear. A demo reveals how you can snap an image of a jacket on a mobile phone and the software can isolate the pattern on that jacket and then search for other kinds of garments with an exact or similar pattern. It’s an intuitive enhancement of an already existing shopping behaviour (product search). Instead of hunting out your dream item, the most suitable products can find you – based on a single image. The technology, funded by Imperial College London, uses software developed during a seven-year-long research project by bioengineers exploring how the human brain processes images. It is set to debut this summer in partnership with a large US retailer.

As the host of SXSWi’s first B2B fashion event for start-ups, Bacelar is well-positioned to offer the long view on future fashion tech. And her other top tip for the future? “Virtual fitting rooms are also big business,” she said. Virtusize is one start-up offering a virtual fitting room solution, and is already in action on British online retailer Asos’s site, among others.

“We want to become your virtual wardrobe,” says Peder Stubert, one of Virtusize’s five young Swedish co-founders eager to improve your online shopping experience. Virtusize’s unique selling point is that it doesn’t need the shopper’s body measurements. “The user creates an account with Virtusize and they can either measure an existing item they have or they can use an item they have previously bought on the site in order to compare fit,” said Stubert.

Pittsburgh-based Shoefitr is 3D-scanning thousands of shoes each day from more than 900 brands. A detailed visualisation tool gives the shopper a 360-degree view of how a shoe may fit based on a pair they already own, showing hotspots where it may be too tight or too big.

“For the shopper, it offers the reassurance of a correct size and the extra confidence to buy,“ said Shoefitr’s founder Matt Wilkinson, who studied as a mechanical and biomedical engineer.

More intriguing is how designers can use the data from these visual search and fit tools. “Although we don’t plan to sell this kind of data, it’s possible to find out more about what consumers want to buy through their searches,” said Daniela Cecilio, chief executive of newly-launched ASAP54, an image search and social shopping app backed by, among others, Carmen Busquets, Net-a-Porter’s founding investor.

So what does this complex technology really mean for consumers? “We’re entering the era of mass customisation,” said Liza Kindred, US-based founder of fashion technology think-tank Third Wave Fashion, who was speaking at SXSWi. She said the ability to shop everywhere and at any time was producing a much more personalised experience, such as the moment you are inspired by a photograph you have just snapped on your mobile phone of someone walking down the street wearing a coat you like.

It is an intimate relationship that New York-based Crowdemand hopes to make the most of. Launching mid-April, this new type of fashion etailer will allow shoppers to band together to get the numbers required to put a one-off designer item into production. “The shopper will get a far closer relationship with the product as they’ve been actively involved in getting an item made,” said co-founder Liat Cohen-Reeis.

Whether these innovations are being driven by an economist from Stockholm who can dictate the style of your shoes or a bioengineer from Imperial College who can help you find your ideal dress, if there’s one thing SXSWi revealed this year it’s that fashion is entering the era of “design by data” – and it’s fast becoming an industry with more places for technologists.

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