The pandemic has disrupted the fashion industry in a multitude of ways. One of the most obvious to those of us working from home and staring into our phones all day is the recent boom in AI shopping apps. Machine-learning fashion sites and apps have been around for some time—see: StitchFix and TrunkClub. But since the start of the pandemic, there’s been a significant uptick.
This new wave of products aims to ease the frustrations of online shopping by coordinating outfits according to everything from a user’s location, to her favorite brands, to what’s trending, and so on. There’s The Yes, whose simple “yes” or “no” algorithm calculates a user’s style preferences and curates a selection of brands that ship through their own warehouses. Behold was founded by the former Barneys execs Julie Gilhart and Tomoko Ogura, and Terry Boyle, previously of Nordstrom. Their app offers a nonbinary scale algorithm that puts together outfits based on a user’s style and shopping preferences. They also offer consultations and curations with celebrity and industry stylists.
Earlier this month, Nate made its debut. Launched by Albert Saniger, previously of Amazon Fashion, it enables users to buy anything online with one click of the app, eliminating the multi-step checkout process that most websites require. And just last week former fashion editors Anne Slowey and Anne Christensen launched Latitude. Their app curates outfits based on weather forecasts, which you are able to buy, save for later, or rent. There’s also a live news feed covering culture and politics, as well as a daily inspirational quote and meditation program.
Why the new excitement in these platforms? “COVID is accelerating the shift to online that was already happening,” says Behold’s Boyle. “We think that the online experience needs to get a lot better. It can’t just be about throwing a catalog of stuff online and letting the customer sort through it.” He adds, “no customer wants to spend their time slogging through 5,000 pairs of black pants to find the one pair they want. With Behold, we’re blending professional stylists, AI personalization, outfits, and real-time customer feedback into a truly personalized, reimagined way to shop online—one that competes favorably with the best in-store shopping experiences.”
And ecommerce experiences too. The vast majority of online shopping platforms still operate according to a fairly traditional retail model. They tell us, the consumers, what to buy and how to buy it. The difference with AI-enabled smart apps is that users themselves are impacting what’s presented to them. “This is really: We think you’ll like this based on the fact that you gave us these 65 signals that allowed us to kind of figure out what your style is and what your price-point is and what type of fit you might like,” says Boyle. “That level of complexity can’t be handled in the backend of a site, it has to be handled more dynamically by the technology.”
Creating a seamless, personalized mobile shopping experience is at the core of all of these new apps, and according to their founders, it’s the wave of the future for retail across the board. Few women would say no to convenience and ease, but there’s a risk involved. The machines could become too predictable for their own good. “If you like business casual,” says Boyle, by way of explanation, “then we’re only going to feed you business casual over time. You don’t want to take the customer somewhere where they’re looking at clothes or outfits they’re never going to wear, but you want to push the boundaries because that’s what a really good stylist does.”
As Saniger notes, Nate’s foundational principle is “humans inspire, machines create.” His goal is to foster more human-to-human interaction through Nate’s list-sharing component, which ultimately eliminates the ideas and products coming to the consumer directly from the brand or platforms themselves.
Connectivity is at the core of the Latitude app; its users can upload their outfits each day and share them with fellow users of the app in a way that feels far more democratic than fashion’s old top-down way of doing things. “There’s nothing wrong with loving fashion,” Slowey says. “But of course there is so much else going on that you want to alleviate some of the decisions that people face everyday. We want to keep fashion contextualized in a rational, ethical, nimble place and approach it in a way that’s both entertaining and informative.”
Pandemic or no, these founders all say that their engagement numbers are steadily rising steadily. Slowey says, “As long as the app is helping people engage in whatever they’re interested in and it will help them solve convenience problems or give them access to things they want in a more convenient way, what could possibly be wrong with that?”