I admire and respect Ms Shulman, not least because even as she was introducing this new breakthrough, she had the mettle to pinpoint a potential drawback in one part of the technology in which her host is a leading player... that of consumer preference.
I have written before about e-commerce developments that are, in the next few years, going to transform retail (I will confine myself to talking about womenswear fashion here). There are going to be advances in every direction, and one of these will almost certainly include virtual department stores. These online stores will be made up of many different retailers, a unique entity for each customer, and will be filled with apparel that will fit not only the customer's body, but her heart and mind too. Technology of the type that Fits.me has developed is already able to track a customer's ever-changing body size and shape, along with fit preference, and match this knowledge with expert analysis of garment properties to give the customer the information needed to choose a perfect fit when buying apparel online.
But there are other equally important customer preferences to that of fit. Every day giant strides are being made in the understanding of all manner of other customer preferences (otherwise known as 'taste'), and using these to investigate and curate relevant products available at any given time, to place them under the customer's eye. These, ultimately, will form the 'virtual department store' that I mentioned.
What's not to like here? The customer will go online, click on her familiar website, and see only those items that will fit and suit her. More than this, using information mined from her history, as well as her personal input, she will only be shown items that she is likely to like
. What kind of colours does she appreciate? Does she seek sustainable fashion? Is she a fully paid-up member of a fashion 'tribe'? Does she have preferences about fabrics or patterns? How modestly does she like to dress? Is she a fashion risk-taker...? There are thousands of tiny points of contact that a woman has with her world, each of which leaves a minute footprint by which her personality can be understood. These, added to what information she is motivated to volunteer, will paint an ever more accurate portrait of her as a consumer of fashion.
Yet Shulman made a highly cogent point in her talk. If we only listen to our own echoes, we are ever-diminishing. If we travel a path down a hall of mirrors, we are unlikely to see anything much of the world. We won't even know what it is we don't know!
Recent political developments have shown that we can become hemmed-in by a technology that only shows us that which has been assessed to be compatible with the worldview that we already have. With social media, current events are being served up as ready-meals: not very nutritious, and with a bland taste that palls after a while.
People often see fashion as a trivial subject. I am not of this opinion. Fashion is a way that the population stitches itself together in unexpected ways. Some people differentiate themselves from their peers (sometimes channelling the unknown or bizarre), whilst others cling on to their tribe. Others still, burrow into their own culture to find buried treasure the strange roots of the familiar. The choice is ours. Our eyes are opened wide by the geniuses amongst us; we are shown the whole world when we look at fashion and we shape fresh personas with our own will and originality, or display our lack of those qualities with a clichéd or safe style.
But choice is needed to do this and it has to be our own. I for one would hate to think that I might in the future lose out on seeing the silly, the ugly, the weird, the impractical, the unexpectedly gorgeous, and the beyond aspirational on my browser. If something has automatically removed all of these, then they have also shrunk something in my life.
I went to art school, and a photography tutor told me that in order to take good pictures you have to have your camera with you at all times. He said that if you only had your camera when you were anticipating getting a worthwhile photograph, then you would be limited to obtaining solely the type of image that you were expecting.
So my suggestion as antidote to this hall of mirrors is something I'm calling 'Flow'. Flow is a system that mines the latest fashion and cultural images and collates them into streams of differing trends. Anyone who knows anything about the inner workings of fashion knows all about this it's how the latest colours and trends are predicted, and it's been done for many decades.
However, my idea of Flow is for the public not the industry insiders. In my mind the original Flow called Pure Flow is run 24/7 by bots continually assessing and compiling the latest, most influential images from (human) designers and creators in the world of fashion, art, celebrity, photography, interior or product design, music, theatre and film... collating them into related streams. These will be the images that are shown on TV, are popular on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, online and print magazines, films, publicity, etc.
Certain features marking them as related will help these images or cultural trends to be collated into animated mood-boards. For example, a stream could comprise the following set of images: Various vintage-inspired printed patterns or stripes in cool colours, made into a sumptuous silk quilt. Photographs of natural ocean scenes and Nordic landscapes. Clean Swedish interiors; sapphire jewellery in white gold, or silver. Art Deco liquid metallic apparel from a 1930s Hollywood film, modern Japanese Celadon ceramics. Scandinavian vintage silver teaspoons. Cate Blanchett wearing a white silk trouser suit. These are just less than a minute's worth of images that could go towards a stream called 'Nordic Ice'.
This Pure Flow is the raw end of the service. These streams are shown to those who wish to sign up to them on the side of their screen while they are browsing content. They will periodically flick from one to another (there will be many separate streams), and the client will be able to delete certain streams from her flow if she finds them irksome. Each stream will usually only last a few days, or at the most, months, when a look naturally runs out of steam. No images are ever repeated, except when they are automatically plucked from different media. This is a very democratic system: the average consumer will have all the latest knowledge that only high-ranking fashion insiders presently have. Any style elite or fashion-forward insight will be created solely through natural individual qualities of talent, sensitivity and sophistication.
The individual images will change fairly quickly, but the user can click on any one at any moment to get full details. She can also slow a stream down to look at it in more detail.
The next stage of Flow is commercial, and it's called Flow.co. In this, the bots use the images from Pure Flow and link them up to fashion products. The client is likely to click on a stream on Pure Flow that she is particularly taken with, and wishes to have access to this type of look. She will then be put through to the part of Flow.co that is working on that particular stream.
This Flow.co system could be something as simple as finding the original piece of fashion that was in the image in the stream (a dress from Balenciaga, for example), and then, if it were available in a form that suited the price-point and size preferences of the user, offers the dress for immediate sale. It may be, though (as it is with most high fashion) that the dress imaged is not available at that moment (high fashion photography usually references apparel between six months and a year in advance), nor in the size (many designer dresses are not made in 'adult human' sizes), nor at the price point (if this were a couture dress, only a tiny portion of the public would be able to afford it), or the preference (many women do not have the opportunity to use, or the desire for, a full-length silk dress). So the Flow.co image would be tasked to show a further, more accessible set of items.
There may be a high street version of a similar dress, or jumpsuit, blouse or even a pair of shoes that has a similar colour combination, pattern, style or vibe. There may just be a ring or a handbag that echoes the feel. If required, everything shown by Flow.co is commercially available in the size, fit preference and price-point of the user. It may be somewhat removed from the original image. However, it's a way for the user to be swept off her feet by catching the coat tails of a passing fashion whimsy.
Moving onwards to Wave Flow, we see the Flow idea taken to a greater area of commerce, which it is not all about fashion. The Wave Flow images are related to all sorts of other items that link in terms of aesthetics, and everything... and nothing... else. Thus, that Balenciaga dress may reference a peeling wooden door, photographed in Crete (you can click on a relevant airbnb), a glass sculpture of a jellyfish created by the Blaschka brothers
(as shown in a museum exhibition nearby) see below
, Roman mosaic floor on a Greek island (hotel availability), a pair of earrings (for your pierced ears, within your price point), some kitchen tiles (available online), an Impressionist painting in the Musée d'Orsay (accessed via Eurostar).
The commercial part of Flow does use certain customer preferences in the technology; they will guide you towards items at your price-point, in your size and fit preference, and which are also available in your marketplace. Pure Flow will sit naturally alongside any 'virtual department stores' that the customer frequents, offering a counterpoint to it. Thus the client will be able to create her own diet by shopping what she knows well and trusts, nourished by the preferences algorithm while seasoning it with the changeability and originality that is unique to creative human beings. This is because there is no editing of the style content of Pure Flow, which represents the ideas being spun on a moment-to-moment basis out of the world's aesthetic centre of gravity at any one given moment.
By watching the streams, the user will be able to turn a blank page with her taste. If she frequented nothing but her safe curated stores, the most she could hope for would be that her style will slowly evolve over time. Yet if she is a personality that is susceptible, she may regularly 'jump out of her own skin' when inspired by Flow.
She will see the latest thinking of the style-makers, visual influencers, creatives and cultural architects, and be able to spin on a sixpence to alter and create a new aesthetic persona using her own will possibly driven by nothing more than a whim.