Styling the Singularity: Fashion’s Automated Future
May 25, 2017
See how the future of fashion includes robot models & stylists, home-printed clothing, and the re-landscaping of an entire industry–and how it’s already happening–in an essay by Taylore Scarabelli.
A few weeks ago Amazon announced the “Echo Look”, an AI bot that can help you take selfies, plan outfits, and choose what to buy according to algorithmically inspired trends. As a symptom of the declining IRL retail market in America, the Look promises to contribute to the rapid growth of e-commerce, particularly when it comes to Amazon’s own clothing division. But for those working in the fashion industry, the AI is a more nefarious newcomer, signifying potential jobs loss beyond American malls and into the domain of industry creatives.
The concept of computer assisted styling isn’t new. Most of us remember the scene in Clueless where the film’s protagonist, Cher Horowitz, narrates a story about her “way normal life” while flipping through images of her wardrobe on a touch computer screen. Like Amazon’s look, the imagined technology in the 90s teen comedy alerted users of mismatched outfits and even came up with a totally iconic look (who can forget that yellow plaid suit), for Cher’s first day of school.
Today, the idea of a computer-based styling assistant doesn’t sound revolutionary nor does it seem like something that fashion savvy people would be willing to trust. Like artificially intelligent cooks who have a tendency to suggest ingredient combinations like capers and cocoa, the Echo Look is likely to make mistakes—particularly when it comes to something as subjective as fashion. What’s more, AI enabled programs like Amazon’s are likely to have a homogenizing effect on individual style. Machine learning AI share information across networks, meaning that your virtual stylist will take cues from others whose users think that basic pairings, like Stan Smith’s and culottes, look cute.
The Echo Look is likely to be viewed as another gimmicky, data-grabbing tool by tech-savvy and fashion-forward consumers but it’s potential impact on the fashion industry shouldn’t be taken lightly. Amazon’s Echo can’t complete regular styling tasks, like visiting showrooms or dressing models, but the development of advanced AR technology (for example: virtual changing rooms) means that in the future, it won’t need to. What’s more, the increasing sophistication of machine learning technology means that the Look, which currently matches outfits according to algorithms based off of stylist’s picks, will eventually be able to create its own data set of sartorial selections—rendering human taste virtually obsolete.
There’s a lot of debate surrounding the supposed ‘retail apocalypse’ in America. Countless articles cite the over-saturation of the physical retail market (there are approximately 1,200 malls in the U.S.), and the rapid proliferation of e-commerce retailers as precursors to the steady decline of IRL shopping. Others argue that the death of retail is being exaggerated and that the shuttering of big box stores like Sears, Macy’s and JC Penney will simply make room for the rise of smaller niche counterparts—like more fuccboi-oriented stores that sell rare sneakers.
Retail sales in the US continue to fluctuate and while e-commerce is growing steadily, the shuttering of department stores and malls across the US has resulted in a decline in retail jobs. According to an article in the New York Times, about 89,000 retail employees have been laid off since November. “From 2010-2014 e-commerce grew by an average of 30 million annually,” says NYT’s Michael Corkery. “Over the past three years, annual growth has increased to 40 million.”
For successful e-retailers, the growth of online shopping means increased pressure to fulfill orders quickly and complete deliveries on time. Advanced robotic factory workers, like Amazon’s Kiva system, enable retailers to automate some aspects of shipping and packaging but still require human assistance. The resulting demand for warehouse staff, seemingly a win for displaced retail workers, does little for the majority of out of work salespeople who live in urban centers. What’s more, automation is only going to become more advanced, meaning that the fate of factory laborers is likely to go the way of manufacturers in America.
E-commerce still offers a wealth of jobs for photographers, models, and stylists working in the fashion industry, but those too are under threat as the result of technological innovation. Just this past January, Amazon secured a patent for a robotic mannequin-cum-photographer. Created as a means to expedite the process of photographing goods for e-commerce, the bot functions as a multi-sized model that is able to hit a variety of poses and can compress or expand its size according to the fit of a garment. Sensors determine whether the garment has shifted or is pulled too tight while the accompanying automated camera ensures the rapid documentation of varying styles.
“In one test it took a stylist manually operating a mannequin and a camera four hours to photograph a single garment under different size combinations,” reads the patent. “In contrast, it is estimated that automated garment photography as described herein enables a single employee to photograph 3000-4000 garments per year.”
Image via U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Not only does automated garment photography enable the rapid documentation of multiple styles and sizes of clothing, but it also allows for further representations of varying body types online. For the consumer this could be revolutionary as the displayed fit of garments will no longer be limited by sizing charts but could also show how clothing fits on someone with smaller breasts or a larger belly, for example.
For those working in the fashion industry however, the mechanization of e-commerce could be detrimental. Already, AI and algorithmic imbued photo editing systems are reducing the need for photo editors while technologies, like Amazon’s robot-model, will cut out the need for photographers and models altogether (not to mention styling assistants, hairstylists and makeup artists).
Ilona Struzik, a model who has been working in e-commerce for several years, has already seen the detriments of automation. “There was one fashion company I used to work with a lot. I stopped working with them about a year ago and then I recently found out they stopped using models,” she tells me over email. “Instead they’re using a robot developed in Sweden to render all the models in 3D.” Industry familiars are worried about declining hourly rates. “It seems like everyone is earning less and less in the fashion industry,” Struzik says. “I am definitely working less e-commerce jobs than I have before and so are my other model friends.”
Still, niche high-end retailers are likely to continue utilizing the current system. Robotic models are an expensive investment, and unlike the creatively photographed look books at retailers like Opening Ceremony, automatically shot photographs offer little in the form of #inspo. Nevertheless, we are entering a period of rapid technological development. Futurists like Jaron Lanier predict that eventually clothing will be printed out on home devices and discarded at the end of the day, guaranteeing both a superb fit and the total obliteration of the retail market as we know it. In the meantime, we can keep enjoying our thirty-dollar fashion magazines and vintage vinyl and pray for universal basic income.
Banner image via Johnny Joo / Architectural Afterlife