Why fashion is winning the digital wars

Malcolm Poynton, Global Chief Creative Officer at Cheil Worldwide, on ASOS’s slick new image recognition tool, and the impressive digital innovation that’s coming out of the fashion industry.

Last week saw Fashion Week descend on London once more and this time VIPs from the FROW had every reason to look pleased with themselves – they are comfortably winning the digital wars, writes Malcolm Poynton.

Take those virtual runways – they have never looked quite as good as they do now. Online fashion retailers are paying serious attention, focusing on everything from the lighting, to the quality of the livestream, and deploying all the latest digital tech effortlessly.

ASOS, the online retailer which has 80% of its traffic from mobile, has set the bar high with the new super-smart image search tool for its mobile fashion app. Shoppers can snap a photograph of those must have shoes or that jacket they see on the street, and the image recognition tool will search for the closest match from ASOS’s 85,000 product inventory. And for today’s young, tech-savvy mobile audience, there’s a cool factor in using the latest ‘mobile magic’ that a brand can offer. In their own way, although somewhat ephemeral, these avant-garde steps give cachet that helps build the brand.

The retailer already has a market value of £4.98bn, and these technology developments are critical for cementing its dominance in the global fashion retail market. And, let’s not forget, there are some competitors out there. Pinterest has its own camera-based search function, Lens. Samsung is rolling out Bixby while eBay and Google both promise image-based search too, and in real time. But ASOS image search could be a real game-changer since it’s already in the hands of a loyal customer base and sure to be far less ‘glitchy’ than bigger tech brands can offer as it’s only searching a known and contained database of ASOS items, rather than the entire universe of images online.

ASOS’ image recognition tool allows you to photograph an item of clothing (dress from Top Shop shown centre) before offering similar alternatives from its own range

Here’s why.

A slick image recognition tool has incredible potential to change our lives. On a basic level it means goodbye to basic text searches.

The ASOS app has mass uptake among its millennial customer base, and any problems will quickly be remedied through ASOS’s constant mobile development and updates. Augmented reality specialists, such as Blippar, have tried this for years. Yet fashion retailers have a captive audience and are pushing at an open door. Shoppers want image recognition tools for very practical everyday uses, and here it is.

In terms of considering fashion in more detail, it’s worth remembering that eBay partnered with Spring, a shopping app featuring 1,500 luxury brands such as Prada, Gucci and Saint Laurent. This is smart – 81% of eBay merchandise is new – and is a strong illustration of retailers road testing the best technology for consumers.

In her much-revered annual Internet Trends report, Mary Meeker emphasised that 2017 is the year for visual search and quoted Ben Silbermann, CEO of visual bookmarking tool Pinterest: “A lot of the future of search is going to be about pictures instead of keywords.”

Denim jacket from Top Shop shown left, with similar options from ASOS found via its image recognition tool

The evidence supports this. With Apple catching up to Samsung and Tencent’s facial mapping function, we’re set to see a whole new era of recognition tools – finally. And for good reason. It’s not a great surprise that we are increasingly enticed by images. Convenience holds the key.

Fashion retailers have already been pushing the boundaries by using AR to let shoppers try on virtual clothes. Given that fashion brands really understand that technology can deliver an enhanced experience, it’s no surprise that ASOS hosts regular internal hackathons and partners with VC firms and tech start-ups. This is the only way to stay ahead.

People want seamless UX and fashion retailers have remedied the age-old problems of convenience, sourcing, and duplicating what is on the catwalks – all through a smart administering of search. It’s only the beginning.

Malcolm Poynton is Global Chief Creative Officer at Cheil Worldwide. He tweets @e1even5ive

More from CR

Who cares about being original?

When designer Christopher Doyle issued a heartfelt plea for designers to ‘try to be new’ on Twitter it prompted an impassioned debate on the role of originality in creative work. CR talks to Doyle about what sparked the debate and his own views on whether it is still possible to be entirely original and, if so, why we should try


Hegarty: This creative life

Part memoir, part how-to guide, Sir John Hegarty’s first book was published in June 2011. Eliza Williams spoke to him about the past and future of advertising as we review some of the highlights of his 45-year career

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency