‘Fast fashion’ start-up Thread has just raised nearly £17m in funding. Asos is linking up with Google Assistant as the days of just the super-rich having a personal shopper come to an end. But as Debenhams threatens widespread store closures, what does it mean for our beleaguered high street?
On Friday we wrote about autonomous vehicles – driverless cars and trucks – and looked at the ways in which they will change the world. One of the predictions concerned a clothes shop turning up at your front door:
We may even see a revival of offline shopping, as a clothes shop drives a selection of clothes – matching, colour coordinated and in your size – directly to you.
That is entirely possible. And for those people who hate clothes shopping, it is great news. Of course, the rich and famous have not been doing their own shopping for a long time: if you are genuinely wealthy then a personal shopper is always on hand to take care of you.
I am not super-rich. I have three children and I never will be. But that does not mean I can no longer afford my very own personal stylist.
Welcome to Thread
Last week it was revealed that ‘fast fashion’ startup Thread had raised $22m (£16.7m) in its latest rounds of funding. Thread is based in London, has 1m users and makes use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to create a personalised shopping experience.
Founder and CEO Kieran O’Neill put it very simply:
“I went to the rack and was browsing. [I found something I liked] and I looked at it and it wasn’t in my size. I felt this rage: why would you bother showing it to me if it isn’t in my size?”
He has a point. There are three fundamental questions to answer when you go shopping: do I like it? Is it in my size? Do I think it is fairly priced? (or ‘can I afford it’ or however you want to phrase it).
There is a fourth question in my case – and, I suspect, in the minds of many men. ‘Can I really be bothered to go shopping?’ Thread answers all those – but, of course, there was only one way to really report on my new found personal stylist…
So how does Thread work?
First of all, it asks what size I am – chest, waist and shoe size, for example. Do I have any unusual features? Broad chest, long arms or – cough, cough – am I ‘bigger around the middle?’
Answering all the questions in the set-up procedure takes me about five minutes. I have told Thread what clothes I wear most frequently, what I want, what brands I like – and I have clicked some pictures to tell the artificial intelligence what clothes I wear for work, what I wear casually and what I’d wear to go on something called a ‘date.’ (After 25 years of marriage I had to Google that one…’)
I have set my budget and I finish by telling Thread my hair colour, skin colour and the colour of my eyes. The job is done. Thread now introduces me to my personal stylist – she is called Brooke and I can follow her on Twitter if I want to and, ‘using our algorithm,’ Brooke will send me her first recommendations in a few hours.
Meanwhile, the site is telling me that as I have brown eyes I should wear white shirts, to highlight the whites of my eyes and make the brown stand out. I sense a little bit of flattery here, but then the site lets itself down by suggesting that I should wear an elasticated belt, ‘because you have a larger waist size.’
It is an impressive site and I will be interested to see the recommendations. Whether I will buy anything is another matter, as there cannot be a man in the country who dislikes clothes shopping more than me.
But if I know there is a brand I like, and I know the size fits me and it is within my budget, why should I not click ‘buy now?’ And looking at the early recommendations in the ‘browse’ section the algorithm has suggested a shirt that is almost identical to the fetching maroon and grey checked number I am wearing now.
What does this mean for the high street?
Like millions of other people, I now click ‘buy now’ on Amazon and accept that while I will have to wait a day for something to be delivered, that is a small price to pay compared to the hassle of going into town and looking for it in a shop. Would I take the same approach with clothes? Of course, I would – and so would millions of other people.
Neither is it just Thread. The very successful Asos is going into partnership with Google as it expands into voice assistant technology. This will make it one of the first UK fashion retailers to debut on Google Assistant.
Customers in the UK and US will be able to speak to the Asos fashion chatbot – named Enki – starting a conversation by saying, “Hey Google, talk to Asos.”
This news came as Asos revealed that profits were up by 28% and sales up by 26% in what the company described as a “record year” of investment. Needless to say, the shares rose 15% as profits reached £102m, valuing the company at £5bn – or, in very round numbers, 55 times the amount Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley paid for House of Fraser.
The week has also started with another stark warning from the high street, with Debenhams threatening to close ‘dozens of stores’ as it looks to cut costs.
A week today the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his Budget speech. He will unquestionably talk about “levelling the playing field” between the high street and the online retailers.
Why? On the evidence so far he may as well talk about ‘levelling the playing field’ between the horse and buggy economy and the car.
Meanwhile, taxi firm Addison Lee has joined forces with self-driving software specialist Oxbotica and is promising to have self-driving taxis on the streets of London by 2021.
So the future is arriving at an ever-faster rate. At least we’ll be well-dressed to meet it: but will we have bought our clothes from the online algorithm, or the self-driving shop that has just pulled up in the driveway…