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Alibaba designers used AI to shape New York Fashion Week looks

Founder and Chairman of Chinese internet giant Alibaba Jack Ma is thinking ahead.
Where are you, Jack?
  • Ephrat Livni
By Ephrat Livni

Senior reporter, law & politics, DC.

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

New York Fashion Week, now underway, is a celebration of creativity, crafts, imagination, and human ingenuity. But of course in the year 2019 one aspect of creation is integrating technology, so perhaps it’s little wonder that some designers are relying on data collected by the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba to inform their looks.

“We used big data to help these designers hone in on a few trends and have their collections built around these trends,” James Lin, head of fashion at Alibaba North America, told the Nikkei Asian Review. “Based on what our consumers are wanting to buy, are looking for, are searching, we can help these designers create collections that appeal to a very big group.”

The company is investing a lot of resources and effort in lifestyle products—beauty and fashion items—which appear to maintain steady popularity and are exceptionally able to withstand the pressures of the US-China trade war. The global management consultancy McKinsey predicts that in 2019 China will overtake the US as the world’s largest fashion market. Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang last year said that sales of technology like smartphones was plateauing while lifestyle goods’ sales did not abate.

Alibaba has been piloting a fashion AI clothing store that uses things like “smart mirrors” and “intelligent garment tags” to provide consumers with information as well as collect it and make the shopping experience more convenient. Now, as a slate of designers from China working with the e-tailer present at fashion week in the Big Apple, they are showing creations informed by data collected from billions of online Alibaba clothing purchases made by its 674 million annual active consumers.

The notion of using AI to inform fashion sales and design will not be new to the trend-conscious attendees of the New York event.

Earlier this year, the New York designers of Rag & Bone, who gave up on conventional fashion shows in 2017 and have been experimenting with more innovative presentations, held a dinner party with celebrities and an AI. The filmed event, called A Last Supper, had the machine “learn” about the guests and outfits throughout the dinner and give opening and closing remarks. To show the collection from the “eyes” of the machine, the designers created a conceptual video using point cloud data that revealed how the AI “sees” the world and the looks it observed.

Meanwhile, the online stylists at Stitch Fix have been using algorithms to find out more about what their clients want and to design items that meet those needs, based on the data. In 2017, Quartz reported that those machine-informed designs were flying off the digital racks.

That’s exactly what Alibaba is hoping to see with its investment in fashion AI. The company believes the data it garners from customers can help designers see six months into the future. In these fast-moving times, that would put them practically eons ahead of competitors relying purely on the imaginative powers of mere mortals.

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