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Will Data Lead to Originality or Mass Conformity?

In a world where consumers can customize everything from soda to sneakers and choose how and when they want to be contacted by brands, it’s not hard to imagine a day when marketing won’t matter. But the more shoppers tweak their orders to suit their personal tastes, the more data companies can collect—and the more likely the product selection will appeal to punters.

So, will an increase in personalization lead to more originality in the market, or is mass conformity the future of fashion? That’s the question Dan Porter, head of digital at WME-IMG, put to a panel of industry insiders Monday during Made Fashion Week’s Spring/Summer 2016 presentations at Milk Studios in New York.

“With social media, some of us lose a lot of our identity because we put out everything about ourselves online. It’s great for brands; not so great for the consumers,” said Valentine Uhovski, Tumblr’s so-called “fashion evangelist.” “I think fashion will be a lot more personal but I think brands will know exactly who you are and what you want and where you want to consume.”

“As the world is getting more digitized, the potential to be personal is there today, to connect with and understand who resonates with your product and your ideas,” echoed Narendra Mulani, senior managing director for Accenture Analytics, which co-sponsored the discussion. “What you find though is that there’s a big lag between what’s technologically possible versus what gets adopted because social mores have to catch up.”

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Jenné Lombardo, co-founder of Made, would rather they didn’t. “I worry sometimes, when there’s an overload of data, that we stop relying on our own intuition and feelings because everything becomes so formulaic,” she offered. “Data is obviously very important, particularly to brands, in understanding the return on certain investments and where you might need to re-adjust and realign your path. Fashion is what makes us feel. No amount of data or technology that’s embedded into it is going to change my relationship to a garment.”

“When you think about data in the broad sense, it doesn’t add too much meaning; it’s soulless, based on this filtering algorithm,” said Milk’s chief technology officer, Rey Peralta. “But personal data—understanding who I am, my interactions with my friends, my environment—that’s data that’s meaningful for me and defines me…In the future I think a lot of individuals will grow accustomed to the idea that they’ll buy fashion and that that fashion reflects them and represents the designer.”

What he would like to see more of today, however, is active data—and not just heart-rate monitoring shirts. “If my clothes were really smart and let’s say this is my favorite shirt in the planet, I would love to know when it’s going to die,” he said. “If the tag on the back was collecting data all the time and said ‘Based on your usual wear and tear, you’ve got eight months left with this shirt before it rips,’ that could change my usage pattern.”

Mulani concurred: “It will fundamentally shift the way consumers engage with fashion.”

Data can extend the experience beyond the store.

But how will it change how designers approach their collections as the traditional fashion cycle becomes increasingly obsolete.

“At Made particularly the other conversation is, how are we using technology to help our designers and to help them create a more involved and efficient dialog with existing and potential consumers?” Lombardo said. “That data is very interesting to us because that allows us to understand who their customer base is, how we need to expand it, how we can optimize their search engine searches and really make sure that in overly competitive and saturated market they stand out from the rest.”

She added, “That data is really valuable to us because these designers don’t have a lot of time that they can continue showing [at Made] if we don’t help catapult them from their infancy. It’s really expensive.” Today’s customers, she noted, don’t care about quality; they just care about credibility: “And if we can offer customers credibility then we can help move product faster.”

Burak Cakmak, the dean of fashion at Parsons School of Design, pointed out that data is as relevant to retail as it is to trends and branding. “Data has a role to play in making each of these experiences more special,” he said, adding, “Brands can use technology and data to provide a one-to-one experience to make someone feel exclusive.”

“It’s not just about one experience. The power of digital is to extend the experience beyond the store,” Mulani stressed. “The combination of in-store and digital is the optimal experience today. More and more purchasing is digital but shopping isn’t going all e-tailing. It will be a mix because there’s a real desire to walk into a store to look, to sense, to touch and feel.”

Uhovski agreed: “The first click to last click journey is completely unstraightforward.”

Mulani added, “What we’ll come to realize is we feel the rate of change so fast but, at the same time, we’re probably at the 50-meter line of a 5K run. The shifts are just starting to happen and consumers are starting to adjust to them as we speak.”