Another Season, Another App
c.2014 New York Times News Service
Once upon a time, back in the days of Norman Rockwell certainty, the last long weekend of summer meant predictable things: the U.S. Open, back to school, back to work, the dawn of cooler weather. And all of those clichés were clichés because they were true.
The sports schedule aside, they aren’t anymore (true, that is). Thanks to globalization, I have friends in Singapore whose children go back to school in mid-August; thanks to global warming, who knows what season we are in at any one time; and thanks to technology, we are all pretty much connected to our work spaces during our vacations, even if we are next to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Yet, despite it all, we persist (humanity’s perennial self-delusion?) in regarding September as a month of beginnings. How else to explain the fact that even though we know fall clothes go into stores in July, we don’t really focus on the need for a new coat until two months later? How else to explain the sheer number of introductions about to land in our inboxes?
Or, to be accurate, on our devices. Between the rise of mobile everything and the popularity of e-commerce, that the new season will bring a new crop of fashion-related apps is as certain as shorts becoming a trend in springtime. And indeed, just in time for Fashion Month come some major debuts, plus updates from familiar names. Are they worth a download?
They all fill certain gaps in the market. They all hit that recently buzzy sweet spot between social media and consumption. They mostly have names that can mutate into shopping lingo, and hence promise the possibility of becoming part of the general conversation in a linguistic, and not just conceptual, way — the apparent hallmark of tech arrival. (See the transmogrification of Google from a noun into a verb.)
In other words, they walk that fine line between having their own thing and being part of a shared thing. They seem, at first interface, to tick most of the boxes for what we think works on-phone.
The app Spring, which was introduced earlier in August in the United States, is perhaps the most ballyhooed of the bunch thanks to an investor list that includes Groupe Arnault, Andrew Rosen and Michael Ovitz. A mobile-only (as opposed to Web first) platform, it bills itself as “a mobile marketplace for the consumer to interact directly with a brand” (that from Alan Tisch, a founder). This translates effectively as a mobile mall built on the concession model: Designers can post pictures of whatever they want to sell on the site — their offering and their presentation is effectively their own choice — and users then buy or like them or share them.
Or “spring” for them! Get it?
This has the upside of, like any mall, uniting otherwise hard-to-access brands in one place. Because Spring handles the technology, it enables designers who do not have their own e- or m-commerce operation (Thakoon, Paul Andrew) to reach the mobile community. That’s a boon.
But also like many malls, it is a loose aggregation of brands without an overarching aesthetic identity, so Spring lacks focus. The new names are mixed in with more-familiar ones (Tamara Mellon, Theory), and it all, within the mobile frame, kind of blends together, even though each brand expresses itself via visuals.
The Spring folks would argue that this is the point: It creates the opportunity for “discovery,” Tisch said. But it seems to me that shops become recurring destinations in both the real world and the virtual one when they remix their offering (which, let’s face it, usually overlaps with someone else’s offering) to reflect a specific take on the world. What we buy when we go there is, in part, access to that take, as it is reflected in clothing choice.
This is, as it happens, the guiding principle of Farfetch Discover, the first app from the e-commerce site Farfetch, introduced in 2007 by José Neves to enable independent boutiques to sell online. It is due to hit the App Store in early September and will be available worldwide.
With Farfetch Discover, Neves has refrained from simply replicating his site; instead, the app adds a dimension to it. Operating on the premise that people are the lure, the app leverages the website’s access to taste-making store owners like Cameron Silver of Decades by getting them to provide tips on where to eat and sleep and what to do in their home cities. (It does not include dressing suggestions, which, frankly, I think would have been appreciated. Wouldn’t you wonder what to wear to the Vatican? I would.)
It’s not a hugely original idea, but what it’s selling is insider access, and being an insider is part of the allure of fashion. There’s a reason we refer to something as “out” when we no longer want to wear it.
Insider-y-ness is also behind the third big debut, Tinker Tailor, also out worldwide next month. Like its website, which was unveiled earlier this year, Tinker Tailor is based on the idea that customization is the way forward, even of super-expensive clothing. Imagine a Nike ID for Rodarte and Marchesa and you’ll get the idea. Now everyone can really be a designer.
You can “tink” a name-brand garment within certain designer-accepted parameters (change color, change neckline, change fabric) or make your own, choosing among a preselected group of silhouettes, fabrics and embellishments, presumably to keep anyone from making a truly horrible item. You can also post your own designs and buy other people’s, or comment on them.
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To a certain extent, consumers have been doing this for years via their personal tailor; the app just makes the process more transparent and creator-approved. And the DIY bit has the attraction of online paper dolls. But I find it hard to trust my desire to alter a garment without seeing it on my body first. I tend to be of the view that there is a reason that Martin Grant, say, is a designer and I am not.
As it happens, Tinker Tailor is the brainchild of Aslaug Magnusdottir, the former chief executive of Moda Operandi, which was the website-app that brought us the online trunk show. Magnusdottir’s former place of work is also releasing an update of its app on Sept. 3 that will allow crazed fashionistas to scan and bag their seasonal picks less than an hour after a runway show, as opposed to the current wait time of a few hours. (There is also some improved navigation.) The theory is, I guess, that the more you are carried away by the moment, the more likely you are to want to order right away, even if you can’t actually buy the products until the brand is ready to start selling, thus allowing some reconsideration time.
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So far, so functional.
I can’t help thinking there’s one ingredient that all of the above are missing, something that is often a building block of viral success: the weird. That is, the random and unpredictable. These apps answer needs we know we have, not the ones we have not yet articulated.
And in that category I give you Somebody, an app from the director-writer-performance artist Miranda July (and Miu Miu), to be released Thursday on the App Store.
The app does not sell any product overtly but, rather, random human encounters, which is ironic given the conventional wisdom that technology is replacing human encounters. Once downloaded, you text a message to someone, but said message does not go to that someone; rather, it goes to a person closest to that someone who has also downloaded the app. The third party then has to agree to deliver the message for you — without knowing what it is. It could be embarrassing. It could be exciting. Who knows?
Admittedly, Somebody’s connection to fashion is tenuous: July has made a short film illustrating the uses of her app, with all the protagonists wearing Miu Miu (including a much older woman). Part of Miu Miu’s “Women’s Tales” series, it will have its premiere at the Venice Film Festival and will then be on the Miu Miu website.
And Somebody will work only if lots of people download it. In other words, it could sink without a trace. But it’s also possible to imagine a scenario where it becomes — well, a trend.