Fashion & The Notorious B.I.G. Data

Big Data can be collected and understood in a more ethical and transparent way — and the fashion industry can take the lead.

Words by Pak Lun Chiu

Besides the dazzling lights, flying drones, and the glitzy VR displays that are being screened by the popular portrayal of fashion tech, there is another, less obtrusive suite of technology at play. Most of us have been aware of its (unassuming) existence, but not until recently have we begun to question its influence. It seems our online operators want to get deep and meaningful with us through the use of quantitative analytics and artificial intelligence to leverage Big Data.

We know that Big Data means business. On the one hand, by analysing large sources of online data and digital footprints, we decipher information, discover patterns and identify trends that articulate the user’s taste; making it possible to showcase artists, music and fashion brands that ignite the senses and engage with our user’s preferences. On the other hand, the use of this Big Data and the resulting ‘psychological profiles’ to steer our belief system slips into the realm of unwarranted subliminal manipulation; making it a political hot potato that deserves to be whistle-blown and discussed in the public agenda.

Image by Unknown,
Min Hyunwoo Image by Min Hyunwoo,

This article doesn’t pretend to have the know-how on the intricate workings of fashion algorithms and analytics — that would dishonour those who spent years honing this skill — but it is important to understand how our customers interpret this as, after all, they are the central players who are being watched for the sake of achieving a user understanding. Showing empathy seems paramount to remind each other that fashion isn’t just about monitoring customers and securing the next sales, but that it still holds dear to the artistic creativity and social integrity that continue to make fashion relevant today.

So how do we ensure respect is given to users and our artistic expressions, in the age of digital personalisation?

With a nod to applied psychology, I first reflected this issue upon myself, a fashion professional who is also a fashion fanatic and a devoted consumer. It’s difficult to deny that my feelings and subsequent behaviours are entangled with the thoughts of privacy: “How dare they use big data to influence my decision-making. To what extent have I been affected by the subtle manipulation?” Or, “Damnit! Have people already found out that I listen to the pop confessions of Carly Rae Jepsen?” To think we could obtain absolute control over our ‘online self’ is questionable as long as the usual Terms & Conditions present a string of sleep-inducing definitions that makes them hard for us to comprehend.

According to the sociologist and writer Erving Goffman, we take pride in our ability to put on different ‘social masks’ to manage our daily interactions. A bit like an actor, we tweak ourselves and embody a character that deems suitable for a particular stage and audience. In our case, this stage constitutes the physical and the digital world that we inhabit. The invasion of privacy seems to see behind the social masks that have been well trained and rehearsed, creating a chance for others to reveal our act and pull our strings to cause undue influences. It feels uncomfortable and powerless, to say the least, if this knowledge provided by Big Data gets into the unethical hands of those who want to persuade our beliefs and behaviours.

Tim Gutt Image by Tim Gutt,
Frank Nederstigt Image by Frank Nederstigt,

Gaining the ultimate user understanding doesn’t have to run such risks. With the growing channels of communications that we have with our customers, direct engagement is much more ethical than just relying on dazzling technologies to track people’s behaviours. It is important to recognise that consumers are also looking for direct brand connections. Be it through the shared endorsement of cultural influencers between the brand and the customers’ Instagram accounts, to reposting and responding to user’s comments, it shows respect in our ways of engagement and provides ground for empathy and co-creation to be mutually developed.

Don’t be afraid of opening up more dialogues, as users - especially the Gen Z - are seeking opportunities to offer you just that.

Similarly, fashion design professionals are also seeking opportunities for user interactions. In interviews that I conducted with design teams over a two year period, all the designers who took part expressed having treasured the moments of seeing their creations in the real-world by heading into stores and speaking with customers to seek their viewpoints. A particular example was when an experienced designer described the ‘negative space’ between a garment and the wearer’s body. The experience of fit, fabric and ‘the feel’ of the product cannot possibly be captured by data in its rich, intangible format. She was disappointed that this information was rarely considered in the interpretation of users within the design process, which relies mainly on sale quantities and past data to predict the user’s desires.

The Big Data debacle hasn’t just highlighted the need to ensure that the topics of ethics and transparency are thoroughly considered when employing the subsequent analytics. Instead, it has raised the question of how we can engage with users in a way that goes beyond Instagram likes, past consumptions, and future sales? It is important not to limit ourselves with digital tools but to offer respect and direct engagements that help with gaining a richer understanding. Encouraging ways to take our work out of our computer screens or studios could answer many questions that Big Data provides, all while fostering a physical relationship that doesn’t forsake our integrity.

Further Reading:

'The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life' by Erving Goffman
'Gen Z and the Search for Co-creation and Engagement' by Jane Cheung, Dr. Trevor Davis, & Eva Heukaeufer. IBM
'Critical Questions for Big Data' by Danah Boyd & Kate Crawford


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