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Fashion

How AI start-up Choosy speeds up fast fashion while cutting waste out of the equation – but will it avoid ‘China copy’ tag?

Choosy brings big data into fashion, using AI to spot trends on social media, with customers delivered items based on the results in under two weeks. As CEO Jessie Zeng explains, since everything is made-to-order, no clothes are wasted

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 August, 2018, 7:15am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 August, 2018, 7:15am

There is an episode of Doraemon where the robotic cat uses a wand to get products shown on the TV. The latest toy, that new dress – anything a person wanted could be obtained by pointing the wand at the object displayed on the screen.

New York-based retailer Choosy is like Doraemon’s gadget for womenswear.

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Imagine scrolling through Instagram and seeing an outfit that you like. Up until now, you tap the photo and see if the brands are tagged. You then hop over to the brand’s online store and buy the item – or in the case of shopping tags, buy directly through Instagram.

Jessie Zeng, the 26-year-old CEO of Choosy, wants you to stop doing that. Born in China, Zeng moved to the US for high school, later studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She then worked at Citigroup before starting her self-described “on-demand social shopping platform” with former Citi bankers Sharon Qian and Mo Zhou. In May, the company announced that it had raised US$5.4 million in funding from investors.

With Choosy shoppers tag Instagram photos of clothes they like – worn by anyone from celebrities to their friends – with #GetChoosy and hope the item will start trending. Then, using a combination of in-house “style scouts” and artificial intelligence (AI) – which scans for the #GetChoosy tags as well as other Instagram items that are generating interest – Choosy identifies the top-trending items, designs its own items based on the styles, and drops five new products twice a week on its site for customers to buy.

Customers have just a few days to order that week’s looks, which all come in American sizes 0 to 20 and are no more than US$100. Products are then delivered in as little as two weeks.

It’s the sort of speed that makes traditional fashion retail giants – most of which run production cycles on a six-month schedule – look like dinosaurs. This is all possible because, according to Racked.com, Zeng’s family owns one of the largest textile manufacturing companies in China.

However, there has always been a stigma when it comes to cheap Chinese clothing. Contemporary Chinese designers have had to fight hard to be taken seriously as a creative force. Where does that leave a company like Choosy?

“If we look at fashion, no design is truly original in the sense that everyone gets inspiration from each other,” Zeng says. “However, I would like to say that whatever we create will be inspired by the original piece the celebrity wore. It’s not like we’re going to purchase the piece and then replicate it point by point. We’re actually just taking a picture, and then our design team creates a style that consumers want.”

Choosy’s debut collection, with prices ranging from US$59 to US$89, puts it firmly in the fast-fashion category in terms of price as well as speed. Fast-fashion firms, however, have been heavily criticised for creating a disposable fashion mentality that is bad for the environment, but Zeng believes that Choosy takes a different approach.

“I would say Choosy is actually the opposite of that. Every single piece we make is on-demand, so we make the garments after we receive the orders. All of our drops are three days long and we submit the orders to the factory at the end of the timer. So we’re very much unlike the fast-fashion model where they produce tens of thousands of each style and hope that it will sell.”

Back in March, H&M admitted that it was stuck with around US$4.3 billion worth of unsold clothes. Because the company’s supply chain had not kept up with shoppers’ changing habits – namely their spending migrating to the web – it had been left with warehouses of inventory that it couldn’t sell.

“The only reason that [the Choosy] model is now possible is driven by the blow-up of e-commerce within China itself,” Zeng explains. “As a result, there is a lot more fabric on hand, [especially] the most typically used fabrics such as jersey or knits.

“In addition to that, there are some fabrics that are special-order and we will be noting that on our website. For example, if we’re [getting something] especially printed, like some kind of gold leopard-print, we would be telling the consumers that instead of the typical two weeks, this garment will take four weeks to arrive.”

While Choosy isn’t the only company that can turn around a trending product in a fortnight (British retailers Asos and Boohoo also do this), it is leading the charge for AI in this area. As Julie Zerbo, lawyer and editor of The Fashion Law website, tells the Post, the future of retail is going to be driven by data.

“[Doing] that allows brands to be as risk-averse as possible, hedge their bets and ultimately save money. I think that is where brands are going, at least, the ones that have to answer to shareholders. We see signs of it now; brands all subscribe to the same trend-forecasting services and it’s why we see a lot of the same colours and a lot of the same inspirations on the runway,” Zerbo says.

“These brands have been told by trend forecasters that this is what consumers want, so it’s much less risky for them from a financial standpoint to go with the trend, than to put something totally out-there on the runway and risk it not selling.”

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This is even more the case with the mass market, Zerbo adds. “They’re not really taking any risk. They have it down to a science. They know exactly consumers want and they’ll make, stock and sell that.”