November 17, 2010
By CATHY HORYN
YOU know how remote and strange the fashion world is when you go to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. For one thing, employees are zipping around the sprawling campus on scooters and bicycles, so that pretty much eliminates platform shoes and minis. And for another, there are way too many snack stations at Google. Fashionistas are funny about food.
But go a couple of blocks from the main building, and the mood and the desk décor are conspicuously more invested in style. One employee, Abigail Holtz, has on an ivory silk mini dress with a plunging neckline and a pair of high heels. A colleague, Marissa Goodman, is more casual — but no less savvy. She used to design women’s clothes for Old Navy and Esprit.
In a deliberate collision between nerds and fashion mavens, Google has created a new e-commerce site that significantly improves how fashion is presented and sold online. The site, Boutiques.com, which went live on Wednesday morning, may also change how people shop for clothes.
Boutiques.com has so many capabilities and components that even Google engineers have a hard time qualifying it. It is a collection of hundreds of virtual boutiques merchandised — or, in the new parlance, “curated” — by designers, retailers, bloggers, celebrities and regular folks. You can shop in the style of, say, the actresses Carey Mulligan or Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen — among the celebrities who signed up — or you can build your own boutique and amass followers who can comment on your taste.
It is a place, then, to show off your fashion acumen, much as millions of Polyvore users already do in their picture collages.
It is also a source of inspiration. In every boutique on the site, there are dozens of additional choices inspired by a designer’s or celebrity’s style — generated by algorithms — with product photos that are much larger and sharper than on other shopping sites.
And if you don’t know how to wear the leopard pumps you just bought, there’s a panel of street-style photos on the right side of the site that visualizes the shoes in more expressive modes. Indeed, whatever style preference you indicate — classic, romantic, casual — the inspiration panel automatically adjusts for them, like a support group that can read your mind with surprising precision.
That may be Boutiques.com’s ultimate game-changer: how precisely it analyzes your preferences to give you what you requested. As many online shoppers know, search engines tend to give you stuff you don’t really want. A request for fern-colored shoes might yield fern shoes, plus fern-print blouses.
But, as two experienced online shoppers found when they tested the site earlier this week at Google’s New York office, if you ask for cobalt blue shoes, you get them. And if you refine your preferences with a click or two, you get even more specific styles.
The process at Boutiques.com is accomplished through visual search technology, and what style experts like Ms. Goodman and Ms. Holtz conveyed to Google code writers about the nuances of fashion — from color and pattern to silhouette and what looks good together and what does not.
The technology was actually developed by Like.com, a Silicon Valley company that was co-founded by Munjal Shah, which Google acquired last summer for a reported $100 million. Before the purchase, Like.com had created a number of fashion e-commerce sites, including Covet.com and the styling tool Couturious.com.
“I’ve always been impressed with Like.com,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, who is a vice president and retail analyst at Forrester Research and is familiar with the work on Boutiques.com. “I was just floored by the technology back then, and it’s evolved since. They’ve just honed the algorithm.”
Fueled in part by new gadgets like the iPad and more dollars spent by retailers on technology, online sales have generally outpaced brick-and-mortar sales. “I feel e-commerce in the last 12 months has caught a second wind,” Ms. Mulpuru said. According to Forrester, Internet sales of apparel and accessories this year will account for 14 percent, or $25 billion, of the $173 billion that Americans will spend online.
Mr. Shah is the team leader for Boutiques.com, with a left brain-right brain group of technicians and tastemakers. As he said in interviews conducted over the last week: “Online fashion shopping has to be universal and curatorial at the same time. This is an answer.”
A number of big companies, most notably Amazon and eBay, have been trying to get a bigger slice of the online apparel pie. But while they have improved the stylishness of their fashion pages, they may be ultimately constrained by their somewhat static platforms. It’s hard to mix DVD players and $900 Christian Louboutin peep-toe pumps.
Meanwhile, dedicated fashion sites like Shopstyle.com have gathered fans.
“Shopstyle’s done one of the best jobs in my opinion of creating the right high fashion experience,” Mr. Shah said. “But we think of it as Layer 1. It’s kind of broken things down, but they didn’t go for a detailed categorization and they didn’t personalize.”
At the time that Mr. Shah and his team at Like.com created Covet.com, a fashion personalization site, they didn’t really have the full picture of all that was possible on the Web. “We captured your preferences, but we couldn’t analyze the items to see if they met your preferences,” he said. “We did one half, but you need both halves. We achieved the other half only by rebuilding the technology with a whole new way of analyzing patterns and silhouettes.”
In simple terms, what the style experts did was come up with about 500 words for color, shape and pattern — robin’s-egg blue, for instance, and gingham — and then the engineers trained the algorithm to know what each was. They would have pictures of what gingham was and what gingham wasn’t. “We did that word by word by word,” Mr. Shah said. A lot of sites don’t have, or use, vision technology. They end up stuffing in a bunch of key words, and the search engine gets confused. So you get fern-print blouses when what you really want are fern-colored pumps.
Despite the number of products a search on Boutiques.com kicks out, the download time is very fast, and choices appear on extra-long pages so you don’t have to keep clicking. Virtually every kind of information is analyzed — price, brand, color and so on. The site also includes a system called “Complete the Look,” for which Ms. Goodman wrote “a ton of rules,” Mr. Shah said, “and our computer vision and machine learning guys implemented them.”
Additionally, there is a good sense of discovery on the site; items come to your attention — almost as they do in stores — that you didn’t necessarily plan to buy. Seasonal trends, like fall’s military looks, can be boosted on the site. Again, to Ms. Mulpuru, “that’s where Munjal gets it — fashion is about discovery.”
Users of the site will have the option to take a personal style quiz, which ranks a broad spectrum of loves and hates, but Mr. Shah is convinced that most people will prefer to find their “style twin” and shop in that individual’s boutique. For now, the site has only women’s fashion, but Mr. Shah wants to expand to men’s wear and, maybe one day, home furnishings.
Bloggers include Bryan Boy and Rumi Neely of Fashiontoast. Other celebrities, whom Google said it has paid to host boutiques, are Claire Danes, Ashlee Simpson and Nicole Richie. (By the way, Google authenticates the celebrity boutiques, so imposters be warned.) Retailers include Neiman Marcus, Barneys New York, Shopbop, Net-a-Porter and Scoop NYC. Potentially, fashion magazines could have boutiques. So could a character from a television show.
“Somebody may come in and build 20 goth boutiques in the first day,” Mr. Shah said.
On Monday, Simone S. Oliver, a Web producer for The New York Times, and Jane Son, a publicist, gave the site a test drive for this article. As the two women, both avid online shoppers, slowly became used to the site, which they later admitted could be overwhelming, Ms. Oliver said, glancing at the product categories, “I’m curious why you put shoes first.”
Ms. Goodman replied, “Shoes are always one of the most popular categories.”
Ms. Oliver laughed. “Good answer.”
As Ms. Son typed in “duck boots” on her laptop, yielding a bunch of choices, Ms. Oliver searched for cobalt platform pumps and a black leather shift dress, quickly finding things she liked. She skipped over the celebrity boutiques, preferring the blogger and trend boutiques. “I get more inspiration from girls on the street than celebrities,” she said.
But, she added: “I think the celebrity choices are useful for body shape. There are some people in the limelight that have a similar body shape to mine, and a certain silhouette would look good on me. And shades of skin tones.”
Mr. Shah nodded. “We could add skin tones to the preferences.”
Both women liked the inspiration panel, and also how refined the search was. “On other sites, you can’t edit your choices as much,” Ms. Son said. “And I need an edited selection.” Ms. Oliver rated the sense of discovery “A-plus,” adding: “I just found out about a shoe brand that I had never heard of — Velvet Angels. They’re more in my price range than, say, Yves Saint Laurent. That was fun. I was looking for something else, and it popped up.”
She said to members of the team, “I love that you guys have so many options but you also have the options that make sense.”
Yet, after the meeting, both women identified an obvious shortcoming of Boutiques.com: As curated as it is, a lot still comes up in a search. Suggesting that too much information may be a turnoff to inexperienced Web shoppers, Ms. Son said, “It’s going to take some getting used to, that’s for sure.”
Nodding, Ms. Oliver said: “I feel it’s an amazing site, but there are a few aspects that are not very intuitive. Some people might go back to the regular Google search and look for their boots.”
Fortunately for them, the site has that option, too.
Google Fashion Shopping Site Makes Debut - NYTimes.com