How Algorithms Are Rewiring Fashion


Imagine you’re a typical shopper.

You open up TikTok — until it’s banned anyway — to scroll through videos. You quickly encounter one from an influencer talking about the latest trend blowing up on the app. It could be “mob wife,” like “tomato girl” or “cottagecore” before it — it doesn’t matter. You watch till the end. As you keep scrolling, you see more like it talking about the trend, which isn’t groundbreaking but is fun and easy to pull off. It gets you in the mood to shop.

You open up Shein to a feed full of products. You spot one that fits the trend and order it. Some days later, it arrives. You aren’t sure if it’s really for you or not, but that trend keeps growing more popular and it’s perfect for it. You keep it and wear it once or twice, but then you’re back on TikTok one day and you spot an influencer talking about a new trend.

This shopping journey is common today, and it’s the result of algorithms. They start at TikTok’s “For You” page, but they also figure into what content influencers are posting as they optimise for views, what Shein is selling and even how the delivery service is routing the product to you.

And it isn’t just these companies using them. They’re ubiquitous across the internet. Retailers beyond Shein lean on them to forecast demand for core products and quickly identify and re-order items that are selling well. Brands themselves might design clothes from trend reports that use algorithms to scrape social media for insights.

New Yorker staff writer Kyle Chayka, who will speak at the BoF Professional Summit – New Frontiers: AI, Digital Culture and Virtual Worlds on March 22, details the effects of algorithms in his book “Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture.”

Their influence is not always beneficial for fashion.

A large share of the global population today gets cultural content like fashion, music and entertainment through social networks and streaming services, and algorithms are how those platforms surface the content users see by default. That’s not a problem in itself. Who wouldn’t prefer to see shows or albums that are relevant to them rather than having to sift through the huge libraries these platforms have?

Where it becomes an issue, Chayka argues, is that it creates the conditions for content that’s instantly, easily pleasurable to rise to the top and for everything else to sink. Challenging works that take time to understand and appreciate are at a disadvantage. It’s too easy to scroll past them or skip to the next track, and a good deal of what we today count as great cultural products fall into that category.

“[F]ashion, to take one example, is often strongest as an art form when it doesn’t follow the rules and chase averages,” Chayka writes.

Unorthodox and more difficult things can still break through. The Margiela Tabi, a footwear style known for its divisive split-toe design, rose to new levels of notoriety in 2023 thanks to TikTok.

But they might need some help from a viral moment that plays to the algorithm. Part of what drove interest in the shoes was the viral “Tabi swiper” story about a woman’s Tinder date stealing her Tabi Mary Janes.

It points to one of the other ways brands have learned to get attention: marketing stunts and over-the-top looks engineered to circulate online. As BoF’s Robert Williams noted last year, eye-grabbing statements from brands like Balenciaga and Gucci have driven much of the fashion conversation in recent years, largely owing to the rise of social media’s algorithms, “which favour provocation by detecting and amplifying debate,” he wrote.

Not all algorithms are the same. The ones fashion businesses use to reorder products that are performing well don’t necessarily have the same impact as those that shape our social feeds — though the point of both is to automate the work of giving consumers what they want.

What they are all doing, though, is influencing what consumers see, like, buy and wear. The power of algorithms has even led some shoppers to question whether they’re purchasing things because they genuinely like them or just because they’ve seen them online so many times, a phenomenon Chayka wrote about in the New Yorker and covers in his book.

Maybe the ultimate symbol of the algorithm’s supremacy is the importance of influencers today. In a survey by Morning Consult, more than half of Gen-Z said they wanted to be influencers. The job practically exists to produce content that can ride social algorithms to high numbers of followers, making influencers an essential marketing channel for brands today.

As Chayka put it in his book, “If you want something to be popular in Filterworld, the fastest way is to get the influencers on your side.”

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