Media Perspective: Why Google is going for substance over style in fashion war
A view from Russell Davies

Media Perspective: Why Google is going for substance over style in fashion war

There's a Clay Shirky saying that I often quote (being a media prognosticator, quoting Shirky is part of my job description).

It's a thing he said about Brides magazine probably being the last bit of old media to die. It was a throwaway line, but it stuck with me because it wasn't just digital triumphalism. It was about the power of a print experience, of relaxing, leafing through something made of glossy paper, of folding down the corners, of sharing with friends.

All those things that only print can do. I thought it was a useful and powerful thought - it disrupted that inevitable death of print magazines narrative. And suggested there were some places, like fashion, where the internet's economies of scale and network power wouldn't triumph over aesthetics and taste.

And then I saw Google's new thing - and I started to think again. The initial blurb describing it isn't thrilling: " is a personalised shopping experience, brought to you by Google, that lets you find and discover fashion goods through a collection of boutiques curated by taste-makers - celebrities, stylists, designers, and fashion bloggers ..."

Fine, you think. It's clever to use bloggers, as well as celebs and designers. And while magazine publishers should probably be worried - the site does muscle in on their turf by directing fashion-interested eyeballs towards retailers - they'll probably be reassured by the bland-to-ugly design of the site. It has none of the character or aesthetic of a fashion title, none of the personality.

But it's the second paragraph of blurb that should frighten magazine owners: " is built on technology developed by our team of fashion experts who work with engineers to 'teach' our computer systems to understand patterns, pairings and genre definitions. When signed into your account, learns about your style and preferences and provides you better results and recommendations over time."

That should worry people because it's using Google's real genius - harnessing the power of large numbers. is built on a visual recognition technology it acquired, letting people find images similar to ones they like - and hence lets them find looks and styles.

They may have built an ugly site but that's easy to fix - there's going to be no shortage of underemployed fashion art directors. And with this simple move, they're already ahead of all their magazine rivals - building a database of looks and what people like.

Advertisers are going to value that a lot, don't you think? Even if this expression of the idea fails, they're still gathering loads of useful information. Once again, disruption sidles up from an angle you don't suspect and ruins your business with a big computer and a database.