Data Vs. Art

The Complex Relationship Between Data and Artistic Vision

It is no secret that technology has shifted the world as we know it. From the way in which smartphones rule our existence to social media forging communities and communications we never knew possible, it’s a tech-centric, tech-devoted world we live in.

And fashion is far from exempt when it comes to this movement. Not convinced? Look at the runways and storefronts, magazine spreads and Instagram feeds.

No matter the campaign, designer, or store, the looks in the world of fashion have grown increasingly similar. And it’s no coincidence. It’s largely due to data.

Consumer data is incredibly vital for designers in terms of knowing what their audience wants, but how do you balance the artistic process with the understanding of what your consumers want? Where do you draw the line between creating what inspires you and creating what is going to be sold? Is there a way to use data without sacrificing creativity?

Technology has slowly and radically reshaped countless businesses, while at the same time spawning countless others. Ten years ago there were jobs and sectors that simply did not exist because technology had yet to catch up with itself.

Today, we have people dedicated to studying data. Each purchase, like, share, or add to cart is stockpiled for brands and merchandisers to forecast and study.

Brands can buy the numbers, the statistics, the yays and nays, the preferences, the habits. Brands are now creating what the online shopping data tells them is popular and desired, alienating even the most famous designers who have to design what the merchandiser is telling them to design. By default, we lose all motivation to create something new, edgy, and unseen because we are just catering to the mass market. But where’s the fun in that?

What is the point and power of a creative endeavor if you already know the positive endgame to one of the options? Risk-taking, experimenting, and even failures are what lead us to new and innovative ideas and directions in fashion.

Data analytics as a whole are not new to the industry, but the way in which the numbers are dictating creative decisions is fairly new. Data is no longer simply supplying information with regards to how much of an item a brand should produce or what color is trending. Brands can now gain access to the minutiae of every single decision their customers are making—and more importantly, ask them for input.

We live in a reality where crowdsourcing, Twitter, and user-feedback rules the world. Transparency and opportunity have created a marketplace where consumers are the ones not only consuming, but creating as well.

But where do we draw the line? And is there even a way to escape it? It’s an arms race at this point, with each competitor utilizing data and consumer research to stay ahead. But in trying to keep up, it feels as if brands are actually falling behind in terms of creativity and innovation.

Beyond the likes and feedback, where does artistic integrity stand? Sure, it’s important to value the customer and the numbers that fall behind them. They are, after all, the ones purchasing items and helping sway the market. But is there such thing as being too focused on the consumer and the data?

Look at fast fashion leader, Zara. They move beyond data and take feedback straight from customers in the store. Back in 2015, numerous Zara customers were asking for pink scarves whilst shopping. Just weeks later, pink scarves were dispatched and went on to sell out in their stores. The customer asked, the customer got. Even web-based retailer, Everlane, has an entire section on their website where consumers choose what they pay. Nike ID enables customers to design their own shoes in any way they see fit—and that’s just become the norm. Other brands utilize consumer-based input where they can vote on a design to be created and sold.

On the other end of this pendulum, however, are the brands that are resisting the notion that “data is the new oil.” Blessed with decades of experience and carefully cultivated reputation, many luxury brands continue to create collections without even collecting or navigating the most basic data sets.

But how long will these two different camps be able to exist? The independent designer who creates outside of the consumer-centric bubble versus the technology-focused, merchandiser-driven label who churns out designs. Who will win?

Data has created an incredibly accessible way for brands to peer into the wants, likes, needs, and preferences of customers; but even the mere advent of technology has enabled brands to change gears and shift towards the customer-centric styles.

Customers have become accustomed to lightning speed delivery and change. There needs to be fresh, new styles in stores constantly, changing at the same speed as the minds of customers.

Data and customer power have created a fashion ecosystem that looks all too much like fast fashion. Immediacy and accessibility have taken the lead over artistic vision and originality.

Have we gone too far? Some may say we have. But is there even a point of return?