By Jacob Gallagher 

For years now, Emily Bode has had a brain-power problem. The New York designer runs Bode, a fast-rising brand that produces whimsical, fresh garments from aged textiles. Its signature piece is a quilt coat, each made from one of the hundreds of one-off throws the brand sources from a network of pickers. The issue: Her staff regularly called upon Ms. Bode, their resident quilt expert, to identify the quilt before they shipped it off to production, or to describe a coat's provenance to a potential customer. She could confirm that, yes, the quilt in question featured a 1950s "Log Cabin" motif, but the process was tedious.

The solution came from an unlikely source: Microsoft. After a series of conversations with the brand, the Redmond, Wash. tech giant developed the Bode Vault, a proprietary piece of artificial intelligence that can identify a quilt faster than Ms. Bode can type out a text.

One of many AI applications the fashion industry has begun to employ, the Bode Vault system -- when fed a photo of a quilt -- analyzes it for "hot points" or key design details of specific quilt types. The technology works less like a barcode scanner, which would analyze the picture in full, and more like a reader interacting with the book "Where's Waldo?" It searches for the equivalent of a "Waldo" in a given quilt, and if finding, say, six of them, uses that data to identify the quilt variety. Before this can happen, the computer must be fed hundreds of images of around 30 different examples of a given quilt type to create a baseline from which the Vault can work.

While the machine can dissect and name over ten types of patterns so far, some quilts stump it: Most "suit quilts," for example, are irregularly hodgepodged together from old suits, and the patterns are generally too varied for the system to learn what a "typical" suit quilt is. Thus far, the technology also lacks the ability to date a quilt or identify where the materials are sourced from. According to a representative for Microsoft, Ms. Bode was not paid to participate in the development of the technology, nor did she pay Microsoft to undertake the project.

Exploiting AI is becoming one of the largest behind-the-scenes trends in the fashion business. Technology companies like Edited, a 10-year-old outfit based in London, uses machine learning (a form of artificial intelligence) to analyze the effects of pop culture and current trends in the retail industry. "Back in the day, there was a lot of guesswork when it came to determining what kind of assortments that [brands] wanted to sell, what kind of trends to put their money behind," said Daphne Duong, Edited's content & communications manager. The reports that Edited whips up from its data track the evolution of color palettes at menswear shows, or dissect the driving factors behind the prominence of Scandinavian style. Edited tracks more than 480 million products across 90,000 retailers and brands including Marni, Chloé, Zara, Mango, Tommy Hilfiger and Puma.

In 2018, to identify key trends that were engaging its target market, online fashion retailer Yoox tapped machine learning to sift through social media and data on its existing customers' shopping preferences. It then used the results to inform its first private label collection for men and women, including items like a plaid topcoat and a blue corduroy suit.

Artificial intelligence has also been used to influence consumers' purchasing decisions. Labels like Levi's have used automated chatbots that steer customers toward a new pair of jeans. For some companies AI technology is the cornerstone of their business model: Stitch Fix, a nine-year-old online personal styling company, uses algorithms to generate specific clothing sets for its customers.

Beyond the fashion industry, global spending on AI systems overall is expected to reach $49.2 billion in 2020, a 31% increase over last year, according to market-research company International Data Corp. With AI creeping into more facets of our lives, a category of fashion has also emerged to battle these potentially invasive technologies. It includes items designed to confuse cameras that use machine learning to identify a given individual's face: say, a pair of goggles with LED lights running down the lenses or a headscarf covered with images of other peoples' faces. "There is a big distrust, maybe not necessarily in the fashion industry, but in general around AI," said Maruschka Loubser, the director of global brand marketing partnerships at Microsoft. Ms. Loubser, who worked on the Bode Vault project, felt it was important to "demystify"AI technology.

The Vault is not the first time that Microsoft has created an AI. platform for a brand -- other retailers and labels have deployed similar technologies made by Microsoft, particularly on the production side -- but it is certainly its most ballyhooed partnership to date. The Vault application is not available to the public (Ms. Bode expressed hope that customers will be able to download it eventually) but Microsoft is still running slick Instagram ads touting the technology. The fact that Microsoft is able to tout the partnership in marketing materials could explain why the company developed the vault at no cost to Bode. As used by Bode's salespeople in its New York City retail story, the information the app generates can help convince a customer to spend the hefty $1,554 for one of Bode's quilt coats.

That kind of storytelling "aids in selling," said Ms. Bode. "If someone tries something on, it's a really great way for the customer to understand the value." The app also has applications inside Ms. Bode's studio where textiles are stored. When the brand receives an order from a retailer like Browns's in London for, say, 15 "Log Cabin" raw quilts to be turned into coats, the team uses the Vault to pinpoint where in Ms. Bode's extensive stash those quilts are located.

After witnessing the Vault in action, one can see why Microsoft is shouting about it -- as applications of AI go, few would seem more benevolent, less sinister than identifying historic quilts. For Ms. Bode, the greatest potential of the app is in preserving those quilt stories. She was getting inundated with so much information both from her suppliers and through online search -- but those anecdotal tales were getting lost. Each quilt listing in the Vault has spaces where members of her team can input the "quilt story" which could include where it was from, who made it and any other intriguing backstories. Of course, here as elsewhere around the industry, AI's capabilities are still relatively limited. Those stories must still be keyed in by a human hand.

Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 16, 2020 15:40 ET (19:40 GMT)

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