The Curation Question

On December 5th, Fashion + Tech NY held a panel discussion on the retail hot topic of the last two years, curation. There is no question now that consumers get their primary sense of products from media, be it broadcast or social. There is also millions of times more information immediately available than ever before. The role that used to be filled by topical mavens, the old man who knew where to fish and how to do it, or the woman who hit the dress shops in the surrounding towns frequently enough to know where you could find a long yellow one at a discount, they have been heavily supplemented by Twitter and Facebook friends (although that’s becoming highly suspect), by Amazon and Yelp reviews, by Google Shopping tips returned with search results, and by friends who spend all their time at work looking online for clues as to when the next iPad is going to be released. What businesses are currently obsessing over is how to profit from curation.

story and photos by Charles Beckwith

On December 5th, Fashion + Tech NY held a panel discussion on the retail hot topic of the last two years, curation. There is no question now that consumers get their primary sense of products from media, be it broadcast or social. There is also millions of times more information immediately available than ever before. The role that used to be filled by topical mavens, the old man who knew where to fish and how to do it, or the woman who hit the dress shops in the surrounding towns frequently enough to know where you could find a long yellow one at a discount, they have been heavily supplemented by Twitter and Facebook friends (although that’s becoming highly suspect), by Amazon and Yelp reviews, by Google Shopping tips returned with search results, and by friends who spend all their time at work looking online for clues as to when the next iPad is going to be released. What businesses are currently obsessing over is how to profit from curation.

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The panel consisted of Nathaniel McNamara (Tip or Skip, Founder & President), Maud Pasturaud (Gilt Groupe, Mobile Marketing Manager), Amy Choi (OpenSky, Beauty Producer), Donna Kim (DonnaDaily.com, Founder, Journalist & On-Air Style Expert), and moderator Christine Creamer (Fashion + Tech NY, Meetup Organizer).

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The first topic for the panel was defining curation, for which I think Maud Pasturaud of Gilt had the best general answer, saying that curation is the filter, and insights and verification are involved.

Ms. Creamer then asked the panelists to break curation down into types. Nathaniel McNamara said that his company focuses on “the social signal.” Tip or Skip shows you two images in a “hot or not” model to crowd-source recommendations on products, then gets tricky with algorithms to identify products that should do well in the marketplace, giving out prizes to keep people coming back to keep curating. Some would identify this as the lowest common denominator formula, and say that it is flawed because one image can only suggest the possibilities of a product (if you only show the front, how do you know they don’t hate the back). Amy Choi said that “social curation is timely,” and then broke down curation into four categories: celebrity, friends, experts, and Internet mass trends. Some examples, celebrity curation would be Martha Stewart recommending a blender, friends would be a kid telling his friends that he just played a great videogame, experts would be CNET reviews of laptops, and Internet mass trends explains the popularity of the recent Korean pop phenomenon, Psy. Maud Pasturaud of Gilt Groupe emphasized that “we’re moving toward personalization,” and also, “when it comes to style, it’s a little bit different.” There was an exchange between the panelists and a reference to Amazon’s product recommendations and their critical flaw, that being based only on previous shopping habits, they do not provide inspiration.

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The next topic was how individuals and businesses should approach becoming a voice with influence in the digital marketplace, but seemed to be more about bloggers than online retailers. Donna Kim spoke first, “start with a conversation. Always end something with a question.” She also said, “it’s important to have that daily post.” (As the editor of an online fashion site with no budget, I can tell you that’s really hard to do if you only publish original content.) Nathaniel McNamara said, “looks do matter. Good photos matter.” In reference to Zara and fast fashion, Maud Pasturaud said, “curation is changing merchandising.”

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The moderator then asked the panelists to recommend an emerging tech site or product other than their own that they feel is important. Nathaniel McNamara mentioned Curalate, a platform for Pinterest metrics (Pinterest’s API is still closed to outside developers). Donna Kim said she was interested in an app called Mavensay. Maud Pasturaud cited ofakind.com, which drew approval from the audience, as well as the linerie site Fleur du Mal. Amy Choi said Viddy, a 15 second video platform.

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The moderator then opened up to questions from the audience, and I raised my hand, asking “how can curation function for fashion in the face of the six month delivery cycle, and does Fashion Week’s publicity harm high end garment sales by showing the goods too early?” The panel didn’t really have an answer to that. One member brought up Moda Operandi, but of course M.O. isn’t at all profitable yet. From my conversation with co-founder Áslaug Magnúsdóttir at the Fashion Digital New York conference a few weeks ago, in which she said that they entered the marketplace to get a foothold for future business, and they it’s not going to be able to serve the mass market until the delivery window gets much shorter, it seemed questionable as to whether that will ever work. In the end, Maud Pasturaud mentioned a site called Everlane, a company making high end garments and accessories without label markups or mass advertising and selling them only within their website’s closed system, which could very well be the true future of high end original fashion design.

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