For years, Google has been digitising the world’s museums, making cultural artefacts accessible in extraordinary detail to millions of internet users. Now it’s turning to fashion.
LONDON, United Kingdom — For years, Google allowed its engineers to spend 20 percent of their time on personal projects they thought would ultimately benefit the company. The tech giant has since scaled back on the policy, replacing it with a more focused approach to innovation, but Google’s famous “20 percent time” gave rise to some of its most successful products, including Gmail and AdSense.
Back in 2010, a Bombay-born engineer named Amit Sood used his “20 percent time” to kickstart the Google Art Project, an effort to digitise the world’s museums, making cultural artefacts accessible in extraordinary detail to millions of internet users. It was a Google-sized ambition that fit the company’s mission to “organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
The project has since grown into the Google Cultural Institute, a non-profit arm of the company, now housed in a grand hôtel particulier in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, that has partnered with over 1,300 museums and foundations to digitise everything from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Marc Chagall’s ceiling at the Opéra Garnier, making them accessible on a platform called Google Arts & Culture.
Now, Google is turning its attention to fashion.
Encouraged by the volume of fashion-related online search queries and the rising popularity of fashion exhibitions, Google’s Cultural Institute has partnered with over 180 cultural institutions — including The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Kyoto Costume Institute — “to bring 3,000 years of fashion to the Google Arts & Culture platform.”
Called “We Wear Culture,” the initiative, which launches today, is based on the premise that fashion is culture, not just clothes. Led by Kate Lauterbach — a Google program manager who began her career at Condé Nast in New York and later worked for J.Crew’s Madewell — it aims to digitise and display thousands of garments from around the world, stage curated online exhibitions, invite non-profit partners like museums and schools to script and share their own fashion stories, and leverage technologies like Google Street View to offer immersive experiences like virtual walkthroughs of museum collections.
For end users, it’s a cultural rabbit hole and research tool. For partners, it’s a way to reach a much wider audience online, furthering both their educational mandates and marketing objectives. But the benefit to Google is more complex.
After a day’s immersion at Google’s Cultural Institute and associated Lab in Paris, BoF caught up with Lauterbach at the company’s London King’s Cross campus to learn more about the thinking behind the initiative and how digitising the world’s fashion archives unlocks value for the tech giant.
Read the full interview on Business of Fashion