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Will AI Kill Creativity? (BoF)

Source: Courtesy of Savitude

Source: Courtesy of Savitude

The article first appeared on The Business of Fashion.

AUSTIN, United States — The "robots" are coming — but rather than nudge out the need for humans, artificial intelligence stands to enhance the creative process — experts say. The implication of AI on design was a major theme at this week's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, where experts from a range of fields convened to discuss hot topics in music, film, media, art and beyond.

Entrepreneur Camilla Olson was in town to promote her fashion-tech software solution Savitude, which uses AI to recommend clothing based on a shopper's shape and proportions. Before Savitude, Olson founded two predictive modeling companies and designed an eponymous fashion label, both of which informed her insights into solving fashion's fit issues.

Savitude was selected to be a part of Target's retail accelerator, Techstars, which included two pilots of the software on Target's website. Olson said that part of the appeal of Savitude to Target was that the approach was neither too quantitative (meaning too reliant on science and numbers) nor too simplistic. "Someone who has the mathematical appreciation — engineering — will look for perfection and overkill" in solving the fit problem, Olson said. "If you have expertise [in fashion], you know where to draw the lines in product design. You have a gut feeling of what the market needs."

Olson's perspective reflects the growing tension between human and machine. As science gets smarter and is able to make recommendations on what is most likely to sell, traditional approaches are facing irrelevance.

Fashion designer Gretchen Jones, who is the former fashion director of womenswear at Pendelton Woolen Mills, found that her role as a designer had become more "defensive" than proactive. "I was fighting against big data that would often negate the creative design directions," Jones said. "I was speaking through my gut and they had paperwork that could prove another black mock turtleneck was the thing that sold. But rarely can a customer tell you what they want that hasn't been created yet, and that was stifling my ideation."

Jones's solution was to pursue a master's degree in fashion at the University of Arts London, where she researched the role of data in the fashion business. What she found was surprising: she learned that data analytics can be valuable in empowering the creative process — if the business side invites the creative side to participate.

"It's not just guys in suits or Mark Zuckerberg dudes," Jones says. "We need to disrupt data; it's a tool, but not the only thing." Designers, she said, are wise to acknowledge that customers feel that aesthetic choices are an extension of their identities, and that a designer is designing for them, rather than creating a vision that is delivered to the customer. In this way, Jones found that data could help designers understand the emotional connections that customers have with a brand.

Jones added that leaning too heavily on either the creative or the business side — whether that's expecting a miracle by appointing Raf Simons to chief creative officer of Calvin Klein or former Starbucks executive Adam Brotman as president and chief experience officer at J. Crew — will not save fashion. "Dictatorial creativity is a failure," she says.

Actor and entrepreneur Brooklyn Decker, who co-founded digital wardrobe app Finery with Whitney Casey, thinks that artificial intelligence will take over the role of the fashion influencer, using the computer generated "influencer" @lilmiquela (who has 740,000 Instagram followers) as an example.

"This person can be anywhere and fit any size and appeal to any audience, based on the data [the brand] layers on top," Casey says. Decker adds, "and if the content is interesting enough, I don't think she becomes [advertising cartoon] 'Tony the Tiger.'"

Some experts suggest that in certain cases, it's even possible for an algorithm to mimic human intuition. Jenna Niven, who is creative director at advertising agency R/GA, explained that "the gut" is the brain's organic algorithm, and because a person's knowledge base is limited to one worldview, humans can lean on AI to enhance creative capabilities by creating associations between huge amounts of data.

Read more on The Business of Fashion.

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