FAST COMPANY: What is your startup, Clothia?
ELENA SILENOK: Clothia is a fashion technology platform meant to make online shopping social and interactive. With online shopping today, it’s hard to really understand how something looks on you. So we allow users to virtually try on clothes using augmented reality. It’s similar to going to a store, picking up something on a hanger, holding it up to themselves, and looking in the mirror. Users can also create virtual closets of both things they own and things they like. So they can take a picture of a dress they own, upload it, and then go to Bergdorf or Gap and grab an item they like, create an outfit, and share it with their friends. We’re in private beta.
When did you get the idea?
I was a typical California grad student, wearing jeans and flip-flops all the time. Then I moved to New York in 2006 and everybody was so fashionable. So I had to figure out how to be fashionable too. Being the geek that I am, I started thinking that there’s got to be a better way than just going to the store. I had the idea for a few years before I started working on it. I quit everything else and focused on Clothia full-time last summer.
Some people believe the future is in virtual fitting rooms that focus on the actual fit of the garment--Fits.Me’s robot, for instance, or the 3-D garment data from Styku--while others see the point of virtual fitting rooms as examining the look of a garment. Why did you decide to focus on the latter?
I think eventually they’ll merge and we’ll have truly immersive shopping experiences that will be akin to going to an actual fitting room in a store. The reason we chose to go with the look was that we wanted to create a technology that was accessible to the user with the least amount of effort possible. The look is what I care about a lot, as a girl. How many girls wear uncomfortable shoes--all of us at some point--just because they look pretty? My favorite pair of high heels are these five-inch Louboutin’s. When I show them to my girlfriends, they’re like, “Oh my God, how can you walk in those?”
So do you think that companies like Styku or Fits.Me are almost too far ahead of the curve?
I think they try to approach from technology side versus we try to approach it from the fashion side. I see online fashion as a space being huge enough for Clothia, Fits.Me, for a lot of other startups who are innovating. Frankly, what I think we’ll eventually see is an immersive fitting room experience, where you stand in front of a magic mirror and will be able to see how you look in something. It will give you the fit, the look, the exact measurements. You’re going to have a holographic-like experience, or you’ll be able to see a rendering of yourself on screen, and you’ll have a virtual closet where each garment that you own will be replicated, and you’ll be able to access them anywhere, like you can access Gmail. So when you go to a retailer, you’ll be able to pull up a skirt that you have at home and to try it on virtually with a garment they have at the store. And the same thing at home: You’ll be able to access things in your closet and put them on with a virtual jacket from any retailer.
What’s a “magic mirror”?
You can think of it as a huge iPad, a big surface where you see yourself as though in a mirror, but you can also touch and interact with it as if it were an iPad. It’d be a mirror with a touch surface, and you’ll be able to test the product, and post on your social network, and interact with friends, directly from that device. It’s like a Kinect-meets-iPad-meets-regular-mirror.
Was there some sort of cyberpunk novel that first imagined the magic mirror?
No, I think it was teenage girls everywhere who love to shop.
There’s a scene in the movie Clueless that prefigures Clothia: Alicia Silverstone's character has a virtual closet of sorts.
It’s really amazing because that scene in Clueless is literally like 17 or 18 seconds, and that movie came out in ’95. But when I explain Clothia to girls, most of them say, “Oh my God, it’s like the Clueless closet. I’ve wanted that since I saw the movie.”
Your vision of retail’s future is interesting: You’ll go to a brick-and-mortar store to have a virtual experience?
The way that I would imagine it is: I’d walk into a store, see a garment, scan the QR code on my phone, and be able to pull it up. I’ll walk into a fitting room and pull up items from my home closet. I’ll be able try them on at the same time that I’m trying on clothes from the store. I’ll be able to touch the magic mirror to order something or to share with friends on Facebook, it’ll pop up on their connected devices, we’ll be able to talk using FaceTime right as I’m in the fitting room, and I’ll say, “Do you like this?” And they’ll say, “Oh my God, I love this.” And then I’ll just click buy on my phone without having to go through checkout, and then it’ll be overnighted to me, so I don’t even have to carry it from the mall home.
What are other ways in which technology is changing fashion, or the way we interact with clothes?
It’s making it easier to make fashion sustainable. It’s creating better materials. It’s getting users more involved. It used to be that fashion was very hierarchical--whatever Anna Wintour decided would be the fashion for the year, that ended up being the trend. Now we see how fashion is influenced by street style. Girls on the streets of Paris or New York will be wearing culottes or harem pants, and now it’s a trend, and manufacturers respond.
You recently gave a TEDx talk on “weaponized computing,” deriving from your computer science graduate work. How does fashion relate to the cyberwar? Which realm is more cutthroat?
According to The Devil Wears Prada, fashion is probably more cutthroat. My professional fashion experience has mostly been limited to the world of startups. And I think the startup industry is really wonderful--everyone is super helpful, super supportive.
Let’s peer into the crystal ball. How will technology change fashion within the next year?
I think we’ll see a huge trend for online shopping. It’s already growing at 17 to 18%, and I think it’s going to grow even more.
And in five years?
I think in five years we’ll be seeing probably up to a quarter of all shopping happening online, 20 to 25% online, versus less than 10% right now. That vision of the future I was talking about, where you’ll be able to enter a store and virtually try on clothes, I think that’s not unreasonable to happen in the next five years.
And in 15 years? Do we have the “magic mirrors” you mentioned?
Super comfortable shoes with five-inch heels. But I think that will take longer.
This interview has been condensed and edited. For other interviews in the Crystal Ballin' series, click here.
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