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A Personal Stylist for Every Shopper

London-based start-up Thread, which has attracted a number of influential investors, advisors and retail partners, is building a scalable personal styling service with an ingenious blend of human stylists and intelligent algorithms. | Source: Thread
  • Vikram Alexei Kansara

LONDON, United Kingdom — A personal stylist for every shopper. In today's increasingly style-conscious but time-pressed world, where even shopping online can be fragmented and frictionful, it's a compelling vision.

But a service that can curate fashion just for you, sourcing and recommending products that fit personal parameters like taste, style, size, brand preferences and price isn't easy to deliver. Basing such a service on human stylists alone makes it expensive and impossible to scale. Meanwhile, the kind of algorithms that power sites like Netflix (a movie subscription service with over 29 million users that is known for having one of the world's most effective personal recommendation engines) often fail to capture the nuances of fashion, with its subjective tastes, trend cycles and gatekeepers.

Now, a London-based start-up called Thread is tackling the problem with a blend of man and machine, using intelligent algorithms to help professional, human stylists be more efficient and deliver personalised fashion recommendations at scale.

"There is a wave of new technology where you have humans and machines working together to do things far better than either could do alone," said co-founder and CEO Kieran O'Neill, a serial entrepreneur who launched one of the web's first video-sharing sites (pre-YouTube) when he was only 15 years old and, later, dropped out of university to found Playfire, a successful social service for console gamers, which was backed by the founders of Skype and acquired last year.

"It would be impossible to deliver a truly personalised experience at scale with just stylists and no technology, as it would simply take too long to pull the outfits together each week by hand. At the same time, if it was purely algorithmic then the quality would simply not be there. By man and machine working together you get a superior result than either working alone," continued O'Neill.

When Thread first launched, its ratio of stylists to users was about one to one hundred. But the company — which currently employs two full-time stylists and 40 freelancers (working part-time) — aims to radically improve this. "We're working on changes that will let us get to one stylist per 10,000 clients and far beyond," said O'Neill, who founded Thread, in June 2012, with Ben Phillips, an ex-Google engineer, and Ben Kucsan, a product designer who has worked for Twitter and Google. Shaunie Brett, a stylist who previously worked with Joe McKenna and has held positions at Burberry and a personal styling site called The Chapar, has come on board as style director and manages Thread's team of professional stylists.

"Thread gives people their own personal shopper for free to help them find the clothes they love," said O'Neill. "It solves a problem I had personally for many years: I wanted to dress well, but I was busy and didn't have time to shop regularly. Beyond my own experience, I have many friends who want to dress well, but don't enjoy the current shopping experience. They feel overwhelmed by Westfield [shopping mall] or the 50,000 items on ASOS, and often aren't sure exactly what to pair with what. They all want to look good, but right now there's so much friction to buying clothes, it's crazy."

Thus far, the company, which currently targets the fast-growing menswear market (womenswear is under discussion), has raised $2.5 million in seed funding from investors including William Reeve, co-founder of LoveFilm; Edgar Bronfman Jr, former owner of Warner Music; Guy Hipwell, former head of online at Harrods and Liberty; Shakil Khan, a founding investor in Spotify; Michael Birch, founder of Bebo; Miriam Lahage, former vice president of fashion at eBay; and start-up accelerator Y Combinator.

Thread has also attracted the support of influential advisors like Elizabeth Saltzman, international social editor of Vanity Fair and a stylist who counts Gwyneth Paltrow and Cameron Diaz as clients. "I did this out of pure gut," said Saltzman. "For me, I was drawn to Kieran because of his story and because, when I met with him, I realised he was passionate and creative and out of the box. He did this because he was a guy who wanted style, had money to spend, needed help, went online, but couldn't find it and decided to solve his own problem. So, I introduce him to people who wouldn't normally open their door right away: designers, stylists and other people that will drive business, but also give him more ideas about the [fashion] business, because he's changing the business."

Thread is free for consumers. After signing up, users are prompted to answer a detailed, multi-part questionnaire that asks them about their personal style, size, brand preferences, typical spend per product category, preferred fits, dressing habits and income. Ultimately, they are paired with a human stylist who (during business hours) engages them via live chat to further refine their profile, which contains over 30 different factors. Based on these profiles, an algorithm searches through a database of 10,000 hand-created outfits and sends users five new looks every Friday.

Users are asked to rate the looks, further feeding the algorithm and refining their profile, and can choose to "try on" the items that they like, which Thread dispatches to them for free (for orders over £50, or about $80). "It's free shipping both ways, and they only pay if they decide to keep it. We wanted to recreate the experience of a stylist dropping off the clothes to your house as much as possible," said O'Neill. Users can also contact their stylists at any time for specific advice or hand-curated recommendations.

Thread, which is currently limited to consumers in the UK, has so far attracted just under 10,000 clients, 40 percent of whom log into the site during a given week. "And remember, that is men, who have historically not engaged in fashion anywhere near as much as this before," said O'Neill.

Most fashion e-commerce sites hold inventory, which comes with financial risk and limits the range of products a site can sell. Or else they participate in affiliate programs, which means users must checkout on third-party sites, creating friction and diluting a site's ability to own the customer relationship. Neither is ideal.

Thread has taken a different approach. "When a client requests an item to try on, Thread buys it from the retailer and arranges delivery to the client. But due to bulk purchasing, we pay a price lower than retail and sell to the customer at regular retail price," explained O'Neill.

"Holding inventory is bad because it means for any particular customer you could only have a limited number of items in their size, budget and style, so the quality of the styling is bad. With affiliate, most of our clients are busy professionals and the idea of checking out off-site on three to four different sites is a huge hassle and they just wouldn't do it. By partnering directly with retailers we've been able to provide a seamless user experience for clients and a great way of driving incremental e-commerce sales for retailers." The company currently counts Urban Outfitters, End Clothing, Oki-Ni, LN-CC and Liberty among its retail partners.

"We decided to work with Thread for two reasons," said Ed Burstell, managing director of Liberty. "First, Kieran. He has a great track record of finding interesting, new, innovative ways of garnering customer interest and converting to retail — exactly what Thread does by offering you the chance to have a personal stylist working across a wide variety of stores and brands on your behalf. And for us, it's access to a customer base that is dedicated to fashion, wants expert advice and the ease of online. Coupled with how time-poor the world has become, it represents a potential that is virtually untapped. A real groundbreaker," added Burstell, who indicated it was too early to discuss specific results.

"Our mission is to make it dramatically easier for people to love how they look. We want to create a new global default for how people decide what to wear. That's the vision," enthused O'Neill. "The reality is that 99.9 percent of the world doesn't have a stylist helping them to perfect their wardrobe, so our biggest competitor isn't another company but the fact that people aren't aware that this is possible."

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