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Why Is Google Digitising the World's Fashion Archives?

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.
A Gigapixel image of a Schiaparelli evening coat from the Victoria & Albert Museum on Google Arts & Culture | Source: Google
  • Vikram Alexei Kansara

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.

BoF: Tell me about the genesis of the Culture Institute’s fashion project.

KL: Well, starting from art we expanded into culture. We did something around performance art, we did something around natural history; so very different, but the same idea: you take Google technologies, you apply them to this facet of culture and you produce something, you push the bounds, you do something different.

I worked in fashion pre-MBA and I just felt like it was a really interesting subject matter. We were starting to see fashion cropping up in different partners’ collections; it’s a personal passion of mine; and it’s also relevant and interesting and searched for online. It’s a conversation I thought we could bring some value to. We started thinking about it almost two years ago now and began having conversations with places like the V&A and the Costume Institute at the Met.

BoF: The project is named “We Wear Culture.” What does that mean?


KL: We wanted to show that fashion is much deeper than just what you wear; that there’s a story behind it, there’s people behind it, there’s influences that come from art, that come from music, that come from culture more broadly; and, in turn, what we wear influences culture. We really wanted to put fashion on a par with art and artists. You look at their influences, you look at their inspiration, you look at their process, you look at their materials. And we thought that if you can have this kind of singular resource online where all of this was starting to be discussed — and hear it from the authority, I think that’s really critical — it would be valuable.

Shapes and silhouettes come and go. We call them trends. But what are they really? Why do they keep coming back?

BoF: What real world problem or inefficiency does this solve?

KL: Well, I always bring it back to our partners. They have enormous collections; they have all of this incredible knowledge. But it's often in storage. So first of all, it's kind of unlocking access to all of this and bringing it out of storage — whether that's physical storage or a curator's brain — and really bringing it to people in a way that's easily understandable and educational but also fun. The target is not just fashion enthusiasts, but anyone who's culturally curious. Someone who might never go to the Met, might never get to visit the Rei Kawakubo show, can now see some version of it online. So I think that's really the power.

BoF: Presumably there’s marketing value for museums as well?

KL: Yes we hope so. Everything they do on our site, it links back to their sites. They can also embed anything they do on our site back on their own sites. The really well resourced museums have their own digital departments and do these type of things, but if you’re talking about a small regional museum in Romania, they don’t. So this gives everybody, no matter how big or small, the same tools and technologies. So it’s really quite democratic in that sense.

BoF: What about schools and students?

KL: Central Saint Martins is right around the corner, so we met with them. Fabio [Piras, the director of the school’s MA fashion course] asked right away: how is this going to be a resource for students? What we ended up doing with them is catalogue the MA shows from start to finish. But the question is: how do we turn this into teachable moments? We have Google Expeditions, which are basically teacher-led educational experiences. Students get [virtual reality] Google Cardboard viewers and get taken on a tour. I think this has incredible potential.

VK: What about the industry? Do you see this as a useful tool for designers?


KL: I hope so. I think there’s some really interesting tools that we have developed, like the ability to search over 15,000 new artefacts online in high-resolution for the first time. And you can search through time, through colour. So imagine you want to mood board something that’s in this specific shade of red, you can see all the pieces. Or you just want to see hats from the 16th century, you can slice the content in a way that I hope will make it useful to the industry. And then I hope it generates a conversation and makes connections. My understanding is that curators are experts but they’re often quite detached from other parts of the industry, whereas hopefully this kind of mashes up historians, designers, students.

BoF: Why is this valuable to Google?

KL: For one, we’re an engineering company at heart and so anything that forces our engineers to think on a new spectrum is very useful to us. And then including fashion content and these artefacts makes the Google Arts & Culture platform richer, which makes it a better and more comprehensive experience for the user.

BoF: I can only imagine the data associated with garments locked up in museum collections is also interesting to Google.

KL: Yes. Because it’s the first time we’re doing fashion in a real way, another challenge for our engineers was developing a taxonomy for how all this data fits into our existing schema, which was designed for art, not fashion. So we actually changed our metadata schema specifically for this project and added things like designer, fashion house, manufacturer. We have a very structured way of understanding and providing this data to the end user now. And you know your data inputs are really high quality because they’re coming directly from museums.

BoF: What’s the value of this data? What can Google do with it?

KL: It’s ring-fenced to our site. As a non-profit, we have to keep it quite separate from the rest of Google. Within the site, there’s a lot of interesting experiments we can do with it, like different kinds of data visualisations. We are also applying some of the things we’re working on with machine learning to this rich new set of content. But it has to stay within the safe space of Google Arts & Culture.

BoF: Tell me more about the machine learning experiments.

KL: So there’s a few different experiments, based on visual similarity. I think you saw “X Degrees of Separation,” where you choose any two objects and the computer finds a visual pathway connecting them through a chain of similar objects. Then there’s the colour palette one. It’s like a search engine for colour palette based on an analysis of the objects available on the platform. But it’s interesting because that’s using no actual data. That’s purely using image-based recognition and you realise how accurate the machine is getting. We have millions of artefacts on Google Arts & Culture and the machine can visually recognise similarities and then group them. I just find it incredible that a machine has done this with zero data and purely based on image similarity.

One thing that’s very interesting to me is shape and silhouette. When we were first talking to the machine learning team I thought, shapes and silhouettes come and go and then resurface. We call them trends. But what are they really? Why does that keep coming back? And what if you saw that and could map that onto political events or certain geographical locations. What if you could understand: Why do ripped jeans keep coming back? Is there a trigger? Is there something wider?

BoF: Being able to predict trends has huge commercial value.

KL: There’s no commercial value for us. At Google Arts & Culture, there’s no direct commercial value to anything that we do. For us, it’s a resource. We won’t be the ones to make this commercially valuable. It’s more that we open it up and make it available, we pull it out of these museums, out of these experts’ minds, bring it all onto this platform, but then that’s sort of where our job stops.

BoF: How are you measuring success?

KL: A lot of our success is sort of intangible. We measure partnerships. Of over 180 partners, I forget the exact number, but more than half of them are new relationships, which from my perspective is a really big opportunity. Then, of course, we are tracking how people are interacting with the project. Are they spending time on it? Are they sharing it? All the normal things. And then, more conceptually, for me it’s really, is this something that’s useful? To me that’s really the measure of success; that it’s a useful resource for partners, for users.

BoF: How do you see the project evolving over time?

KL: A lot of this is driven by technology. As the tech evolves, it gives us new opportunities. Maybe machine learning follows a similar trajectory to virtual reality where four years ago 360-degree experiences were incredible and expensive and now things like Google Cardboard have made them accessible to anyone. We look at tech innovation and adoption cycles and follow that.

For me, the educational piece is also key. My hope is that this becomes something that is a resource for teachers and students to better understand that fashion is not just what you buy on the high street or what you see on Instagram — there is so much more. If we can make this teachable then that’s the direction I’d like to see it go, because we rarely have this combination of tech, experts and the most authoritative sources of content. When you have the three of those, I think that sort of triangulation can create something really powerful for education.

BoF: It’s interesting. So many of your partners — like museums — are primarily engaged with the past, whereas fashion is fundamentally about the now. How does the project grapple with the present?

KL: We have the museums, which are largely kind of historic collections that do stretch into the now. But it was really important for this project to capture past, present and future. For the present, that's really why we made such an effort with schools. So you have Parsons, SCAD, CSM and LCF, Bunka in Japan. I wanted to get a pulse on what are they teaching, what's happening at the fashion schools right now. As for the future, the Danish Fashion Institute contributed a really lovely story on sustainability and how technology is enabling fabric innovation.

BoF: What can we expect from the launch itself?

KL: So, you’ll see the new vertical on Google Arts & Culture. It will actually be called “We Wear Culture” and you’ll see different stories, high-resolution images, Street Views, virtual reality experiences. So it will be hopefully very rich from a user perspective. You might see a story from the Kyoto Costume Institute next to a section on sportswear with content from the Football Museum in Brazil.

And, of course, we’re going to unveil the project with the Costume Institute at the Met on the evening on June 8th. There will be some physical experiences, some of the online stories and virtual reality experiences which we’ll bring to life within the physical space of the museum. With the Met, we worked on a 360-degree tour of their conservation studio, which, of course, no one can visit. That’ll come to life in a physical space, but also through virtual reality on the night of the event.


Expectations? When Amit Sood first began experimenting with a platform for digitising the experience of art back in 2010, it was little more than a side project. But Google Arts & Culture now attracts over 40 million unique users a year and has partnered with many of the world's top institutions, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg to the Palace of Versailles outside Paris. When BoF learned that the platform was turning its attention to fashion, it's fair to say that expectations were high. Yet Google is a tech company with limited understanding of how the fashion world operates and some of its previous fashion initiatives, like the ill-fated e-commerce site, have failed rather spectacularly. Would Google's platform really resonate in a space where functionality plays second fiddle to feel?

First impressions? BoF got a sneak peek of the experience on a giant, wall-sized screen at the Lab in Google's Cultural Institute in Paris. The look-and-feel of the platform was clean and sharp. Some of the garments on the site had been captured in "Gigapixel images" (images containing over one billion pixels) taken by Google's custom-built Art Camera and these images were nothing short of extraordinary, revealing details invisible to the naked eye. On first glance, it was easy to see how a fashion nerd could spend hours immersed in the platform.

Most potential? Google has rightly realised that its mission to "organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" inevitably puts the company into dialogue with museums, archives and foundations, where so much of the world's cultural knowledge is locked up. Unlocking this knowledge and making it accessible to millions of people online is a remarkable goal. Feeding it to machines that can learn the link between the Sex Pistols, a safety pin and a Vivienne Westwood dress could prove to be even more valuable in a market for personal luxury goods worth €249 billion in 2016, according to Bain & Company. While Google Arts & Culture is strictly non-profit, what the wider company could, one day, do with machines that genuinely understand fashion extends from trend prediction to automated design with revolutionary implications.

What's missing? Fashion is fundamentally about the present. Yet Google Arts & Culture feels more like a time capsule, removed from the real-time fashion conversation happening on popular platforms like Instagram. What's more, while the initiative is non-profit, fashion is an unmistakably commercial enterprise where brands are critical creators of both cultural meaning and content and have huge importance across the ecosystem. It will be hard for Google to build a platform that grapples meaningfully with fashion without finding a way to incorporate brands.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Disclosure: Vikram Alexei Kansara travelled to Paris as a guest of Google.

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