Standing in a sunny Tribeca photo studio, I can’t help but chuckle at the scene before me: Our photographer has rented an old-school projector—the kind your high school algebra teacher might have used to lull your class to sleep—and placed upon it a sheet of transparent cellulose, printed with digital code, to cast numbers, letters, and symbols over Jason Wu and model Josefien Rodermans. A striking visual, to be sure, but more than anything, it’s a charmingly antiquated way to look at data.
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Those lines of code are the actual algorithms that fuel the collaboration between Wu’s sister line, Grey, and Stitch Fix, the wildly popular six-year-old fashion service founded by former retail consultant Katrina Lake, which reported $730 million in revenue in 2016. In the same way that streaming services use data on customer preferences to shape their entertainment offerings—in fact, the company’s top data scientist was poached from Netflix—Wu drew from a pool of info on Stitch Fixers’ color and silhouette preferences to design a new mini-collection for the company. And just what did the Stitch Fix masses want from Mr. Wu? Everything from a floaty, floral, off-the-shoulder dress to a simple navy polka-dot camisole. “I’ve never been afraid to be the first,” says Wu, who contacted the fashion service out of sheer curiosity while on a recent trip to San Francisco. His five-piece collection launches on the heels of the site’s new premium brand offering—i.e., 100 more contemporary stalwarts, including Theory and Equipment, now added to the Stitch Fix mix. The exchange proved mutually beneficial: Stitch Fix gets significantly upgraded fashion options; Wu gains access to the kind of information generally available only to large-scale retailers—and perhaps not even to them. Stores know exactly what sells, but not necessarily it sells, whereas a company like Stitch Fix gathers specific feedback from thousands of users (they won’t reveal how many), a wealth of data that far exceeds what designers like Wu mainly gather face-to-face at trunk shows.
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Wu may proclaim himself “terrible at math and science,” but he’s no Luddite. Known as one of fashion’s first movers,” Jason is just so future-focused, open-minded, and brave,” says Stitch Fix Director of Brand Development (and former ELLE accessories director) Maria Dueñas Jacobs, who posits that the Stitch Fix model actually offers the designer a new freedom. “So often, designers are afraid of retail adjacencies”—meaning their placement in stores relative to other brands. When you take that issue out of the equation, so to speak, “the design process is more item- driven; you’re not thinking about how things will be merchandised on a rack.” Which means, for example, that for Stitch Fix, Wu worked with five vastly different prints—a contrast of styles a designer would rarely dare to send down the runway.
“It’s kind of like a dating app for clothes,” Wu quips. Upon registration, Stitch Fix clients complete a questionnaire that covers everything from personal style (preppy versus glam) to lifestyle (level of formality and frequency of social occasions); they can also share Pinterest or Instagram accounts to draw as complete a picture as possible of their style, coloring, and figure. This info goes to an on-staff stylist (the company has 3,300 nationwide), who curates a selection of clothing and accessories that’s delivered on a monthly, quarterly, or bimonthly basis—complete with handy outfit-building suggestions—for a $20 fee that is deducted from the total of any purchases. You only pay for what you decide to keep.
Even as CEO—with a reported IPO filing in late July—Lake makes it a point to personally prepare at least five customers’ boxes per week in order to “better understand the concerns of clients.” She’s quick to underscore the empathetic nature of the business. “We use data to make the business scalable,” Lake says. “But also to build the human connection. I have one client I’ve styled through three pregnancies, and another who wanted a special look to greet her husband, who was returning from his second tour in Iraq. We’re in the business of making people feel great, and having a designer like Jason on board will help us do that at an even higher level.”
As far as Wu is concerned, it’s nothing less than the future of his industry. “I have no doubt,” he says, “that other designers are going to come calling after this.”
This article originally appears in the November 2017 issue of ELLE.