Four years ago, Alexandra Van Houtte was a fashion assistant in Paris. She would sit in the back offices of magazines like Grazia, Glamour or international editions of Vogue for countless hours researching and cataloging looks for fashion shoots.
The monotony and inefficiency of scrolling for a particular look through sites like Style.com or Women’s Wear Daily — a chore undertaken by generations of junior assistants and stylists across the globe — got her thinking about how it could be made better.
“For a multibillion-dollar industry that prided itself on being forward thinking, the whole system was totally hopeless,” said Ms. Van Houtte, 29, who studied Mandarin at college in Britain before starting her career in fashion.
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At the time, start-ups like WhatsApp, Uber and Deliveroo were upending the landscape of their respective sectors, transforming the way people communicate, shop, socialize, travel and eat.
When, Ms. Van Houtte wondered, would it be fashion’s turn to develop a transformative platform to make the lives of those doing her job easier? A service that could even reach fashion-conscious women outside the industry.
In May 2015, with no answer forthcoming, she decided to build it for herself, funding the venture initially by putting her flat on Airbnb.
Tagwalk, which calls itself the world’s first fashion search engine, is the result. By using more than 2,800 key words, users can search by brand, season, city, trend, color, fabric or style through 128,000 pictures.
“Even if you are the best buyer or trend searcher in town, no one can have an immediate recall on that much content,” she said from her bright Paris headquarters in the Second Arrondissement, where she leads a team of 14.
“Now, if you remember that Prada used neon last season and want to see who else did for a mood board, you can do it fast and with just a few clicks of your mouse.”
Le Figaro and The Financial Times have called Tagwalk the Google of fashion. But when she started out, Ms. Van Houtte, who initially tagged every single image by hand (now it is mostly done via artificial intelligence algorithms, though still given a human once-over before going live), encountered considerable skepticism, particularly from potential investors.
“A lot of them were very dismissive,” she said. “They said it was too niche, that it only catered to bloggers and assistants and lower rungs of the fashion industry, that it couldn’t scale. Even my parents started having their doubts about where the business could go.”
Critically, one person did not. Carmen Busquets, the Venezuelan businesswoman and angel investor who found fame as a founding investor in Net-a-Porter, quickly understood Tagwalk’s potential. She put seed funding into the business when it was just two months old.
“Investing early on in disruptive ideas is always a big risk, but it’s one I’ve taken many times because you become a co-founder and partner as well as an investor,” said Ms. Busquets, who later introduced Ms. Van Houtte to a secondary major investor, Adrian Cheng of C Ventures.
“Alexandra’s business plan immediately made sense to me,” Ms. Busquets said.
The business does not have a subscription fee, nor does it have advertising. It generates cash from its roughly 25,000 users (who use the site roughly three times a week) in four ways. There is a consulting arm for brands on digital and social media growth, and a fast-growing shopping component that allows for purchase of featured looks via affiliated links.
More meaningful, however, is that smaller labels or those without runway shows can pay a monthly rate to be featured on the database alongside bigger houses, thus thrown into the sightlines of busy editors and stylists. Emerging labels pay around 150 euros (about $175), while more established brands pay 450 euros ($520).
“Within a week of being on Tagwalk, I was getting editorial requests from a different level of industry power player, those inside a bubble that had been so hard to crack before,” said Rosh Mahtani, the founder of Alighieri, a jewelry label sold on Net-a-Porter. “But the really valuable part of the partnership is data. Insight into what trends people are looking at on Tagwalk, or key words that are consistently popular, has helped me shape my next creative and commercial steps, from how many pieces to produce to what kinds of stones or materials to use.”
For Tagwalk, mining and selling data analytics is where the real money is. Though the user base is still relatively small, the influence of those who regularly visit the site is big, making access to their behavioral habits extremely valuable to those who want to better understand them.
Nearly all of the biggest brands in the industry are keen to know which shows got the most searches for the fall 2018 season. According to Tagwalk, the top three in New York were Calvin Klein, Phillip Lim and Bottega Veneta, while in London it was JW Anderson, Erdem and Christopher Kane. In Milan, Gucci ran ahead of the competition (followed by Dolce & Gabbana and Prada); in Paris, Dior came in ahead (barely) of Chanel, then Saint Laurent.
“We can immediately see, and tell a brand, which looks are the most searched for, by whom and in which countries, as well as how a brand’s collection has fared compared to other brands overall,” Ms. Van Houtte said.
“We think it’s a simple idea but with revolutionary potential,” she added with a grin.