SAN FRANCISCO — It seems to escalate every catwalk season. First one brand does it. Then another. Then another ups the ante. It happens in New York, London, Milan and Paris.
Not the celebrity dressing, mind you. (That’s so old trend.) The tech frenzy.
In February, Tommy Hilfiger created an Instapit at his fall 2016 show, providing the best locations for Instagrammers to snap and distribute photos from his collection. The same season, Neiman Marcus polled followers on Twitter asking which shows it should livestream on video. Then Snapchat created daily Live Stories — three- to five-minute montages of the best photos and videos — over the four main days of New York Fashion Week.
And now even a nonsocial network, Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google and the elephant in the digital room, is looking to get in the game. Starting Thursday and running for the duration of fashion weeks, Google is experimenting with search carousels created and curated by catwalk brands, sitting front and center atop Google’s usual list of links generated by a computer algorithm.
The result will allow the brands themselves to manage what consumers see first when, say, they plug the term “Marc Jacobs” or “Burberry” into their search engines. It will give the companies a lot more control over people’s reactions to their products — and their productions.
Early this week, a search for “Marc Jacobs” in San Francisco generated links that included the brand’s official website and the designer’s Wikipedia page. It also fetched Mr. Jacobs’s latest Twitter posts and the location of a nearby doctor with the same name. During the coming fashion weeks, however, the same search is expected to generate photos from Mr. Jacobs’s show, messages from the designer about inspirations for his collection and behind-the-scenes videos of models and makeup artists preparing for the show. For brands on a see-now-buy-now show schedule, Google will allow people to shop for the latest looks directly from the search page.
Little wonder Google, which teamed with the former Maxim editor and street style pioneer Kate Lanphear for the initiative, said it had signed more than 50 brands so far to the new search, including Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Christopher Kane, Prada, Burberry and Hermès.
This experimental approach is meant to allow users to hear directly from participants during major events, a company spokesman said. Google did this in January for a Republican presidential primary debate on Fox News. A search for “Fox News debate” yielded candidates’ own videos, answers to questions they weren’t asked and rebuttals.
Since a Google search is often the first stop for people casually interested in a subject, this allows brands to “go front and center with the most aspirational vision of their products,” said Maureen Mullen, the chief strategy officer for L2, a research and advisory firm for consumer brands.
It’s clear then what designers gain from these searches. But what’s in it for consumers? And what about Google?
Having designers play a role in what people see in searches “brings fashion week to life in a new way,” said Cameron McKnight, a product manager at Google. In theory, it allows creators to communicate their own visions more directly, rather than relying on third-party interpretation, be it from critics or retailers.
But this approach calls into question the integrity of Google search results. What happens when what brands want on a search page conflicts with providing the best search results? Google said that brand results would only appear during fashion weeks, and would not affect the links summoned by the algorithmic search. “It will supplement the existing search results,” said Rami Banna, a Google product manager.
As for Google, special events like fashion weeks build a loyal and engaged audience, a must for advertisers. (Brands do not pay to participate in the initiative.) “For any of these platforms, it’s important to command the attention of fashion and luxury brands, because they are the ultimate arbiters of taste,” said Ms. Mullen of L2.
Indeed, Google’s experiment will make the company competitive in wooing the fashion industry, pitting it against such platforms as Instagram, which has been particularly effective in casting itself as fashion’s friend.
Kevin Systrom, Instagram’s co-founder and chief executive, is a regular on the fashion show circuit, attending Balmain’s show in Paris in October 2015 and Prada’s February 2016 show in Milan. His October 2015 wedding to Nicole Schuetz was even featured in Vogue. Last year, the company hired Eva Chen, the former editor of the style magazine Lucky, as the head of fashion partnerships. (Ms. Lanphear is Google’s answer to Ms. Chen.)
Ms. Chen and her team work with models, designers and stylists, providing tips on the best ways to use Instagram. For example, she advises designers that a finished runway look shouldn’t be just one Instagram post; it could be five posts: the inspiration board, the different materials, the models getting ready, a slow-motion video of the models wearing the clothes, and the finished look.
As a result, L2 found that Instagram accounted for 97 percent of social media engagement (measured by likes and comments) during February’s fashion weeks.
The question now is, when researchers measure September’s social media engagement, will Google have changed all that?
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