Why you should care

Because Alexandra Van Houtte’s pulling the catwalk into the 21st century.

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As with many great innovations, Alexandra Van Houtte created Tagwalk in response to a problem. In 2016, Van Houtte was four years into her career as a fashion stylist.

“My job was to look for clothes all day long,” says the 28-year-old of her responsibilities, which involved trawling through thousands of catwalk images to make mood boards for upcoming shoots. The system, she discovered, was painfully slow and comprehensively analog: None of the available runway sites had a search facility that could sort the clothes into any meaningful categories.

Van Houtte tots up the numbers: “Five hundred thirty-seven designers that show four times a year. That’s about 35,000 looks a year. Even if you’re smart, even if you have the best IQ in the world, there’s no way anyone can remember every single polka-dot look from a season.”

Things came to a head one day “when I had to search for every black dress ever made for three seasons for a shoot we were doing with a celebrity. And it was a nightmare. I was like: It’s ridiculous. I’m spending my nights poring over this website, screenshotting black dresses. And there was no way of doing it any quicker. It was during a time when Uber, Instagram and Deliveroo were becoming great. I couldn’t believe fashion was still so stupid. And then a friend said to me: ‘Well, if it’s that stupid, then why don’t you sort it out?’”

Our users are every single magazine, every single retailer, every single wholesaler, every single buyer in the world.

Alexandra Van Houtte

Her solution was to build a digital database on which every garment, shoe, handbag and belt is tagged and organized, so you can search for anything from a black dress to a pagoda sleeve in a nanosecond. (Today most of the tagging is done automatically, using artificial intelligence technology, and Van Houtte sends her own photographers to the shows, but at the beginning everything was done manually.) Tagwalk features all the brands that show on the Paris, New York, London and Milan fashion schedule, as well as off-schedule brands that pay to have their lookbooks featured, and a section on street style as well. Last month she launched a shoppable function that connects the user with an e-retailer in return for a commission.

What started as a work aid for fashion assistants has become one of the most sophisticated tools in the industry for trend forecasting, research and inspiration. “I now have 25,000 registered users that come three times a week, and spend around 15 minutes per session,” says Van Houtte, who studied at the London College of Fashion after doing an undergraduate degree in Mandarin. “The users are 91 percent business to business, and 72 percent of them are millennial.”

If the figures sound modest, Van Houtte is quick to put them in context. “It may seem small, but it’s stronger than having 750,000 influencers who are ‘Mrs. Lotty from Surrey,’” she argues. “Three-quarters of a brand’s editorial content today will have been generated from a mood board that someone created from our site.”

“What we have is crystallized intelligence,” she continues. “Our users are every single magazine, every single retailer, every single wholesaler, every single buyer in the world.” She also has fashion students, design directors, chief executives and marketeers searching the site.

Van Houtte is sitting on a data gold mine. Much of her revenue is generated in the analysis she can provide brands regarding their positioning, as well as the colors, lengths, patterns and styles that are being searched. Right now, “green” is the most-searched keyword in fashion, which might allude to the new mood for sustainability, but then so is “plastic” — which goes to prove how schizophrenic trends can be. Purple has peaked. And, in case you’re interested, dominatrix looks are going to be massive next season.

Despite this, as a young woman running an office of 12 in Paris, Van Houtte has encountered a reluctance to embrace her within some quarters of the industry. “Quite often they laugh at me, or don’t really take it that seriously,” she says.

Is that sexism, or is it because she’s so young? “I think it’s youth, mixed with innovation, mixed with the fact that I used to be an assistant stylist,” explains Van Houtte, who is calm, direct and disarmingly normal: When I meet her, she is squatting on a curb, checking emails. “So they’re a bit like: ‘Why is this girl coming to speak about data when no one in the world has it apart from her? Why would she have it?’”

It’s also old-fashioned sexism. “I don’t have a guy on the team,” she says. “I don’t walk into meetings with a man in a suit.” It’s still an obstacle for women trying to establish themselves, as Van Houtte points out: “Even Natalie Massenet had Mark Sebba [the former chief executive of Net-a-Porter].”

Massenet and Van Houtte are not so different. Both began their careers in the “fashion cupboard,” both worked in the media before branching into the business of fashion. And both secured early investment and support from Carmen Busquets, the digital entrepreneur and fashion fairy godmother of sorts who has helped broker some of the most interesting partnerships in recent fashion history.

“I invested in Alexandra when Tagwalk was only 2 months old,” says Busquets. “Investing early on is always a big risk. To give seed money as a co-founding investor at this stage in my life is not as easy as when I was younger, but I make exceptions when I fall in love with the founder or an idea that will disrupt business and our lives as consumers.”

In recent years Busquets has focused her investments on companies she thinks will lessen fashion’s environmental impact. “In regards to Tagwalk, I anticipated that designers will have better access to the needs and wants of their clientele, so they can adapt their collections, and that accurate market intelligence will result in less waste. The goal is to use the data from Tagwalk so that all designers have a better sense of what their customer wants, and enhance the opportunity to sell directly from the runway. This way, the sell-through is maximized. We also want to educate Asian and Latin consumers to buy this way at any price so we can scale and globalize the business, and to tap into Asia’s data-rich market.”

Busquets was also instrumental in introducing Van Houtte to Adrian Cheng and Clive Ng of C Ventures, the Asia-based “investment club” building a portfolio to target millennial and Generation Z consumers. “Tagwalk is a small disruption that will create a massive ripple effect across the fashion industry,” says Cheng, the fourth-generation heir to a hospitality and retail dynasty that includes the Rosewood Hotels & Resorts and a minority stake in Cavalli. “Already it’s changing how fashion research can be done, but the potential is immense.”

Since its launch, Tagwalk has been free for registered users, and Van Houtte is adamant she will never charge for subscriptions. Instead, her revenue must come from other sources. “I always knew the one thing I could monetize was that brands that didn’t have a show, that needed exposure, could pay to be referenced on Tagwalk. And that’s something which works really well,” she says.

Those brands might include accessories labels that do not typically do shows, or emerging names who cannot yet afford them. Currently, as long she considers a designer “ready to be among Chanel and Gucci and Saint Laurent,” they can pay to feature on the site. Fees range from 120 pounds for newer brands to 400 pounds a month for those that are more established. Other income comes through consultancy. Van Houtte explains: “The brand will ask: ‘OK, what’s going on with my brand? How am I positioned? What are people searching for? What’s not working? What are media looking at compared to creators?’ We only provide data on their brands,” she adds. “But we do compare brands within their group.” And the shoppable feature is “going really well.”

Van Houtte is ambitious for Tagwalk’s future, but she’s conscious that others could soon encroach on her space. She was the first to tag the catwalk, but she needs to move fast to capitalize on her innovation. “I need to launch properly in Asia,” she says of her immediate plans, and she’d like to cover more fashion schedules — such as Copenhagen and Seoul — on the site.

For all her confidence, however, she’s blessedly free of that thrusting pugnaciousness that afflicts many of her male entrepreneurial rivals. She may be called on by some of the most powerful names in the fashion sector to offer business guidance and analysis, but she hasn’t forgotten the grounding experience of having worked at the very bottom of the food chain — nor the fact that she still loves clothes.

“In two years, I’ve broken up with my boyfriend and gained [more than 50 pounds],” Van Houtte says lightly of the emotional costs of launching her own business. But she’s a grafter. Somewhere down the line, she’d love to sell Tagwalk, but she didn’t set it up just to make money — she simply wanted to make fashion less “stupid.” Thanks to her, we’re all getting a lot smarter.

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By Jo Ellison

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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