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Boutiques.com: Google's Fashion Foray Is Fun (and Full of Filters), But Falls Flat

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Gosh, fashion quizzes are incredibly awkward. Those endlessly clickable little surveys of your likes and dislikes are often so broadly wrong in their attempts to translate something so nuanced, particular and personalized into a "type." We had trouble with this when we sampled Like.com, because the fashion world -- suddenly rocked by DIY bloggers' and street style fans' indie "curation" -- is struggling to tap into these HTML-savvy stylists. A cult of fashion followers have stopped turning to magazines like Elle and Vogue for advice, and are now communicating with one another on sites like Lookbook.nu, Polyvore and StyleLikeU. So, to reinvent the entire shopping experience, fashion retailers have decided to get more personal, tapping into that independent spirit. And nothing says 'personal' like a load of quizzes.

The style blogosphere has been bubbling with rumors of Google entering the game, considering its acquisition of the aforementioned Like.com and a mysterious Google event slated for tomorrow in New York. So, this morning, the world woke up to Boutiques.com, a stab at personalizing the shopping experience while adding an element of social networking. Using Google's search expertise with Like.com's visual matching technology, Boutiques.com hopes to narrow down the shopping experience -- not just by style or "genre," but by using silhouettes, prints, style and even price. Kathy Horyn, New York Times fashion critic and a major pundit in the fashion world, writes, "That may be Boutiques.com's ultimate game-changer -- how precisely it analyzes your preferences to give you what you requested... Search engines tend to give you stuff you don't really want. A request for fern-colored shoes might yield fern shoes, plus fern-print blouses."

No one wants fern-print blouses.

Signing up for the site is a cinch, and it immediately runs through your likes and dislikes, trying to pin-point your actual style. Not only does it help you find what you adore, but it also lists options of things you loathe. (Your author swears that the bubble dress will be one of those items that only exists in the 2000s -- like the ski-suit of the '80s.) Once you've pinpointed your "type," a boutique is created -- complete with a username, examples of stuff you might enjoy, and suggested boutiques that, much like Twitter, you can "follow." Google signed up with some heavy-hitting fashion folk, like bloggers Bryan Boy and Susie Bubble, and designers like Free People and Christian Siriano. Of course, there are celebrities, too, like the Olsens and Carey Mulligan (who has surprisingly decent picks). Who knows how often they get updated, but we wouldn't have thought that Krysten Ritter might suggest a great skirt for us.
You can personalize your boutique with five pictures (including the runway, celebrity and street fashion "suggested" images, or your own uploaded portraits), and it is simple to jump between styles. (We opted for "edgy" with a hint of "romantic.") The user interface was remarkably easy to navigate (as editing is done in one place, without jumping to another screen), and made updating our profiles easy. Underneath our personalized boutique, Google presents literally hundreds of options. For the inexperienced shopper, a heart palpitation might occur. For those accustomed to forcing Google to stay specific, they'll find the left-hand bar loaded with filters to narrow down the choices. Searching for black skinny jeans has never been easier; just click "pants" and choose "skinny" from the silhouette option.

But, back to our quizzes: The trick to fashion, and what Like.com's Munjal Shah is grasping to comprehend (but not quite getting), is that similarities are rarely in "shape" or "color," but aesthetics. A riding boot may have a similar form as a combat boot (especially according to the Like/Google engine), but what a shopper is usually looking for is that certain, oh, je ne sais quoi -- cognac leather, antiqued buckles, wedge heels. Strangely, the site that best understands that concept is Zappos, which lets users refine, refine and refine, choosing ornamentation and heel height. If color, size, price and a vague approximation of "shape" was what a shopper was looking for, those lifestyle bloggers wouldn't be so popular.

Similarly, quizzes always lack the context fashion so desperately requires. "Do I like this item?" and "Would I wear this item?" are two very different questions, and Boutiques.com doesn't differentiate between them. Sure, the lace bodysuit on the runway is gorgeous, but we might not prefer it over a fitted jacket -- you know, for the day-to-day. So, at the top of our page, where it lists our preferences, we feel slightly boxed in: sure, pink may not be our thing, but sometimes a great coral is... great. Maybe paisley isn't to-die-for, but what if it was done in a really edgy, experimental way?

Where Boutiques.com succeeds, however, is the online social sphere. Perhaps it isn't a "style guessing" platform, but a "style exploring" one, more similar to Polyvore. One does not enter a store to look for "yellow pumps." Instead, one knows that she is in need of an item more generally, and heads to the places one likes to browse. So, for those who have a sartorial knack, "Saving" favorite items to feature in their own boutique is very fun. After we've played with the stuff we love, we can go back and almost imagine total outfits.

tweetThere is one major flaw, however; when presented with an item, your choices are "Save," "Share" (via Twitter or e-mail), "Love" or "Hate." For the time being, loving or hating anything doesn't seem to have any effect on your store. You either have to publicly "Save" an item, or it disappears. Some boots that we enjoyed but that didn't fit into our store's aesthetic are now gone. Also, it is difficult to see what items non-celebrities have saved for later (unless we are missing something). The things "inspired by" our style are nowhere near as desirable as the things we've chosen as our style.

If anyone could nail the endless search for the perfect pair of pumps, it might be Google. This iteration of Like.com fortunately brings in respected retailers, like ShopBop and Ssense, but it hasn't quite given over control to the user. So far, nothing beats the editorial-inspired collages of Polyvore, and Boutiques.com won't be a real contender until it can entice users (like celebrities, bloggers and even brands) to show their picks, and save their faves. The site is still in beta, so we'll be patient... as long as the retail world stops thinking quizzes belong at the heart of fashion.

Tags: boutiques, boutiques.com, fashion, google, SocialNetworking, web