Outfit Envy? There’s an App for That

Dec 26, 2013 at 11:45 AM ET

In Nepal, taking a photo of someone on the street means you’re stealing a part of their soul. In Los Angeles, you’re more likely to be stealing their style. Which is worse? I guess it depends on what side of the lens you’re on. In the first instance, the photographer gets little more than a holiday snap of a bemused local. In the second, the photographer could be mimicking your entire outfit within hours.

And that’s no exaggeration. Style Eyes, the latest in a line of fashion-Shazam apps has just launched in the U.K. and is about to do the same in the U.S. The gist: You see an outfit you like, you snap a picture of it on your phone and the app tells you where to find the individual elements—or something similar. It even allows you to buy them online.

But apps like this face two challenges—functionality and the willingness of live subjects. Despite partnering with hundreds of retailers to provide fashion suggestions, the accuracy of the camera and fashion-matching technology often falls at the first hurdle. The developers admit the current version of Style Eyes is not as accurate as it should be, but insist an upcoming update will “send accuracy levels rocketing.” Which is good, because while the app won’t jam during a guerrilla ambush on the street, it’s not much use if it can’t hit the target with its recommendations.

To test this theory, I sent a small platoon of female friends in Los Angeles to take pictures of people on their cell phones with the app. Sometimes they explained its purpose beforehand, sometimes afterward, sometimes not at all. Most of the feedback I received from my clothing commandos is that while the app is great at capturing on-the-go images, the matches it returns from online retailers often miss the mark.

Another problem: permission.

“People do not like having their photos taken either candidly or with the heads up,” says Tritia Nakamura, one of my recon agents. “Unless it is at an event where photo taking is the norm. I got a lot of skeptical looks and some outright noes.  Even at work, I was surprised because some of these girls are big into selfies or have full on paparazzi sessions when going out. There was a lot of, ‘Um…what is this for again?’ They all thought the app was a cool concept, but were not jumping to be the test subjects.”

Some of those who did volunteer insisted their heads be cropped out. My takeaway: The approach to the subject may be key. New York stylist and image consultant Leslie Gilbert-Morales says that while “stealing” sneaky snaps on the streets is common practice within the fashion industry, it may not yield the best results for regular style bloggers or for app users. “The most respectful approach would be an introduction and request for permission,” she says.

Yet privacy fears could easily be allayed by identity-obscuring technology, according to Style Eyes founder Bobby Pringle.

“We use a technology called Faceburn, which blurs faces automatically,” he says. “The system only recognises the item of clothing; everything else is discarded. Once it’s analyzed, then everything is dropped. Nothing is actually stored.”

So the app shoots well enough. Its recommendations, however, are another story. Which is why it’s unlikely to kill off fashion bloggers, who make their living curating and recommending styles to others.

“I think they make great tools for inspiration and a quick fix for outfit ideas,” says Gilbert-Morales. “But as a fashion consultant, the ‘meat’ of my service is the personalization assessment I help clients determine and learn.”

Mimicry may be the most sincere form of flattery, but in fashion terms at least, there’s no good app for that. For now, at least.