In October 2016, Yash Kotak, Rohit Chauhan and other members of online fashion retailer Myntra’s ambitious Rapid technology project hit a roadblock. The aim of the project was to deliver fast fashion products—fast fashion is a term used by retailers to describe the speeding up of production processes to get new trends to the market as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Essentially, the plan would future-proof its business—understand demand, respond quickly to new fashion trends, cut costs, and reduce discounting in a fast and cost-effective manner. To realize these goals, Myntra started experimenting with artificial intelligence (AI) systems that recognized shapes, patterns and colours to produce garments that met popular demand at a speed that would be impossible for traditional apparel makers to match.
Initially, Myntra’s plan was to identify underserved spaces, quickly make small batches of products according to the latest trends in those spaces and sell fast.
The Rapid tech platform analysed sales data from Myntra and Flipkart websites (Myntra merged with Flipkart in 2014), as well as the latest fashion trends collected by trawling Instagram, Pinterest, fashion magazines and similar sources. Rapid’s technology would come up with a list of attributes: types of collars, sleeves, cuts, colours and other features currently popular with customers. Here was fashion via engineering.
The project was doing reasonably well. Based on the platform’s analysis, Myntra’s fashion designers had created a brand called Moda Rapido (Spanish for fast fashion). But this method was slow by the standards of the tech world. The machine would throw up suggestions in text form after crunching massive amounts of data, a process that took weeks. Moda Rapido, which was first introduced by Myntra in September 2015, was bringing in sales of Rs2-3 crore every month, but wasn’t scaling fast, not by the standards of tech.
Only a few months before this, Myntra’s chief executive officer (CEO) Ananth Narayanan was pushing the Rapid team to experiment as wildly as they wanted. Rapid was one of the moonshot bets at Myntra and it didn’t cost the company very much either. At the time, it only had 20 full-time staff, informally led by Kotak, a 25-year-old product expert and former entrepreneur, and 47-year-old Chauhan, another product expert and former entrepreneur.
Start to finish
In October last year, the Rapid team started working on an idea that had been explored before without success: what if you automate the fashion design process from start to end? If machines could recommend clothing attributes that customers currently favoured, shouldn’t they be able to combine those attributes into popular final designs? The Rapid team started with T-shirts, because of their relative simplicity.
But the engineers knew the same approach would not work. Instead of asking their computers to suggest T-shirt attributes in text, the Rapid team wrote algorithms that would get their machines to produce images of T-shirts based on the discovered favourable attributes.