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These startups are using your data to help you dress better

Stitch Fix Inc. Chief Executive Officer Katrina Lake InterviewStitch Fix Inc. Chief Executive Officer Katrina Lake Interview
Katrina Lake, founder and chief executive officer of Stitch Fix Inc.Photograph by David Paul Morris — Bloomberg via Getty Images

At a loss for what to wear? That’s good news for the increasing number of startups that are trying to transform the way people shop and dress. Companies like Stitch Fix, Keaton Row, Tog + Porter, Trunk Club, and Bombfell among others, bill themselves as “personal stylists;” what they all do is use technology to gather the kind of information that allows them to make fashion recommendations akin to friendly suggestions from your (increasingly rare) neighborhood boutique owner. (Time Inc., which owns Fortune, is an investor in Keaton Row.)

And they’re not just targeting women shoppers; Trunk Club and Bombfell style men, exclusively.

While these startups’ business models vary, the online styling companies employ similar strategies. Typically they ask consumers to answer questions on size, body shape, lifestyle, and fashion preferences; often the company also requests links to customers’ personal Pinterest boards. Then, the company turns over the data to its stylists, who use it to choose a handful of items that shoppers are most likely to want. A box arrives at the customer’s doorstep, and the customer then has the option of keeping or sending all or some items back.

Data gathering is key, of course, but some companies are betting that the human touch will remain irreplaceable. Tog + Porter, for instance, arranges one on one Skype chats between customers and their personal stylists. And at Stitch Fix, CEO Katrina Lake says there’s no substitute for the judgment of a good stylist. “When a stylist curates a fix, she has at her fingertips all the information you’ve provided,” says Lake. “But she also has an algorithm so that she can see the products recommended for you.”

Every item of clothing that Stitch Fix carries is coded according to style, fit, color and size. Customers also give feedback on the items they keep as well as the ones they send back, allowing stylists to create even more detailed individual profiles. So the stylists may go with what the algorithm suggests, or ignore it, says Lake. The data is also aggregated so that stylists can make recommendations based on geographic location, and other factors such as the ages and professions of its customers.

Lake believes it’s the combination of human touch and technology-driven data that differentiates Stitch Fix in the marketplace. While similar companies frequently allow customers to choose what goes into their boxes, Lake says “we believe in the strength of our recommendations. Our value proposition is that you’re able to find things that you never realized you were going to love.”