Personal Shopper by Prime Wardrobe is Amazon’s new subscription styling service, exclusive for Prime members, created to “provide styling inspiration and personalized recommendations.” I don’t find Amazon inspiring, nor do I find it personal, so of course I want to put my fall look in its hands. Welcome to my Amazon algorithm makeover.
The algorithm is not a singular being that judges — Amazon says it uses “a combination of technology innovation and a personalized human touch to curate items for you based on the information provided in your Style Profile” — though I tend to anthropomorphize it. I want to be unknowable to Amazon, too cool for scroll. There’s joy in the algorithm’s fallibility, the security that machine learning doesn’t yet know me.
But I know people who enjoy the surprise of “I got it on Amazon.” As esoteric pieces become widely available via re-commerce, compliments on clothes from the Amazon miasma hold nihilistic cache.
Personal Shopper is Amazon’s version of Stitch Fix, designed to make shopping easier (in my opinion, dangerously thoughtless), but also to collect your data and generate recurring revenue outside of fickle trend fluctuations.
Personal Shopper costs $5 a month, and from a curated selection of pieces you can select eight to be shipped to you to try on at home free of charge. In the Amazon app, there is a style quiz to build your Style Profile — a selection of style categories, which you can identify as wearing Rarely, Sometimes or Often. They include every kind of signifier of humanity: Casual, Edgy, Classic, Romantic, Sporty, Glam, Minimal, Boho, Androgynous and Retro.
Next, you select patterns and colors that you dislike. Above little textured color swatches is a notice in all capital letters: “Avoid These Colors.” I give all patterns a thumbs down (a balloony red graphic pops up: a negative-expressing boxing glove), except plaid and tie-dye.
Next, the quiz presents a series of fashion concepts and asks me to select Not me, Maybe or Love it, like Ruffles (Not me) and Utilitarian (Love it). An optional section is Body Shape, which isn’t so much about size as proportions, where sections of the torso are Larger, Narrow and Straight. My nail lunula have more varied curves than these digital illustrations.
Finally, I rank body parts from Hide to Highlight (arms, chest, legs) and give my numerical sizes. Lastly, I play a little Amazon Tinder and give thumbs up or thumbs down to a sparkly plum Nicole Miller dress, Jones New York beige trousers and black Calvin Klein track pants.
A few days later I’m notified: “Your picks are ready! We’ve selected these styles just for you.” We?
When I see my first personalized selections, I wonder if I’m depressed. Most of the pieces look like the clothes of someone I’d nominate for “Queer Eye”: gray and covered up. The rest? I already own versions of them. Tasseled Kenneth Cole oxfords ($162.34), a Calvin Klein denim pearl-snap shirt ($69.30), a Levi’s lamb leather racer jacket ($251.67) and BB Dakota wide-leg crepe pants ($46.33). There seem to be infinite things that look like my things.
I go back into my style quiz. I had selected no colors except green and blue? Is this a mirror or a misunderstanding? I quickly take the red thumbs-down off Reds.
Oranges? Well, it really depends on the shade. I’d consider camel that leans into pumpkin territory. Yes, a lost camel in a pumpkin patch is a palette I like. But all I have is a swatch called Oranges the color of oranges. Select, I guess.
I like to dress Glam often, I decide. Retro, too. I’m Minimal only Sometimes. I don’t mind highlighting my Chest area. At this point in my styling, it’s impossible to discern between being creative versus being created.
In a Recode Decode interview this year, Emily Weiss, the chief executive of Glossier, said, “Amazon solved buying but killed shopping in the process.” If I’m mourning the loss of brick-and-mortar retail, it’s because retail was designed for me, which is a blind spot I have in this process.
Amazon’s tech and stylists are designed to recommend for me, too. In fact, a person very much like me could have given my personalized selections a corporatized glance. “Our fashion stylists come from varied backgrounds in the fashion, retail, editorial, styling and creative fields,” Amazon says.
For all kinds of people, subscription services offer convenience and relief. For many more, they’re absurdly futile. After my first box, I speak with Ingrid Burrington, a writer and artist teaching a course at Cooper Union called Ethics of Computer Science. We talk about the convenience of the algorithm and its boxes.
“How Amazon’s engines work in a detailed sense is impossible to know,” she said. “Some of it is based on style, but mostly it’s, ‘What is everyone who we think you are like doing?’ Which isn’t the same as who you are actually like or who you actually are.”
The ethical concern, she adds, is scale. It will not hurt me to order a subscription box from Amazon. But what happens when Amazon has the power to make decisions for people across all of the multitude of difference? Who is like who, according to the algorithm?
My picks are ready again. There’s an oversize Cupcakes and Cashmere Boyfriend Blazer ($89), a J. Crew sweater that says “Le Weekend” ($55) and a Roxy Women’s Suburb Vibes Tie Front Button Up Top ($47.50). None are orange. I select eight items, for a total of $543.84 that I don’t have to pay for unless I keep them.
Before I send off my picks, I call my friend Leah Finnegan and tell her I handed over data about the parts of my body I like to highlight. She says she doesn’t mind the habit harvest.
“I don’t think anyone can inhabit my brain and capture the inanity of what that is,” she said.
I still feel dismal. I imagine a dialogue from the forthcoming fourth “Matrix” movie. Neo: “I have these (consumer behavior patterns) from my life. None of them happened.” Trinity: “(Amazon) cannot tell you who you are.”