What happens when 5th avenue fashionistas meet Silicon Alley hackers

By Erin Griffith , written on February 14, 2013

From The News Desk

It's Fashion Week in New York, which means nothing to most New Yorkers, particularly those of us in the tech scene, beyond hearing newscasters repeatedly declare that "It's Fashion Week."

With the "tents" tucked further uptown amid Lincoln Center, it's even less obtrusive in our lives... Except when we, the people of the Internet, are invited to attend. Four years ago, the fashion world was shocked to see 13-year-told Midwestern blogger Tavi Gevinson seated in the front row of a Dior show at Fashion Week. Now bloggers are as important as editors; their reach and tech-savvy influence is often larger, too.

Despite a select few still in denial --Chanel still refuses to do e-commerce, for example -- the fashion world is increasingly aware of the importance of the Web, just as companies like Gilt made the Web wake up to the power of fashion.

It is about time the two industries met, and it's only beginning to trickle down beyond the most surface-level tech innovations like consumer-facing virtual closet apps. Those making the fashion sausage -- the buyers, designers, planners, merchandizers, marketers -- want actual tools, and they want to be involved in the development of them to ensure their effectiveness.

Which explains why techies were invited in to participate in a hackathon related to Fashion Week. With zero hyperbole, the event was dubbed a world first.

My initial reaction was, "how novel." They engineered a real life version of Ashton Kutcher's embarrassing reality show, Beauty and the Geek. It'll just be a bunch of young, nerdy engineers writing code under the direction of prickly, demanding "idea people" from the fashion world. The promotional video painted a similar picture -- beautiful people talking about how great it was to tell a bunch of "geniuses" what tools their industry needed. I had an eyeroll all queued up.

But it wasn't that, I discovered, after chatting with a few of the finalists. In reality the event was a cool way to connect an industry badly in need to new enterprise solutions with young, opportunistic builders. The Council of Fashion Designers of America awarded the winner, Swatchit, a peer-to-peer platform designed to connect designers with emerging market artisans and overseas producers, with $10,000 in cash, mentorship and support, along with a handful of other perks.

Yes, it was heavy on the "idea people" and lighter on actual hackers. Yes, the hackathon's final 30 presentations included far more hypothetical vaporware than your typical "build something creative and fun" hackathon.

But that's because had a legit purpose -- in fact, aside from the culture clash, that's what made this hackathon slightly more interesting than your average coder slumber party. After more than 300 participants submitted fashion-related hacks, the three finalists were given a week to meet with mentors, judges and potential clients to present a polished four-minute pitch on a fashion week runway, to an audience less appreciative of startup t-shirts and flip-flops.

In short, it was nothing like your typical hackathon. I spied exactly zero behoodied computer science students sleeping in the audience. The handful of regulars I see at all of these hackathons seemed terribly out of place sitting in front of a runway and sipping champaign at the event's reception. But it didn't feel predatory, or even snobby, really. The innovations -- social media optimization, color-based marketing personalization, commerce on Tumblr, sound a lot like the legit businesses I get pitched on regularly. They didn't exist a week ago -- now they're hacking fashion.

And why not? Real, sustainable ecosystems draw on their strengths, and the Valley isn't going to do it. After all, New York's biggest trove of exits this far has been ad tech: The enterprise world's spin on automating one of its other key industries.

[Image Credit: Art Comments on Flickr]