News & Views

Opinion / Curation For Commerce

by Katrina Dodd
From profession to ubiquitous obsession: we are all curators now. Katrina Dodd considers the art and commerce of choice

Years ago I read a feature on the late Diana Vreeland, defining editor of Harpers Bazaar and Vogue, that related her scathing appraisal of a rival magazine (could it have been Marie Claire?). The exact quote eludes me, but the gist of it was ‘That’s not fashion, that’s available merchandise’. Ouch.

Ever the trailblazer, Vreeland’s evident determination to sort the wheat from the chaff was about fifty years ahead of its time. It came back to me when I went to see Canadian author David Balzer talking about his book, Curationism: How Curating Took over the Art World and Everything Else.

From cataloguing and caretaking collections of objects to conferring and ‘performing the value’ of art, curation has evolved, adopted en masse through the relentless cycle of choice and display that fuels most of our personal social media behaviour: curation has become as pervasive as it is personal.

No matter how much the art world resents it, the term has been appropriated by the world at large because it’s our best defence against the barrage of stuff – information, pictures, opinions, entertainment, gossip, and ‘available merchandise’ – that assails us from all sides. Balzer goes so far as to describe the curator as ‘the most emblematic worker of the cognitive age’.

Brands, of course, are a part of this too, not only recognizing the desperate need for effective filters, but also how effective the selective this-but-not-that process of elimination is when it comes to building affinity. On one level that brings us the partnership between Nestle KitKat and Google: the chocolate bars are rebranded YouTube Breaks, and searching that term on the video platform serves up the top four trending videos. On another level entirely, it brings us The Net Set.

For those of you who missed the launch of Net-a-Porter’s social networking app, its creation is very much a sign of the digital times. While Net is famous for its expertise in editorializing its vast product range, the increasing role of mobile (which now accounts for 40% of the retailer’s sales) has put the focus on improving smaller-screen discovery, and with it the central role of curation.

Social platforms are the success story of mobile, so building a commercial operation that plays to the same needs and behaviours feels like a smart move – and indeed takes a leaf from existing platforms like Sephora’s Beauty Boards platform, ASOS #AsSeenOnMe and vanguard Chinese brand Vancl’s Vancl Stars programme. What all these players have picked up on is the value of the curation their customers can provide.

Traditionally, brands have traded on their own carefully-accrued expertise, but one of the most striking trends in recent years is people’s increasing tendency to trust information that comes from their peers. Brands can now create value by not just imparting their expertise, but connecting people to each other so they can learn from each other. When it comes to matters of style that makes even more sense. Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of the London Up-Down (the head-to-toe sartorial evaluation that greets every new acquaintance in the glamorous metropolis) knows the best barometer of fashion is the people around us.

Valorising the role of the customer is typically something that sits rather uneasily with the world of luxury, but if any high-end retailer was going to embrace this wholeheartedly, it was going to be Net-a-Porter. Already well-regarded for its commitment to using data effectively, the launch of The Net Set raises the stakes on that front by an order of magnitude.

Having leveraged all their starry fashion connections to bring the wardrobe and wishlists of industry players from Natalie Massenet herself to Stella McCartney to Giovanna Battaglia into the mix with ordinary Net Setters, you can bet they will paying close attention to everything that – sorry – unfolds on the site.

Connecting those dots and understanding the dynamics of how exactly curation drives commerce is likely to be as sound a strategy for Net as Jonah Peretti’s determination to unravel the mechanics of sharing has been for Buzzfeed.