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A Google Engineer Learns the Fashion Code


Amit Sood discussed Google’s new fashion archive, We Wear Culture, at his Manhattan office.CreditAlex Welsh for The New York Times

Amit Sood, an engineer at Google, sat in his Manhattan office on a recent afternoon, explaining the tech company’s latest foray into fashion, We Wear Culture. It is an online archive that will appeal to everyone, he said, including his Indian mother, who can learn about the saris she wears, and fans of what he called “high couture.”

“By the way, I learned that word and how to pronounce it recently,” Mr. Sood, the director of the Google Cultural Institute, said. “That’s a big achievement.”

His colleague on the project, Kate Lauterbach, broke in, gently correcting him, “Haute couture.”

“Haute couture, O.K., whatever,” Mr. Sood said. “If you were a big fan of that, you could actually see the most iconic pieces in museum displays.”

We Wear Culture is an expansion of the Google Arts & Culture project, an online platform that Mr. Sood developed in 2011 with high-resolution images of artwork from around the world. The new fashion archive comprises more than 30,000 apparel pieces uploaded from 180 cultural institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, including Coco Chanel’s little black dress and the red heels often worn by Marilyn Monroe.

Until recently, the man who assembled this virtual paradise for style lovers held a dim view of the fashion world. “I would not say I was interested in fashion as a subject,” Mr. Sood said. “I viewed fashion as a slightly elitist area.”

Turning to Ms. Lauterbach, 32, he added: “I didn’t know who invented the black dress until Kate told me. I definitely had to educate myself.”

In his efforts to bring himself up to speed, Mr. Sood, who is in his late 30s, turned to some of the industry’s heavyweights as his guides. He recalled a two-hour meeting with Paul Smith that occurred in a curiosity room the designer maintains in his London office.

“Paul said, ‘You know, we’re in a very special room,’” Mr. Sood recalled. “I said: ‘Really? It just looks like we’re in a room with a lot of junk.’ He said: ‘Well, that’s the thing. It’s not organized.’ I said: ‘Oh, I get it. It’s unstructured data.’”

Natalie Massenet, the founder of Net-a-Porter, told Mr. Sood that he could not simply upload beautiful photos of clothes as he had planned; he had to visit garment workshops and speak to curators to get the stories behind their creation.

And, as if making a pilgrimage to the Mount Olympus of fashion, Mr. Sood met with Anna Wintour, who steered him toward her friend Andrew Bolton, the head curator of the Met’s Costume Institute.

Mr. Sood has come a long way. “For example, I understand what a dandy actually means,” he said. “It originates from this British guy called Theo Blu-mel or something.” (He meant Beau Brummell.)

For all his charming bumbling on the subject, Mr. Sood may be more of a dedicated follower of fashion than he lets on. He has visited Tokyo 14 times by his count and can name-check Japanese designers like Chitose Abe and Junya Watanabe.

At a splashy party Google recently held at the Met to unveil the We Wear Culture archive, Mr. Sood wore a linen blazer by Junya Watanabe and shoes by the British heritage brand Edward Green. He also managed not break into hives when he conversed with Ms. Wintour.

Using the archive he helped create, Mr. Sood has been able to immerse himself in fashion’s details. Most recently, he studied lace.

“And then I went out and purchased my first lace tie, because I learned lace is not actually only for women,” he said. “I did a query search.”