When high fashion is mentioned, glamorous cities like Milan or Paris no doubt come to mind. But a husband and wife team dedicated to making fashion photos accessible are proving that a fashion startup can call anywhere home–—even Duluth, Minnesota.
Living everywhere from Germany to Denmark, Moscow to New York, the entrepreneurial couple behind FashionBrain chose the lakeshore of northern Minnesota to build out their fashion-related business — and have brought clients from around the world to visit.
First Stop: Combining Fashion and Tech
In 2007, Markus Müller, a German businessman who previously owned companies in both Germany and Denmark, met Lara Signorelli, an acclaimed fashion journalist, at a festival in France. Three years later, they were married and had started a company together: what is now known as FashionBrain.
Having worked for the Associated Press, Moscow Times, and Getty Images, Signorelli’s fashion and photography experience mixed with Müller’s business knowledge made for the perfect business team. After attempting a few tabloid-related apps and ideas, they landed on Runway Manhattan—a photo-tagging platform and what FashionBrain grew out of.
“We identified a problem in an industry we knew something about,” he says, coming from a background in the photo industry himself. From 2002 to 2007, Müller owned a photo agency called Colour Press in Denmark that sold celebrity images—from paparazzi to red carpet—to magazines in Europe. Following this, he co-founded another photo agency in Germany before co-founding Tryon Media—the entity behind Runway Manhattan and FashionBrain—with his wife in 2010.
Müller describes Runway Manhattan as a photo agency that tags fashion photos so they can be organized and found again. “Nobody was tagging images with necessary keywords,” he explains, adding that there are thousands upon thousands of photos that aren’t tagged and may never be found again.
“None of these photos get used much past the date they were taken, because no one can find them,” says Müller. “We wanted to change that and make the standard keyword images. This is the problem that we solve everywhere in the fashion industry.” The company started out by simply tagging other’s photos and eventually began producing its own photography in 2015—with Signorelli being one of the active photographers.
Runway Manhattan officially launched in 2011 and has worked with nearly every big name in fashion, from Vogue and Glamour to Elle and GQ. Their clients range from brands in Berlin and Singapore to local magazines like Artful Living. “If it’s a fashion publisher that’s known, we are either delivering content to them or did in the past,” says Müller.
While this company selling photos tagged with key words was successful, there is no longer a business model for selling images, he says. “Imagery has become a commodity,” says Müller — so much so, that photos have become essentially free. Around 2016, the value of keywords no longer lay in selling the images, but in the data that can be derived from it. Sensing the change in the industry, Runway Manhattan’s team began working on what became FashionBrain.
A Search Engine for the Fashion Industry
Best described as a unique artificial intelligence that accurately identifies fashion concepts in photos and uses natural vocabulary to describe those items, FashionBrain was developed out of the value migration in fashion imagery. “The value in keywords [now] relies on the data that we leave behind every day,” says Müller. “The faster the industry moves, the more valuable real data on-demand becomes.”
FashionBrain value proposition is that it creates the basis for unprecedented predictive data analysis of consumer behavior, states the executive summary. “We sell insight from data analysis based on client’s images as well as insights collected from images that are available online,” Müller further explains.
Signorelli and Müller set out to create a massive data set that FashionBrain would be based on in 2017. They hired interns and spent more than 90,000 hours adding keywords and tags to imagery. “A lot of work had to go into the data set that FashionBrain is based on,” says Müller, but it was worth it. “It’s the most important success factor in artificial intelligence.”
The actual artificial intelligence behind FashionBrain’s service is developed by a company called Brain Creators in Amsterdam, says Müller, adding that he and his wife are not the “brains behind the code.”
Currently pre-revenue, Müller and Signorelli are in the process of raising funds for FashionBrain.
Data is not only available via FashionBrain, but can be used to actively generate insights. An example of this was when the service predicted that goldenrod would be 2019’s color of the year. “That was the first case that we could say FashionBrain is able to, unbiased, say what colors we will see [in the fashion industry],” he says.
Multiple clients picked up stories and broadcasted Müller and Signorelli’s videos about the color of the year 2019—especially after it became more apparent that FashionBrain had accurately predicted the color, says Müller. On a blog powered by FashionBrain called Greysolon, the married business partners have predicted midnight blue as 2020’s color of the year, again using data derived from FashionBrain.
While Runway Manhattan was successful, all revenue earned from that venture is now going into building FashionBrain, says Müller. “Our future is in FashionBrain,” he explains.
For Minnesotans and fashion gurus alike, it may be surprising that Duluth is where this innovative fashion concept calls home. But for Signorelli and Müller, it was the perfect fit.
A native Duluthian, Signorelli had always wanted to retire up north, says Müller. But as soon as he visited the Minnesotan town for the first time in the fall of 2009, he “fell in love with the lake and made her change her plans,” he says, as they moved much sooner than anticipated.
Living in New York at the time—a different world completely, he says—Duluth reminded Müller of his time in Denmark and his native Germany. Aside from this immediate attraction to the historic lakeside town, he mentions that since FashionBrain is largely a virtual company, it’s possible to run it from anywhere.
“We are running a business based on virtual connections,” he says. “While there are solid personal relationships, it has become easier with the internet and the virtual connections to people that we can have.”
It’s actually become an attraction to have the business there, he adds—FashionBrain has attracted clients from Dubai to Milan to Duluth, and each and every one is fascinated by the beauty of Northern Minnesota.
“Five minutes after we’re done with work, we can go hiking,” says Müller. “Why would you want to work anywhere else?”