Selling me softly

A new type of fashion website is so subtle in its ‘sell’ that a purchase can seem almost incidental. Avril Groom reports.

October 10 2011
Avril Groom

As someone raised and educated before the dawn of the digital age, I am not convinced that when I want to be both relaxed and informed I should return to a computer screen. A sofa, a glass of decent wine and a multi-interest magazine still feels like a good way to spend a rare evening at home. But for many, a computer is the natural resource for information gathering and shopping, and there seems no reason to switch off during downtime. Online fashion sales were worth £4.3bn in Britain alone last year, according to Mintel, but internet entrepreneurs believe that is just the start. Give consumers the equivalent of a multimedia, interactive magazine that has links to selling sites, they argue, and you have all bases covered – a cultural experience for a global audience who can feed back their own views and then, almost as an afterthought, track down and buy that must-have dress, while payment for the link makes revenue for the site’s originators.

So the latest sites no longer send you directly to serried ranks of clothing baldly stating their prices. Instead, they might open with an art video by a graduate filmmaker, or a film about an architecturally innovative shop and its interior designer, or an interview with a fashion designer discussing his favourite holiday destinations or her suggestions on how viewers might wear favourite pieces from her current collection, asking them to respond with their own ideas. Then somewhere, often subtly, there is a link to the upmarket merchandise featured. More than just shopping, the user finds herself in a new world of fast-changing, interactive entertainment where the unifying force is fashion in the broadest sense.

Such sites have been springing up at an increasing rate over the past two or three years. Setting them up and getting them right is long and hard work. One of the newest is Imagine Fashion, which features experimental, arty fashion videos from both successful directors and students (in collaboration with the London College of Fashion) alongside written or video profiles of designers and events by respected commentators; the user even determines whether commercial links appear. Editor-in-chief Amber Gordon says, “I first made a business plan four years ago for a TV programme using fashion film, but then I became more interested in digital space and the possibilities of iPads and iPhones. It has taken three years to get the right people on board, from contributors to technicians, and to make the site as beautiful and efficient as we want it. We ran it in soft form for months before the launch to iron out inevitable blips.”

Yoox, the well-known vintage and special-collection site founded by Federico Marchetti in 2000 that now also powers 27 online monobrand stores including Armani, Marni and Dolce & Gabbana, launched TheCorner in 2008; first for menswear – which is easier, says Marchetti, because “there is not so much stuff out there” – then for womenswear a year later. “I didn’t want to do an online magazine because actual magazines do that better,” he says. “I wanted to use the attributes of the net – fast-moving, always changing, interactive – so that users would be intrigued and return to the site frequently.” Its name reflects both the niche designers involved, from Haider Ackermann to Golden Goose, and the way it features their personal takes on their collections. “We were not only going for hip, not-easily-found designers, we wanted to present them in new ways,” he says. “This is going to become a very crowded marketplace and you can only stand out by being the best. We decided that the normal YouTube video system was not good enough, so we developed our own, which took time but helped us to attract the best contributors.”

TheCorner’s early films were made by designer-turned-photographer Hedi Slimane (specifically with no selling angle) and by stellar photographer Nick Knight. With the Yoox Group’s €214m 2010 revenue behind it, TheCorner can afford to recruit the best; others, however, try for similar effects on smaller budgets. Indeed, Knight’s influence through his own Showstudio site, set up initially to bring footage from fashion shoots to a wider audience, has been seminal. More recently, Showstudio has also become a selling site with collectable props and limited-edition prints. As a genre, fashion film has blossomed and it is estimated that up to 300 examples are now being posted online each week. It was only a matter of time before the idea was allied to upmarket fashion commerce because, as Gordon points out, “Luxury brands were very slow to adopt online selling so the field was wide open for independents.”

Luxury houses initially dismissed the internet because they were afraid it would open them to plagiarism and they had huge investment in physical stores, believes James Wallman, editor of LSN Global, the analytical online commerce arm of The Future Laboratory. “Then they saw how much money was being made and needed to join. Recently, there has been a cultural shift, with events such as Burberry’s live streaming of its shows – from which you can also buy – becoming social occasions,” he says. “Now luxury brands are working with hip artists in the field to give themselves cultural cachet and introduce the customer to experiential selling.”

The new sites exemplify this buzz phrase. “Certain consumers are feeling suffocated by stuff and now only feel the need to buy when items have a story attached – and this is what the new, soft-sell sites, many of which are overseen by former magazine journalists, convey,” says Wallman. This is heightened when the consumer feels a direct connection with a designer or shopowner, facilitated by social media and making the new sites part of what American media analyst and professor Henry Jenkins has christened “participatory culture”. Wallman cites the IOU Project, which features the “story” of one-off garments made by small-scale manufacturers in Portugal or Italy from unique fabric handwoven by Indian craftsmen. “With social media, clients expect to interact directly with everyone from their online friends to designers,” he says, and fashion sites are increasingly feeding this desire.

New online is Motilo, another site long in the making – the idea was originated by oil-trade analyst Maysoune Ghobash and financier Sofia Barattieri di San Pietro two and a half years ago – which is all about shopping with friends. “We had been friends for 20 years and saw a gap for people who love fashion and value their friends’ opinions on their choices but don’t have time to shop together,” says Ghobash. Users can shop by look or occasion, pulling together components from affiliate e-commerce sites and superimposing them on a mannequin. They can then file the images, buy the items or seek the advice and suggestions of friends or well-known stylists. Such interaction can have wider benefits. Chris Morton, an investor in Yoox, has now set up Lyst, where users list and store their favourite pieces while designers explain the thinking behind their collections in beautifully presented blogs. “Users find out what makes designers tick, while the designers can see which pieces followers choose – and what percentage actually buy,” he says. “There are several levels of engagement for users. Building a site like this is complex but worthwhile – our sales are now in the low millions of dollars.”

Established sites that were pioneering when they launched are now revamping to embrace social media. Carmen Busquets has just updated the CoutureLab site she founded six years ago selling highly crafted, individual pieces. “I always believed that online shopping should be a cultural experience, but we were a little early,” she says. “We’ve always had high-quality zoom because you need to see handcraft close up; now we’re adding videos, about the place an artisan comes from or their lifestyle, and users can question or comment.” And the interesting Farfetch, which first went live in 2003, has also just relaunched. Described by founder José Neves as a “community”, it unifies the sales of 90-odd independent boutiques worldwide agreeing, at physical meetings, on prices where items have multiple stockists and bringing lesser-known, even local, designers to a wider audience, such as a group of young Austrian designers exhibiting in Vienna. The new version features shopfronts, with films that take you into the store and interviews with the owners, often about anything but fashion, to which users can respond.

Farfetch illustrates another aspect of the new sites – they cater for customers around the globe. “Many innovative boutiques don’t have the resources for global online sales, but we sort that for them,” says Neves. TheCorner is available in nine languages; “We are setting up a complete selling infrastructure in China,” says Marchetti, “as exporting there from Europe can mean two weeks in customs, which is too long for the clients. We have global content but local service.” Chic Outlet Shopping, which has nine upmarket designer outlet villages throughout Europe, has an extraordinarily far-flung clientele, from Brazil to South Korea, and a site in 12 languages. Because it cannot sell merchandise, which is fast-moving and often one-off, direct, it focuses on peripherals – interviews with contributors such as illustrators and stylists, features on art exhibitions at the villages, travel videos about tourist attractions nearby. Instead of luxury brands, its affiliates include hotels, concierge services and airlines, and the eventual aim is to offer interactive visitor packages online. “Our aim is to engage with customers and get repeat visits, both to the site and the villages,” says senior digital manager Andres Sosa. He agrees with Marchetti about the need for localism in a global market. “We have developed our own social-media channel in China, and an app in South America.”

Yet, despite the area’s huge potential, there are no financial certainties. Currently, online shopping in the UK only accounts for nine per cent of fashion spend, according to Verdict Research, and getting your voice heard is not easy. Ghobash says that last month, during the soft launch of Motilo, unique visits were over 31,600; Gordon says Imagine Fashion is “growing organically”, now at about 50,000 unique visits per month. After six months, Lyst has 250,000 unique visitors a month – above target – while The Corner’s usage has grown about 300 per cent, to 9.2m, in a year. Every site is acutely aware of the need to “go viral” – to build up a head of steam through loyal users and social-media word-of-mouth. The potential audience is a powerful spur, but oblique, unconventional selling methods need time to convince both mouse-happy surfers and unreconstructed magazine readers like me. However, for those with the wherewithal to hang in there, the future looks tablet-shaped.

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