Stylish brands move fashion online

The internet has become the latest retail showcase for fashion items, with several high-profile publishers and retailers developing their own branded websites. James Livesley reports.

The Devil Wears Prada and Ugly Betty have lately poked fun at the world of high fashion. But news reports of the launch of numerous fashion websites over the past few weeks show how important fashion is in the media landscape.

Next month Conde Nast debuts its first stand-alone web product, Stylefinder.com, a site where users can browse more than 5,000 items and buy them through links to retailers' e-commerce sites.

It will face competition from MyStyleWindow.com, a fashion-focused social network site with details of where to buy the latest celebrity looks. Sky Media's online sales team has just won the rights to represent ASOS.com, another site that offers advice on how to achieve celebrity looks, while Hachette Filipacchi's Elle is also launching a site with a shopping service.

But how much can the demanding needs of high-end fashion advertisers be met through websites? Can online present clothes in all their glossy splendour in the way that magazines do? And will e-commerce be limited to clothing basics, rather than those that need to be tried on to see if they fit and suit?

Hearst Digital managing director Nancy Cruickshank says that while online will never be able to recreate the visual pleasure and brand presence of a double-page spread Mario Testino photo shoot, a fashion web- site is performing a different role.

Entertainment role

Cruickshank, who previously ran women's site Handbag.com, insists the firm's research has shown that women are using the internet not just as a functional tool, for things such as paying bills, but are also using it for entertainment. "There will always be a difference," Cruickshank says of the magazine/website dynamic, "but it is complementary rather than competitive".

It is a sentiment echoed by those behind Stylefinder.com. Conde Nast Interactive commercial director Serena Privett says: "We are not trying to recreate our magazines online". Rather, the site is designed as a "one-stop shop" and a "showcase" for thousands of products.

A report by consumer research company Mintel shows that sales of fashion clothing and footwear have increased by 461% over the past five years, moving through the £1bn mark in market size.

However, both Conde Nast's Privett and Hearst's Cruickshank are adamant their sites are there to form fashion opinions and make revenue from the ads - the publishers are not becoming retailers.

For high-street brands, the move to online seems common sense. Can the same be said for the more expensive high-end brands?

Cruickshank insists the top Italian and French designers are shifting budgets. Anna Townsend, digital director of M2M, the agency that booked the first pre-roll on Vogue TV for Estee Lauder, cites her client Pringle as an example of a luxury brand moving forward. Its marketing director and Vogue.com editor Dolly Jones did a video piece discussing a collection. Yet, Townsend does admit some high-end brands have been "understandably cautious".

Jerome O'Regan, buying director at luxury brand media agency BLM Red, believes the same care must go into online media brand selection as goes into magazines when it comes to high-end fashion.

Retail angle

"We are quite selective. You have to be careful using online where there is a retail angle. You wouldn't want your ad appearing on a site where your client is not stocked," he adds.

While up-and-coming fashion sites, e-commerce or not, may offer users a useful portal to fashion ideas and to fashion buys, brands such as Vogue will show what is upcoming in the next fashion season. Other sites are just catching onto the coat tails and showing what it is you can buy now, O'Regan argues.

Handbag.com's Cruickshank cites the high-end e-commerce website Net-a-porter as a place where expensive fashion brands are achieving sales. "Customers frequently spend £5,000 to £10,000 with the site," she says.

For high-street fashion brands, the burgeoning number of websites must be a boost. But, given the right planning, it seems high-end fashion could be about to follow suit

FASHION WEBSITES

Vogue.com

Conde Nast Interactive was one of the first to take fashion online. Last year saw the launch of Vogue TV, with behind-the-scenes films and interviews

GQ.com

Conde Nast's men's monthly also recently launched an internet TV service, featuring highlights from menswear fashion shows in Milan and Paris

Elleuk.com

Hachette Filipacchi is to launch an Elle-branded fashion website with more than 10,000 fashion items on its first dedicated website, with opportunities for home shopping. UK-based web browse and search company Pixsta is to provide a shopping service on the site

MyStyleWindow.com

A new offering from internet entrepreneur Cas Ojo, with some big-name brands such as Next and Marks & Spencer on board as advertisers. It will have a fashion-focused social network and details of where to buy celebrity fashions

ASOS.com

Online retailer that shows users how to copy celebrity fashions

Net-a-porter

A high fashion online boutique, founded in 2000, it sells brands such as Chloe and Jimmy Choo, and uses former journalists from titles such as Vogue, Tatler and Elle.

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