Wiring the World of Fasion

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Wiring the World of Fasion

Technology and fashion are originally uneasy bedfellows, but the style industry is ramping up its Internet and social media strategies in a race to capture consumer interest.

Clothing is a necessity for most humans (except for nudist communities and certain tribes in the Amazon, perhaps.) But what we call “fashion” is really the process of grafting fantasy, desire and aspirations of beauty, class and belonging on top of basic wardrobe staples.

While the textile, design and apparel production sectors play an integral part of the style industry, fashion itself is essentially defined primarily by its marketing. Through marketing and the manufacturing of images, clothing becomes the conduit through which designers create fantasies and identities, which the biggest brands eventually build up to “lifestyles.” Through a constant reinvention of the emotional meaning of clothing, marketing gives new life to the basic staples of a wardrobe, keeping revenue fueled with constantly refreshing retail cycles.

Marketing, Audiences and Luxury

With marketing and branding being integral to fashion, companies must angle themselves towards the audience that best fits their aspirations and projects, which often results in consumer segmentation. Fashion exists at all levels of entry: there is the mass-market democracy of clothing at retailers like mall shops and big-box stores, like Target or Wal-Mart. And then there is luxury, brands that cultivate a moneyed image and aim for the social elite.

Luxury brands traditionally drive the fashion industry — where big designers go, so do the less prestigious ones — which is why consumers see high hemlines on the runway, which then funnel down to what gets into mass market retailers.

Traditionally, luxury designers have avoided the Internet and much social and mobile media technology, saying the medium failed to translate the sensual appeal of textures, fabrics and colors. How could the electronic medium capture the tactile appeal of clothing? Major companies like Gucci and Balenciaga were slow to get even basic websites up on the Web, for example. But there is also an element of snobbery on some of the industry’s part — wouldn’t opening up their brand via social media and the Internet cheapen their carefully cultivated images?

As a result, in terms of major multimillion industries, fashion was one of the slowest industries to fully embrace the digital age. But as consumers rushed to get their news and buy products online and smaller players mobilized their Web and social presences and consolidated their influence, industry leaders changed their tune and have followed consumers to digital-based arenas to meet audiences where they are going, in moves to help lead them back into the online shop and brick-and-mortar boutique.

Making Up for Lost Time

Now, storied fashion houses are experimenting with digital and social media with a vengeance, in an effort to expand their brands’ cachet and broaden their appeal without sacrificing allure.

Some labels are using Internet and other digital arenas to boost their reputations. Italian luxury powerhouse Valentino, for example, created a 3-D online museum in 2011 devoted to his classic designs, favored by movie stars and the professionally glamorous since he launched his first collection in 1962.

The application uses 3-D imagery to create the online equivalent of gallery rooms visitors can “walk” through, perusing at close range more than 300 dresses from the Valentino archives. The online museum also features nearly 100 fashion shows on video, working sketches and photographs of the celebrities that have worn the clothes.

Besides using cutting-edge Internet technology to give fans and consumers a close-up look at an often rarefied craft, the online museum solidifies the legacy and reputation of the Italian designer himself, who retired in 2008 and has consolidated his influence since. Valentino was also the subject of a well-regarded documentary, “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” released in 2009.

Beyond haute couture, other established fashion brands have sought to reinvigorate themselves using the Internet and social media. British design stalwart Burberry, established in 1856 and known primarily for its iconic plaid-lined trench coat, has opened up its once fusty image under the watchful eye of head designer Christopher Bailey. He began helming the business in 2001 and became chief creative officer in 2009, a testament not only for his design prowess but for his ability to modernize the heritage brand for a new century.

Besides partnering with up-and-coming movie stars and musicians for its ad campaigns and expanding its offerings with a more luxurious, runway-oriented Burberry Prorsum line, the brand has relied on social media to broaden its audience and give fans a closer peek into the backstage and goings-ons within the company. The label was one of the first major fashion companies to live-tweet its runway show and stream it on HD and Facebook.

“I love the contradiction between the digital world, of which we at Burberry are a part, and these hugely time-consuming crafts which rely on skilled people,” said Bailey of the Twitter experiment. “Both of those things are part of Burberry, and today I wanted to bring them together.”

Burberry likely found success in integrating social media into its larger strategy to gain flash and relevance with a new audience because it’s just one prong of a highly integrated approach. The reach for a more youthful, connected audience through social media coincided with a revamping and reinvention of its products, as well as key expansions into accessories and fragrances, which are often the healthiest, broadest revenue streams for most high-fashion houses. The company is now considered one of the best global brands, with strong appeal in emerging markets like China and Brazil, and revenues rose 30 percent in 2011.

The Rise of the Online Shopper

Nowhere has fashion felt the biggest online impact than with shopping and retail. Again, the industry was slow to climb onboard, with many believing privately that much of the allure of shopping — trying on clothes, feeling the materials — would be lost when translated online.

However, one major site came along to change the industry mindset. Net-A-Porter founder Natalie Massenet spent time in various roles in the fashion industry, including as an editor and reporter at fashion industry bible “Women’s Wear Daily” and “Tatler.” Massenet hit upon the idea of a high-end e-tail fashion site while frantically looking for clothes for a photo shoot with legendary stylist Isabella Blow, realizing that online retail for fashion could benefit from an infusion of luxury and elegance. After procuring investment — not an easy task during a time when the dot-com bubble was bursting — Massenet launched Net-A-Porter in 2000.

The result revolutionized a once-staid industry. Net-A-Porter’s innovations lay in its ability to translate the luxury experience to the sometimes antiseptic world of the Internet. Each customer’s purchase comes wrapped like a gift, packaged in a high-end, black box, tied with a grosgrain ribbon and wrapped in crisp pink tissue paper. The service also offers an exclusive same-day delivery option in major cities like New York and London, complete with its own trucks and drivers hired especially for their manners and politesse.

The average order for Net-A-Porter is $750, and the site offered a VIP service that allows select customers in the U.K. to meet designers in the site’s offices.

Beyond creating a luxurious shopping experience, the site has also parlayed itself into an editorial brand, noted for its rarefied and often exclusive mix of labels. As much online magazine as online shopping destination, Massenet expanded Net-A-Porter into outlet and flash sales with her OutNet service, began a men’s retail site and sold the company last year to French luxury conglomerate Richemont for approximately $500 million.

Net-A-Porter created a template that is now followed by countless fashion retail sites from every end of the spectrum, from Target to U.K. high-street stalwarts like Topshop and ASOS. Major players in the fashion industry, ranging from designers to powerful magazine editors, now pay respect to Internet entrepreneurs like Massenet and the valuable role they play in their business.

“Natalie is so talented,” said Christopher Bailey in 2009. “She has an incredible vision, which is proven in the way she has built her business online and been able to stay one step ahead of the competition.”

Other emerging designers have also admitted that online shopping has made their businesses thrive and built their reputations, as well boosted as their revenue streams. Thakoon Panichgul, whose designs have found favor with Michelle Obama, attributes his strong start in the industry to Net-A-Porter’s willingness to carry his line. “First I did five pieces and thought it was a collection. Net-A-porter bought all of them and has been so supportive since then,” explained the designer to BlackBook magazine.

Expanding Audience, Expanding Influence

Now it’s no turning back for the fashion industry, which has quickly ramped up its digital know-how and now is pioneering experiments at breakneck pace, especially as new forces like Pinterest gain steam.

Oscar de la Renta, for example, offered a $2,490 sequined baseball tee sweater from its resort collection this spring for sale within 24 hours after its runway show. Fans of the label could go to Pinterest rival The Fancy to vote on their favorite looks from the show. The Fancy then took advance orders on the winning look, making it the first time that the company sold a runway look directly after its Fashion Week debut.

The site took only a total of five orders of the expensive garment, but the results still intrigued the Oscar de la Renta brand enough to mull over future experiments with retail, shopping and social media. The result not only builds buzz for a brand that wants to be seen on the cutting-edge with consumers, but also could help forecast demand for certain designs and adjust inventory orders with manufacturers.

“Selling five of those baseball tees is not going to change our lives,” said Alex Bolen, the chief executive of Oscar de la Renta, to the New York Times. “But I have got to say, I was surprised.”

Beyond designers and retailers, however, the influence of the Internet and social media on fashion may actually widen to include those traditionally outside the industry. Fashion has been originally driven by high-end and luxury brands, but with the rise of street-style blogs as well as their writers, new voices and inputs are entering the industry, scoring invites to prestigious fashion shows, collaborating with brands and designers on collections and even become the “faces” of stores.

Pinterest, as well, is beginning to emerge as a formidable retail influence. The site’s users, primarily women, already demonstrate spending more than the Facebook user base, and Pinterest will likely evolve to monetize and mobilize itself as a shopping destination.

The site has already experimented with affiliate links, but will likely amp up its role in direct purchasing. The result could be an emerging “social e-commerce” segment of the market that seamlessly integrates a social network experience with buying, getting a cut of every transaction, while appealing to retailers who are looking for a highly flexible, customizable yet robust platform to reach a broad audience.

Fashion now keeps pace with broader directions in social media and the Internet, and in the future, could actually drive trends, in the same way it does with designs on the runway.

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