How Fashionable Is the Web?

The September issue of Vogue won’t fit in the mailbox (727 ad pages, a new record), and ordinary New Yorkers can no longer access a major public park (despite paying for it with their tax dollars), now dominated by an enormous tent and nearly as large security goons. Fashion Week has come home to roost, with more runway shows than you can shake a stick-thin model at.

Despite persistently lacking a thing to wear, I tend to more or less completely ignore Fashion Week. But this year there’s a whiff of something new in the air, something related to the Web. Vogue, together with the rag trade’s industry rag “W,” finally has a major Web presence, complete with Web 2.0 features. For years the leading consumer fashion publication, together with corporate parent Condé Nast, barely tolerated the Internet unless it could lob a few subscriptions their way. At last, they offer actual content.

Doubtless this is due in no small part to the fact Vogue has come up with a model to monetize fashion content. Another site, ShopVogue.TV, launched last week as a nearly pure ad play. In addition to featuring runway shows, original content, and fashion ads, as well as some user-generated content, users will also be able to shop Vogue’s print advertisers by price, brand, style, or trend.

Knock It Off

The fashion industry, particularly name designers, has always been reluctant to embrace the Web. Much like the music industry, what’s online can be copied, appropriated, mashed-up, and copied. But the Web’s there, and the designers are advertising in magazines like Vogue, and now on the magazine’s Web site.

What about designer’s own sites? I decided to have a look.

Search for any name designer and her own site is almost always atop the search results. The sites themselves delineate clearly between branding and direct. In fashion technology, that demarcation is Flash vs. HTML.

Calvin Klein typifies the old school of fashion brand site as pure branding. The all-Flash site is the homepage on which the current collection is displayed in a slideshow so rapid, epileptics would be well advised to stay away. There’s a single link to a “register” page. Once there, there’s no going back — navigation-wise, at least.

Virtually no other designer sites, excepting Tom Ford and Dries van Noten, are this retro: no interactivity, user control, navigation, or clearly viewable images. Even venerable older brands such as Valentino, and newer ones like Prada and Donna Karan, while Flash-y, actually have links on their pages, allow the user to select still or moving images, or zoom in on individual items, and of course, provide physical retail locations. Others, such as Stella McCartney and Chanel, are like six-inch heels; pretty to look at, perhaps, but a usability nightmare.

The majority of the randomly selected designer sites I looked at are a hybrid of flashy Flash and down-to-business e-commerce. Flash is for show, but it disappears in the e-commerce sections of Gucci and Burberry. The more transaction-focused and lower-priced designer lines such as Armani Exchange and Emporio Armani, DKNY, Calvin Klein Underwear, dispense with the Flash and get down to click-to-order. DKNY product pages, in fact, look suspiciously like those on BananaRepublic.com.

Don’t let the above lead you to believe designers feel they need a Web presence of their own. Comme des Garçons doesn’t have a site, other than something suitably enigmatic for its elusively appearing-and-disappearing guerilla stores. Anne Demeulemeester doesn’t have a site at all. And a less-prominent but personal favorite designer, Canadian Philippe Dubuc, has a single Flash page (much like the greats), containing little more than the address of his Montreal store. A salesclerk there told me two years ago e-commerce was coming to the site. Meanwhile, I can only buy the label in Canada. Talk about exclusive. One of the bravest designer label sites out there eschews booth Flash and e-commerce. Martin Margiela is as deconstructed as his clothing — great brand reinforcement. It’s also infinitely usable and hands down wins best in show so far as I’m concerned, at least.

Fashionistas, Not Socialites

Unlike youth oriented consumer fashion brands (think Nike, adidas, etc.) the premium designer labels haven’t yet really begun to explore online advertising, much less promoting their brands in Web 2.0 environments. Adidas Soccer may have over 86,000 MySpace friends. But while social networks are doubtless brimming with consumers who, reached with a brand message, could doubtless be persuaded to dip a toe into designer’s lower-priced but aspirational starter lines (think beauty, fragrance, accessories), the labels seem to be doing nothing about it — even if Chanel aficionados have already formed their own MySpace group.

Reportedly, ultra-exclusive social network ASmallWorld does have some fashion advertisers among the luxury brands that advertise to its members. The likes of you and I are unlikely to experience these firsthand.

The fact top designer labels are, finally, online in some capacity is a step forward. Now, like the entertainment industry before it, fashion must collectively come to grips with the loss of control inherent to the medium.

That’s scarier for some industries more than others. Fashion appears to be very, very afraid.

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