Retailing

Paris Fashion Week Goes Online


Bad-boy British designer Alexander McQueen's Oct. 6 runway show was the talk of Paris Fashion Week—and you didn't have to be a magazine editor, high-powered buyer, or Hollywood celebrity to get a front-row seat. A video of the event, featuring a dramatic, aquatic-themed multimedia display and models in reptile-patterned clothing and shoes resembling crab claws, was streamed live via McQueen's Web site. Tens of thousands of fans logged on—so many that the site repeatedly crashed during the show.

Such technical glitches won't deter McQueen and other designers from continuing to harness the power of the Internet. Louis Vuitton (LVMH.PA), Burberry (BRBY.L), and Emporio Armani were among a growing crowd of fashion houses that began offering live video streams of their ready-to-wear shows this year. Vuitton's was streamed onto Facebook, where users were invited to comment.

Other houses, such as Dolce & Gabbana, have aired online videos, including footage of backstage preparations for the shows and interviews with their designers. Alexander McQueen also launched a Twitter site "to build up anticipation" of its show, says Jonathan Akeroyd, the fashion house's chief executive.

How to cut the six-month fashion lag?The Web's allure for the fashion industry is easy to understand: Designers can present their collections directly to customers without relying on reports in fashion media outlets that may not be positive. And they can save money on advertising—a crucial consideration now that many fashion houses have trimmed their marketing budgets during the economic downturn. "The use of Internet for us is absolutely crucial," says Robert Polet, chief executive of Gucci Group (GUCG.PK), which owns the McQueen brand. "Interaction and involvement with customers are key words."

But as more and more fashion houses throw open the doors of once-exclusive shows, the industry may be in for an even bigger shake-up. Traditionally, the major houses put on prêt à porter (ready-to-wear) shows twice a year, about six months before their new collections are set to arrive in stores. The shows held during Paris Fashion Week earlier this month, for example, were for spring and summer 2010 collections.

The question now is whether shoppers who've seen the latest threads will wait patiently for six months to buy them. "They will have to solve this problem—of people seeing the show, getting excited about it, and wanting the product right now," says Yuli Ziv, a New York writer who runs an online fashion community, myitthings.com.

Ziv predicts the industry will either have to change the traditional runway show schedule, moving shows closer to the launch date for new collections, or prepare limited-edition collections that will be available at the time of the show. They could even offer customers the opportunity to click and buy—instantly—selected items in their shows. "It's going to be a long process, but more designers will experiment with this format," she predicts.

Internet fashion remains a hard sellIn the end, fashion houses may be tempted to forego traditional runway shows altogether, opting instead for films shot in studios. Yves Saint Laurent—a unit of PPR (PRTP.PA)—and Viktor & Rolf have already done some Web-only shows, although both continue to have traditional shows as well.

So far, most fashionistas don't seem ready to take the next step: Buying expensive apparel over the Net. (Although they're delighted to pick up closeouts via such sites as Vente-Privee.com.) Alexander McQueen launched an online U.S. store last year and plans to extend it soon to Britain. But so far, concedes CEO Akeroyd, "there is not a high volume of sales."

But others say online sales are starting to gain traction. Valérie Hermann, CEO of Yves Saint Laurent, says the brand is seeing an increase in sales from its Web site in the U.S., where it has only a handful of boutiques. "We're touching people in cities where we don't have stores," she says. And with fashion Webcasts, YSL and others are touching people thousands of miles from the nearest catwalk.
Matlack is a Paris correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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