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Designers Climb On The Virtual Catwalk (Int'l Edition)


Cover Story -- e.biz -- Strategies

Designers Climb on the Virtual Catwalk (int'l edition)

The Net makes fashion as accessible in Peoria as in Paris

At first, Yves Saint Laurent didn't want anything to do with the Internet. The French designer feared that putting his extravagantly detailed, hand-sewn collections online would degrade his elite image and permit counterfeiters to spy on next year's styles. But now Saint Laurent realizes there's more opportunity than danger on the Web. Like his decision to make off-the-rack clothes in the 1960s, the Net will let him reach far more people. "I was the first French designer to open a pret-a-porter boutique," says Saint Laurent. "The Internet allows me to make my creations accessible to everyone." He has launched his own site, begun broadcasting his couture shows live on the Net, and is considering selling accessories online.

The oh-so fashionably late fashion designers are finally embracing the Web, and that could end up revolutionizing both the clothing business and e-commerce. Up until now, most retailing on the Net has been about slashing overhead to offer lots of no-frills products at cut-rate prices. Not any more: New, mostly European companies are out to prove that cybershoppers are as willing to buy haute couture as hot CDs.SECOND GENERATION. The trick for fashion e-shops is to push the boundaries of online technology and service so they can duplicate--and in some cases even improve--the experience of buying clothes in a hip boutique. "Books and CDs were the first generation of e-commerce," says Ernst Malmsten, CEO and co-founder of London-based boo.com Ltd., a sports fashion site that is expected to be launched later this fall. "This is the second generation, with many more pictures and colors."

That's why online clothes shopping may be about to explode. Net sales of clothing and accessories in the U.S. are projected to soar to $2.8 billion by 2002, up from $330 million last year, according to market researcher Jupiter Communications. Although much of this will be inexpensive sportswear, Netizens also are increasingly willing to buy pricey clothing. Why? Because it's so easy shopping online. "We didn't think people would buy expensive Barker or Johnston & Murphy Inc. shoes without trying them on first," says Markus Larssen, a co-founder of dressmart.com, a Swedish online clothing site. "But we've sold a lot of shoes to people who already knew the brand and their size."

Early results from e-fashion sites are indeed promising. Since launching in Stockholm on Apr. 14, dressmart has racked up $6 million in sales, four times more than expected. Purchases average about $350, about 10 times more than the average online purchase of books or CDs. New York-based girlshop.com has shipped $2 million worth of avante garde merchandise and made $250,000 in operating profit since it opened a year ago. That's good enough that the 10-person company recently opened a similar site for men, guyshop.com.

Such potential is attracting big money. Investors launched dressmart with $2 million last spring and have approved a second $7 million injection. J.P. Morgan & Co. raised some $100 million for two 28-year old Swedish entrepreneurs, one a former Elite model and the other a literary critic, to launch boo.com. Backers include the Benetton family and Bernard Arnault, whose French company LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton owns Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior. "Fashion still is immature on the Web, so we have a chance to create the premiere brand name," says boom.com CEO Malmsten.

Not surprisingly, mail-order shops were the first fashion prospectors on the Web. "It's easy to sell clothes online to customers that already buy from catalogs since electronic commerce is simply an automated version of mail order," explains analyst Mikhail Arnbjerg of market researcher International Data Corp., based in Copenhagen. Consider direct-mail marketer Lands' End in the U.S. Last year, the company quadrupled its Net sales to $61 million. In Europe, France's Trois Suisses and Germany's Quelle, both catalogers, have been e-business pioneers.

Upstart e-clothing sites want to go beyond imitating existing services on the Web. They plan to use technology that projects hip images, catwalk coverage, and all the chic designs. "All the other sites are mass-market and mall-oriented," says Laura Eisman, the 33-year-old founder of girlshop.com. Her cybershop offers funky upscale clothes, such as $130 Ankh cotton Lycra capris and a $600 Spooner coat. Boo.Com plans to sell $120 Tsubo shoes and $900 Helly Hanson ski jackets.

To make online shopping as fun as the real thing, the fashion sites are putting pizzazz into their Web site design. Perky cartoon character Miss Boo will greet visitors to boo.com by throwing back her hair, batting her eyelashes, and offering style tips. The sites for French designer Christian Lacroix and Jean-Paul Gaultier let visitors take a front-row seat at Paris fashion shows.CUTTING EDGE. But pretty Web pages don't tell the whole story. Selling fashion online also is about using cutting-edge technology. The Lands' End site offers a personalized 3-D mannequin service. Online shoppers type in height, weight, bust, waist size, skin color, and other personal details, and seconds later their own image pops back ready to try on clothes. At both Lands' End and boo.com, shoppers can drag and drop clothes on a virtual mannequin to mix and match outfits. And boo.com plans to show all its products in three-dimensional pictures that can be rotated for a closer look--right down to the stitching on a sweater or sneaker.

The possibilities are almost limitless. Shoppers soon should be able to download a graphic of the exact dimensions of a shoe so they can print it out and place their foot on the drawing to see if the shoe fits. "It will become much easier to buy shoes online than through a catalog or in person," predicts Russ Lucas, European marketing director of New Balance sneakers. Eventually, boo.com plans to use online mannequins that will incorporate photos of shoppers onto cyberbodies and even mimic shoppers' speech patterns.

Granted, it's unlikely the Net will ever reach the uppermost heights of fashion. Many in the industry believe that handmade couture dresses costing an average of $20,000 won't be sold over the Net anytime soon. "You have to come to Paris to be fitted, and then the robe must be tried on several times," says Laurent Chapus, Saint Laurent's multimedia director. Saint Laurent only plans to sell off-the-rack designer clothing and accessories online, along with perfume.

France's fashion gurus certainly didn't dream up the Internet. But the Net's arrival means that buyers in Peoria soon could enjoy as much access to the hottest styles as their counterparts in Paris.By William EchiksonReturn to top


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