Fashion Forward: Digital Opportunities and Disruption


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I could spend hours looking at images of couture gowns, fashion shows, and the latest luxe shoes and handbags. Since an "It" bag can easily set you back $12,000, and there's a months-long waiting list, I'm unlikely to ever own one of these items. But the world of high fashion is fascinating. Fascinating, too, is fashion's evolving digital engagement. From a slow start, it now brings together the worlds of publishing, content marketing, and ecommerce in interesting and disruptive ways.

The fashion world was slow to embrace digital opportunities. Some of the most significant luxury brands in the world (CHANEL, for example) have been reluctant to engage directly in ecommerce; they are concerned about maintaining their carefully cultivated brand values and worried about the counterfeiters and deep-discounters lurking online. But things have changed. At London Fashion Week's hottest runway shows, notable fashion bloggers such as Sasha Wilkins of Liberty London Girl and Style Bubble's Susanna Lau are featured alongside icons such as former editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris Carine Roitfeld and London fashion darling Alexa Chung.

Wilkins, who has more than 80,000 followers on Twitter, comes from a magazine publishing background, and according to Financial Times, Liberty London Girl claims 175,000 unique users per month. Her commercially successful business model includes brand collaboration and consultancy, sponsorship, and digital consultancy, but the website does not accept traditional advertising. In the interest of transparency, the blog features a detailed disclosure of the principles that underpin the blog's editorial and commercial stance.

Even in the early days of the web, though, some visionaries were quick to see the potential benefits of a marriage between fashion and digital. Back in 2000, Londoner Natalie Massenet launched luxury online retailer Net-a-Porter, LLC. It has achieved world domination, reporting a 55% increase in sales in 2012, and, according to its CEO Mark Sebba, has a total audience of around 6 million monthly visitors. The site was a pioneer of the content marketing phenomenon; earlier this year, it launched The Edit, a weekly online magazine that embraces all the editorial values of a high-end print fashion magazine-beautiful editorial photography, regular columns, celebrity interviews, and crisp, elegant design as well as elements that make the most of the online experience (e.g., videos explaining make-up techniques). Subtle links point to the Net-a-Porter site, and the magazine also features advertising from other brands, including Tiffany.

But The Edit isn't just a subtle brochure for Net-a-Porter's ecommerce offering; it's part of a much bigger strategy that, earlier this year, saw the formation of a full-fledged media division (under the editorial leadership of Lucy Yeomans, previously U.K. editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar). A one-off print issue has already been produced, and the company announced plans to launch a regular glossy print magazine that will be published four to six times a year. In a Feb. 17, 2013, interview with the Business of Fashion blog, Yeomans explained that the main driver of the print magazine launch was inspiration: "[O]ur women love print. It's an experience. I love technology. ... But at the same time, I really love print and I think there's something incredibly luxurious about it."

This sense of experience is proving a fruitful hunting ground as media brands look to replace declining print advertising sales with other revenue streams. Condé Nast International, which publishes international editions of 122 magazines including Vogue and GQ, has ongoing plans to open bars, clubs, and cafes in new and emerging markets that make the most of their strong global recognition. In London, the newly formed Condé Nast College of Fashion and Design has recently welcomed its first students. "Our business can no longer be defined strictly as publishing, but takes the form of brand management," Condé Nast International's chairman and chief executive Jonathan Newhouse told the blog Business of Fashion.

And what of the future? Speaking in 2010, Net-a-Porter's Massenet looked into the future and said that in her view, "Media companies are going to become retailers and retailers are going to become media companies." It certainly looks that way.