• Beyond Twitter
  • Ralf Würth
Beyond Twitter

In the midst of the recession, designers could actually help their hard-hit businesses by focusing on e-commerce and social network connections. The ones who did that are looking pretty smart right now, because there are even more new ideas to try. Probably the most important accomplishment for Web-resistant designers was to recognize that their customers talk to one another online; they want girlfriend advice and they want designers to listen. As a result, many more designers this year began using Facebook and Twitter.

Customers also want more access to a designer’s world, and they want to be able to do that through their cellphones and tablets. “Chanel launched an app and everyone panicked,” said James Gardner, the co-founder and chief executive of Create the Group, a leading interactive agency. ” ’Oh, we need an app.’ “Well, maybe. Mr. Gardner, whose firm provides digital services for clients like Marc Jacobs, Burberry, Celine and Alexander Wang, said there were several new developments that fashion houses should be considering. The most important is social commerce – selling products through a social network site like Facebook. Experts expect that business to explode. As Sucharita Mulpuru, a vice president and retail analyst for Forrester Research, told Business Week, “It’s not natural to go to Facebook to shop – yet.”

There will be more decentralization as consumers use mobile phones to explore a designer’s site, or shop. Also, Mr. Gardner said, companies should look for more ways to personalize the experience. One way is with customized products, something Nike has already done and that Burberry plans to do with a bespoke service for its iconic trench coat. Want a sleeveless trench coat? No problem.

This past season, Burberry offered nearly everything on it its spring 2011 runway show for immediate Web sales. The blunt emphasis on embellished trench coats and leather jackets caused some critics to complain of crass commerce – and obviously there needs to be a balance between commerce and creativity. Still, there are other ways a designer can be inviting; Oscar de la Renta, a client of Mr. Gardner’s, recently created a private access site for sale pieces and exclusive items for clients. Many fashion houses still lag on the digital front, but if a designer is innovative or exciting on the runway, it seems very odd nowadays not to find the same degree of commitment on the brand’s site. It was no surprise to hear that Phoebe Philo, the designer of Celine, has been involved in new digital projects.

In February, Moda Operandi, an e-commerce site created by Aslaug Magnusdottir and Lauren Santo Domingo, will begin selling runway looks from 40 to 50 designers in New York and Europe. Consumers of high fashion often complain that they can’t find the runway styles they love. That’s because designers decide not to produce them or retailers don’t want to risk buying something too crazy or expensive. Moda Operandi’s plan may satisfy designers and shoppers. A few days after a collection is shown on the runway, members of Moda Operandi will be given a detailed look at the clothes and accessories. Then there will be a flash sale conducted over a period of 36 to 72 hours, with items offered at full retail price. Customers will put down a 50 percent deposit and receive the merchandise about four months later, with the balance due. Between seasons, the site’s partners plan to keep members connected in other ways, like creating virtual closets. They’ve hired Yasmin Sewell, a well-respected retail buyer in London, as fashion director.

Among the designers who have signed up are Calvin Klein, Thakoon, Rochas and Nina Ricci. Ms. Magnusdottir, who previously worked at Gilt Groupe, said membership the first season would be kept small – about 15,000 people, who will have invitation rights. She expects about 100,000 members by the end of 2011. Kate Ciepluch, the fashion director of Shopbop, said she liked the idea, provided that customers don’t experience a burnout effect from instant shopping. After all, even fashion professionals view runway shows as a source of inspiration, and do their shopping once they know what they want. Still, Ms. Ciepluch said, for some obsessive high-end consumers, getting a great runway look may be all that matters. And for designers, this method could lead to another way to capture customer demand.

  • Ralf Würth