It is a truth universally acknowledged that the fashion industry has been notoriously slow to catch on to digital media. The few brands that have taken tentative steps towards using the internet to its full advantage, such as Burberry and Chanel, are being lauded as progressive, but when compared to other industries fashion is still woefully behind. From journalism and
retail, to the back-end of wholesale buying, the fashion industry has on the whole squeaked along in the same way that it has for many years. Many observers blame this state of affairs on the industry's concern for maintaining exclusivity; other say the internet simply is too ugly, not "on-brand" for high-end companies. These arguments have merits, but I believe they slow the process rather than stall it. It is possible that there is also a deeper structural issue in the industry that explains much of the trepidation.
The fashion industry is one of the few creative industries that has never had to rely on technology to distribute its product. The film industry has navigated the transition from VCRs to DVDs to video downloads from a number of different devices. The music industry has transitioned from records to cassettes to CDs to music downloads. They have also long understood the value of creating content in a different medium, with Michael Jackson's "Thriller" awakening the industry to the power of video. The fashion industry, on the other hand, has not transitioned in the same way. Clothes are still sold primarily in stores, where customers can have tangible access to the fabrics and fits. Perhaps more significantly, fashion still photography and the print editorial have long been the central medium for fashion journalism. All this adds up to an industry-wide lack of experience with, and knowledge of, technological developments. There is an argument to be made that it is this knowledge gap that is the most significant factor in slowing the transition to the online medium.
Certainly the argument against selling clothes online is a strong one. It is hard to see how to fully communicate the value of a garment you can't touch or try on. Moreover, clothes often just don't look as good on a screen as they do on a body. However, what you lose in an up-close, physical, view of the dress and a luxurious store environment, you gain in the ability to communicate context, design inspiration, manufacturing background and the quality of the product. People who make this argument are forgetting that print magazines have been inspiring purchases since they were born, a sure sign that you don't always need to see it on a hanger. The astounding success of Net-a-Porter also does a lot to disprove this theory.
Print editorial seems to be the medium that is more at fault for their lack of internet adventures, although the defense here is strong too. The argument that editorial photographs do not translate as well on screen is true — they just don't. But there seems to have been surprisingly little progress made in the realm of editorial video. All you need to see is the first ten minutes of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" to understand the power of film in selling a look. What the challenge seems to be here is not the production, but the method of distribution. Fashion on TV has become associated with cheesy reality programming, such as "The Rachel Zoe Project," "Project Runway" and "The Hills." And the internet is, well, intimidating.
This comes back to the central argument: industry leaders, having never had to dip their manicured toes into anything digital before, are struggling with a lack of experience. They are having a hard time understanding the power of the internet, let alone figuring out how to overcome the many challenges it provides.
For there are many. Brands that have a very clear identity and idea of how to communicate themselves in traditional media are having to reinvent their message online. There is no room for error in branding, and they are going to get it right. The problem of the categorical ugliness of most of the internet is compounded by its new association with off-price sale sites like Gilt Groupe, and for the fact that when one thinks of online fashion journalism, one's mind turns to 13 year old bloggers rather than to established industry authorities. But as the opportunity cost of staying offline has grown, these problems have turned from barriers of entry to challenges to overcome, and will in no way block future growth of the fashion industry online. The industry is made of the kind of people who can brand the be-jesus out of a PVC handbag. They'll figure out the short-term issues with translating their brand online.
Thus there is an argument to be made that the industry is not fearful, nor snobbish, nor ignorant. They simply lack the experience, and are aware of the fact. The fashion industry is simply biding their time, educating themselves, and planning with rigorous accuracy their branding attack.
Elizabeth Cordry works in retail and online development at Rag & Bone in New York. She is the author of the blog www.fashionconnected.com, focusing on the fashion industry's transition to the online world.