Buzz over New York's 2009 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week is growing and the world's top designers are taking center stage, introducing their long anticipated collections. This is how the fashion industry has operated for nearly 100 years: Designers secretly produce the fashions that they feel are most relevant to their lines, and retailers decide what items are most relevant to their customer base. But the fashion industry is at the verge of a tipping point -- one that could change this system forever.
Social media has deconstructed the traditional means of communication between retailers and consumers by adding new channels for discussion. A designer can communicate with her audience on a moment-to-moment basis through sponsored Facebook groups and fan pages, online chats, Twitter feeds, Flickr, YouTube and new social shopping channels that facilitate two-way conversations. Meanwhile, the fashion industry's main source of advertising, the monthly glossy, is experiencing sharp declines in ad sales this year -- some down 47 % for the famed September issue, according to Forbes. If designers want to stay relevant, they need to drastically diversify their traditional communication patterns and join the online conversation.
Research analyst Peter Kim created a wiki of the top 500 companies with active social media outreach strategies. Sadly, only one fashion designer, Costume National, was listed. The wiki is currently on its third list of 500 companies using social media, but of all the campaigns listed, retailers represent only 22% of companies and fashion designers represent less than one percent.
Undoubtedly, social media's transparent culture has been a challenge for the notoriously secret fashion industry. "There is some hesitation to reveal a line too soon for fear of being ripped off," says Nicki Vasquez, a former COCCHIA designer. "In order to keep our exclusivity, designers need to keep themselves ever so slightly at arms length."
Rachel McCarthy-Moya, creator of the fashion blog Youthquaker, agrees with Vasquez: "It's an accessibility issue where designers don't want to make their clothes easily available," However, says McCarthy Moya, "There is a fine line -- designers don't want to be over exposed, but they also don't want to fade away."
With 3.7 million unique visitors a month, cutting-edge fashion site Polyvore is an exception to the rule. Recently Polyvore partnered with avid twitter-er and designer Tory Burch in a contest where fans created collages inspired by Venice using items from her latest collection for a chance to win free clothes and a vacation. This campaign generated over 100,000 page views and made Tory Burch the No. 1 brand on the site.
"Fashion is all about visual merchandising ... users on Polyvore are influencing a lot of people and social media creates a unique opportunity [for brands] to connect with these influential people," says Jess Lee, VP of Product Management for Polyvore.
Other sites like Threadless, Ryz and, now, the new crowd-sourced fashion label Exuve are testing the limits of the fashion industry by selling clothing designed and voted on by crowds. In each case, customers are part of the design process from beginning to end.
Here are six social fashion sites that every marketer worth her Prada handbag should be familiar with:
Shopflick combines videos and shopping to create a truly unique online fashion and shopping experience and social community. The site draws from a strong network of indie and up and coming designers to provide shoppers the ability to find cutting edge, unique items and to helps brand touch base and engage with current and new customers through branded online stores, video commerce widgets and much more.
UsTrendy is a place where designers can post their portfolios, fans can judge them and then each season a collection is chosen using the most popular styles. Its tag line is, "...today's inspiration... tomorrow's trend..." UsTrendy produces the popular clothes and hosts events. They provide interaction and showcasing opportunities to designers, artists, models and fans through galleries, industry exposure, events and social networking connections. The site is a mash-up of Etsy.com and Linkedin.com.
StyleCaster is looking to become the future site of online fashion through optimized fashion advice that is targeted to each user. This is the Amazon of fashion sites, where with every click they get to know you personal preference and taste, thereby giving you educated advice and marketing. This site is a mash-up of social network, editorial content and shopping and has just been given 4 million in funding.
Sense of Fashion
Sense of Fashion is the marketplace for upstart fashion designers, fashion lovers and sellers. It has an eBay-like capability for people to sell their fashion, shop or interact in their social network. Fans can show off their individual styles, favorite brands or even do e-commerce. Their goal is to connect designers with the very people who may inspire them, to also provide a platform for users to show off and sell their merchandise.
Est.Today is a fashion site for tweens that gives young girls the ability to design, display and purchase their own clothes. With personal creativity being the most stylish accessory this season, and now that young girls are paving the way for many new trends today according to a recent article in British Elle, this site capitalizes a the younger generations need for individual creativity.
StyleHop combines fashion and gaming to provide users with a fun rating system to decide on the popularity of branded styles. It incorporates yelp-like functionality to provide viewers information on popular sweaters and shoes for certain cities. Brands are given visibility though outfits, and users are able to comment on each picture with the ability to share the pictures on their other networks.
This time of year is the perfect opportunity for designers to dynamically and creatively encourage and join this discussion. Fashion fans are chomping at the bit for content from their favorite designers -- which is why fashion sites are thriving. These sites and indie fashion bloggers may not have Anna Wintour's bully pulpit (yet), but they are creating the future of the monthly glossy, and the future of the fashion Marcom system.
Step one is listening and engaging with your customers via social media channels, step two is to create social shopping opportunities and provide easy paths to purchase via social media channels. While designers may be apprehensive in giving up control, social media tools are actually launching pads for designers to strengthen their customer base and ultimately, grow their sales.
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR|
Katie Hillier is currently a graduate student at USC Annenberg's School for Communication in their Online Communities program. This summer she was an associate at the Los Angeles-based IPG Emerging Media Lab where she studied the impact of new media technologies and social shopping trends on the fashion industry.