Until recently the exclusivity of designer fashion and the democracy of the internet seemed incompatible. But now the industry has embraced all things electronic and is finding ways to market its wares more effectively than ever before. Clare Coulson explains. It's a Wednesday morning and an e-mail drops into your inbox. It's Net-a-porter.com telling you about this week's must-haves. Another arrives the next day from My-wardrobe.com to let you know that some pieces from your favourite designers are now available. At the same time a text alert pings on to your iPhone with news of a super-discounted, designer sample sale to which only a select few have been invited.
If it all sounds like a typical week in your fashion life, you are not alone. Designers, fashion houses and retailers are embracing technology with fervour, and, in doing so, they are transforming the way we shop. We are more informed about fashion than ever before; we can watch fashion shows from a virtual front row as they are streamed live from New York, Milan and Paris straight to our laptops. We can pre-order looks long before they hit the sales floors. We can even talk directly with designers via web chat-rooms and iPhone apps.
But it has taken the fashion industry a long time to embrace technology - even when Net-a-porter launched a decade ago there was little faith that designer labels would ever be able to sell clothes online. For luxury brands there was always one big problem with the web: how does something as exclusive and aspirational as designer fashion combine with something as democratic as the internet? Now those brands are realising the potential of a medium that can market their wares more effectively and personally than ever before. And their love affair with the web couldn't have come at a better time - while sales of luxury goods in stores are generally in free-fall, online shops are booming.
Retailers and designers have never been so in touch with, and so informed about, their client base. "Clearly there's an awful lot of personalisation going on," says Tom Chapman, the owner of the designer online store Matches. "These days we need to really understand our customer and what their habits are, and with online shopping we can do that more efficiently than ever before." Chapman points out that it was only a few years ago that retailers would simply send out notifications when a customer's favourite label had arrived in-store. Now, marketing is far more sophisticated and specific: "You can't just send out e-mails like that any more and it's dangerous to pigeonhole customers. It's more about telling them all about like-minded brands. I think sites will become even more personalised. And there's so much technology out there - in a few years' time women will be able to sit at their laptop and try clothes and accessories on virtually. It's really not that far away."
If it's taken over a decade for fashion to embrace the web, the industry is getting to grips with the iPhone far more swiftly. This year a slew of style-focused applications has been introduced, offering customers a whole new way to engage with their favourite brands. From simple shopping applications to the more instructional such as DKNY's Cozy (which takes Donna Karan's fans through styling tips on how to wear her famous cashmere wraps), there are myriad ways for designers and retailers to use new technologies.
The iPhone has done so well because fashion has found something very cool to associate itself with, as well as reaching out to the iPhone's vast customer base: so far, 30 million have been sold and two billion applications have been downloaded. This autumn, Net-a-porter introduced its collaboration with iPhone so that customers can receive a weekly upload of new deliveries straight to their hand-held, allowing them to shop whenever and wherever they choose. It's something that will appeal to the brand's incredibly mobile customer base.
The company also notifies customers when something is in stock, provides online personal shoppers and will even place orders directly with design houses if there's something specific a customer wants. Net-a-porter has set the standard for fashion online; it streamed fashion shows live long before other design houses did so, allowing customers to order directly from labels including RM by Roland Mouret and Halston.
But behind all this technology, traditional shop-floor values reign. "It's still about good old-fashioned service in everything that we do," says Net-a-porter's womenswear buyer Holli Rogers. "And technology never replaces that moment when someone talks to you on the phone."