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Selling the dream

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Vogue publisher Condé Nast launches its own fashion ecommerce site today. But how will Style.com stand out from the crowd? Mark C O’Flaherty reports:

All is calm in the stark Camden offices of Style.com. Some of the 100 or so staff are lounging on sofas, talking software over laptops. Elsewhere, brightly coloured birthday cupcakes are doing the rounds. The serenity may seem surprising, given that it’s a week before the site’s radical new incarnation is launched. Originally the home of Condé Nast’s catwalk coverage, Style.com’s content was migrated to Vogue Runway in 2015, and it is now being reinvented as an e-commerce venture. Consumers are now able to buy brands such as Burberry, Coach and Gucci and, eventually, a universe of lifestyle product. This might be the most significant sideways move that the fashion publishing empire behind Vogue, Tatler, GQ and Vanity Fair has made since it was founded in 1909.

“It’s unique,” says Yasmin Sewell, Style.com’s chic, Burberry-clad fashion director who joined Style.com in November. Previously one of fashion’s most in-demand retail consultants, Sewell was the first to put Christopher Kane in stores while working at Browns, and brought Rick Owens to London when she had her own shop in Soho in the 1990s. “We’re going to be a marketplace that partners with brands properly, with a great breadth of inventory — not just eight or nine commercial pieces from each label.”

What makes Condé Nast think it can compete with seasoned online retailers? Brand recognition, for one thing. And an already impressive digital presence with its many magazines sites. “Worldwide we have over 300m monthly unique users, which translates into something like 3 or 4 per cent of the world’s adult population,” says chairman and chief executive Jonathan Newhouse.

As well as the magazine articles and films that punctuate the pages of merchandise, Style.com, which launched in the UK on Friday before rolling out to the EU and US before the end of the year, will appear as a distinct shopping layer on Vogue’s and GQ’s sites. “We have Condé Nast talent, editorial and tech,” says Sewell. “We have a whole team for metadata . . . they’re working from photos, and an insane obsession with fashion. Once you’ve used the site for a while, it will look very different to you than it does to me. It will learn from you and adapt.”

It is this technology that will make or break the venture. “We have invested a lot in technology that can build a very powerful recommendation engine,” says Style.com’s president Franck Zayan, formerly head of internet and e-commerce at Galeries Lafayette. “We will be able to drive the customer experience and bring relevance to their journey. It’s about combining artificial intelligence with human expertise. We’re mining experts in fashion and style.”

The appeal of e-commerce is obvious in a time of falling newsstand magazine sales and advertising revenue. The Publishers Information Bureau noted a 17.6 per cent drop in ad pages in American GQ from January to September last year. Meanwhile, e-commerce partners Yoox and Net-a-Porter reported a sales increase of 15.8 per cent in the first half of this year, with unique visitors to their sites rising from 26.1m to 28m. That’s a lot of people weary of visiting stores to be told that their size has sold out and “we don’t have it in black”. Online shopping in the UK rose 11 per cent last year, according to IMRG and Capgemini, accounting for £114bn of sales.

 

The new Style.com site
The new Style.com site

Being an authority on fashion doesn’t necessarily mean you can sell it, of course. Nicola Antonelli, web project manager at Luisa via Roma, which started as a bricks and mortar store in 1930 and now sells everything from Adidas to Yohji Yamamoto worldwide, is sceptical: “Condé Nast is a large group, but it’s a publishing company with little experience in retail. I’m not sure it will have a starring role in the short-medium term. It’s a pretty big bet.”

What reduces the level of risk is that Condé Nast isn’t handling any stock (apart from a few exclusive products)— it’s essentially a highly stylised aggregate site. When you buy, each order is fulfilled by the brand. Condé Nast isn’t going to worry about unloved stock and sale rail markdowns.

Zayan adds, “We picked the marketplace model partly because . . . it helps brands present the offer in the way they want it to be presented. One of the reasons brands have been pulling out of distribution channels is that they want more control. We’re offering that.”

Style.com is, in essence, doing what bloggers have been doing for years to turn a profit — curating a web store via affiliations with brands without actually having the hassle of managing merchandise themselves. The business arrangements behind each partnership on Style.com might be opaque, but it’s clear that Condé Nast will be taking more of a cut from each sale than any blogger ever did. And rather than be redirected elsewhere to complete an order, the reader stays on the site, making Style.com as sticky as Superglue.

Style.com can also sell advertising on the other Condé Nast sites, and direct readers to Style.com to buy. “That won’t be the case for the likes of Burberry, which have such big e-commerce operation themselves,” says Zayan. “But certainly some advertising might divert to Style.com.” The icing on the cake? Style.com will be full of dazzling assets — film and photography — paid for and produced by the brands themselves.

This isn’t the first time that publishers have turned to retail. Among others, Harper’s Bazaar, published by Hearst, operates Shopbazaar.com, where readers can shop for items featured in the current issue, and Elle Japan operates an online shop. What makes Style.com different is that it pulls together a whole publisher’s output, not just the essence of one magazine. There will also be products that you can’t get elsewhere — something retailers rely on to keep customers loyal: the concept of the “exclusive”. “We’re launching with a partnership with Vetements and Colette in Paris,” says Sewell. “I’m involved in the design process. I’m talking to Jonathan Anderson about colours we want for something he is doing with us.”

Readers of Condé Nast’s titles who visit Style.com will find the site familiar: much of the editorial is being pulled from British GQ and Vogue, and soon from the publishers many other titles too. What will keep them coming back, and spending, will be “inspiration”, says Sewell. “That’s what Condé Nast is about — inspiring the reader. And Style.com will be about authenticity. We aren’t going go to say ‘Buy these jeans, they’ll change your life’, because they won’t. We’re building the connection between inspiration and transaction.”

By Mark C.O’Flaherty