Back when the year 2000 was more an intriguing fantasy than a looming reality, the fashion industry would mount runway presentations offering its predictions for the future. The clothes would most often consist of sleek jumpsuits in glittering, metallic fabrics. Instead of beads or ruffles, there would be strands of lights flashing up and down the bodice. And based on the amount of spandex used, one had the feeling that 21st-century scientists would have figured out how to pare everyone down to a size 8.
In addition to the musings on attire, the industry would present its version of makeup and hairstyles in the next century. The coiffures would be convoluted monstrosities involving yards of hair that had been molded into gravity-defying configurations. And the makeup always seemed to be distressingly stark, bordering on extraterrestrial.
Nowhere in that elaborate vision of the future did anyone clearly outline the true impact of technology on the industry. It turns out that fashion's future was in e-commerce, not in silver stretch Lurex.
To be sure, there had been early talk of the amount of business that could be done via television's home shopping channels. And indeed, Diane Von Furstenberg and Joan Rivers have done quite well selling frocks and jewelry on TV. But it turns out that it will be the Internet--and not QVC--that will level the fashion playing field, giving people outside of fashion's hot spots quick and easy access to everything from pashmina shawls to exotic skin-care products.
Suddenly, exclusivity--limited distribution, inaccessibility--no longer seems like such a valuable commodity in the fashion business. Everyone must have a Web site. Even some French designers, notoriously skittish about allowing just anyone to have access to their products, have started selling a frock or two through the Internet. And where once the unveiling of a new collection was a closed event, some designers, such as Kenneth Cole, have begun broadcasting them live over their Web sites. Fashion has become positively populist.
Consider, for instance, the game plan of local e-commerce business Bluemercury.com. The company, founded by Marla Malcolm and Barry Beck, recently purchased the two EFX cosmetics stores in Georgetown and Dupont Circle. The duo bought the popular beauty boutiques in July with plans to transform the company into Internet peddlers of some of the most hard-to-find cosmetics lines, among them Kiehl's and Francois Nars. While the real-world stores will remain--and there are even plans for expansion--the greatest potential for growth lies on the Internet, which will enable folks in the hinterland to stock their shelves with $40 lotions, $20 soaps and other pricey concoctions with just a few clicks of a mouse.
Other companies, such as the Washington-based skin-care line Better Botanicals, have taken their mom-and-pop shops to the Internet. Better Botanicals shuttered its Georgetown store and moved its wares onto the shelves of Sephora--the cosmetics superstore--for a real-world presence. But Better Botanicals also sells its herbal potions through its Web site.
E-commerce profits have yet to come streaming in--hence the real-world stores--but the Internet philosophy already has taken root. Shoppers used to brag about the lengths to which they had gone to obtain some trendy garment or anti-aging elixir. Now bragging rights go to those who find the most obscure objects in a matter of seconds and then have them delivered to their doorstep. Shopping as treasure hunt seems as obsolete and absurd as waiting longingly at some nightclub's velvet rope.
As Bluemercury's Malcolm says, reaching customers in as many different ways as possible--store, Internet, catalogue--is now the point. The mystique of the disdainful merchant, the back order, the boutique without a sign, has faded. The Internet is making fashion positively . . . common.