Fashion Wholesale Goes Digital With The First Online Fashion Fair
While it’s old news that the high-end fashion industry has taken – with much relish and gusto – to the world of online, it is perhaps surprising that this move has, by-and-large, been limited to retail. Certainly, there have been enough variations of e-tail to keep us on our toes – from full-price e-commerce, to off-price designer discounters, to the mobile commerce revolution, not to mention the new thing on Facebook, f-commerce. However, given the reality of wholesale, it is somewhat bewildering that there have been so few developments on the all-important B2B side.
After all, fashion wholesaling is a rather inefficient business. First, one must consider the seasonal product renewal that is intrinsic to fashion, which means that a collection’s performance is always somewhat of an unknown quantity, for buyers and brands alike. Unlike, say, furniture, where the same basic products remain on offer year after year, apparel and accessories tend to present much turnover in terms of availability. Second, collections are presented to market in a short period of time, during which brands are fiercely competing against one another for the attention and, most importantly, the budgets of a very small pool of buyers. Thirdly, the travel element that is required by both brand and buyer represents a notable expense on both sides at considerable environmental cost, and on a human level, is accompanied by undeniable exhaustion.
Enter stage: Le New Black. The New Black founder Vidya Narine describes the site as the first online fashion fair. The company appears to be the first player to have made a concerted pure-online effort to align the interests of brands and buyers in the high-end fashion B2B.
Launched in 2009, Le New Black platform allows brands to upload their collection images, wholesale prices, and minimum order quantities within a branded online booth where campaign images, designer background info and current stockists provide the additional information. Buyers who access the page are able to peruse through styles, select items and create their own order, which is then sent to the brand for confirmation and final approval. In turn, regardless of orders placed, brands are supplied with valuable feedback and insight from every buyer that visits their virtual booth, allowing them to continuously monitor their campaigns and gauge the response to their offer.
Moreover, as Ms. Narine explains, Le New Black vets applicant brands in order to ensure that its platform has a consistent and coherent aesthetic direction and positioning. “Le New Black is unlike physical tradeshows because [it] carefully curates access to the site to ensure only that only a targeted and curated selection of top international buyers is able to access the space.” This ensures an important added dimension of exclusivity and control in regards to distribution.
The format is advantageous from a number of perspectives. First, it means a longer sales campaign. Instead of having to rely on a short window of time for showing in Milan or Paris, brands can be “in market” for an unlimited period of time. Second, it means reaching buyers earlier – if all that is needed is a JPEG of a garment and a price, this information can be uploaded at the start of the season, allowing interested buyers to place orders or apportion their budgets accordingly. Third, it increases the reach of the campaign, allowing buyers who might not be in a position to travel remote access to collections.
Lately, as traditional brick-and-mortar tradeshows have been exploring different ways to adopt a digital presence, the idea of the online tradeshow has had some resurgence. For example, last June, the Florence-based Pitti show, regarded by many as the grandfather of European tradeshows, unveiled E-Pitti, its digital counterpart. The platform allows vendors participating in the different editions – Pitti Uomo, Pitti Bimbo and Pitti W – to create their own online booth, in order to reap the benefits of the fair beyond the three or four days of traditional selling. In the US, the Magic tradeshow organizers seem to be on the same page; the company recently re-launched its website to offer an environment where buyers and brands can connect year-round. Meanwhile, the Las-Vegas Project tradeshow is looking to launch a digital portal by 2012, to ensure it also provides a space to “communicate commercially” year-round.
Of course, for the traditional tradeshows, online is not intended to replace the brick-and-mortar format, but complement their existing calendar events to offer a constant service – after all, the 80th edition of Pitti Uomo last June drew record figures, with over 32,000 attendees including more than 20,000 buyers. Many still argue that digital wholesaling cannot ever properly replace traditional, off-line wholesaling as there are too many components of the relationship which require being physically present (such as touching the fabrics, or negotiating better payment terms). However, this point of view does seems to echo those voices that, not so long ago, claimed luxury e-tailers like Net-a-Porter would never succeed (last time we checked, Net-A-Porter posted €270 million in sales).
Ultimately, the issue is whether brands are actually able to revolutionize their critical paths to undertake a 365-day selling effort. For many, the prospect of shortening timelines (that are already so challenging in this industry) to be ready for market sooner (and close production books later) presents a significant hurdle. This is particularly true of emerging brands, which would arguably benefit the most from prolonged sales periods.