NEW YORK, United States — Fashionistas who want the latest looks from New York’s Fashion Week no longer need an invite to the exclusive event. A group of tech savvy women are making designs from the catwalk instantly shoppable for deep-pocketed consumers thousands of miles away.
Only the invitees used to be privy to the runway collections before they graced the pages of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar weeks later. Even then, those designs wouldn’t reach the hands of well-heeled consumers for half a year, through the highest-end department stores or the fashion houses themselves.
A crowd of chic geeks at start ups including RewardStyle and Refinery29 have now infiltrated the $250 billion luxury clothing and accessories market, armed with little more than smartphones. RewardStyle’s LikeToKnow:It has made the BCBGMAXAZRIA and Herve Leger catwalks shoppable via Instagram photos, and edgy media outlet Refinery29 shows consumers where to buy the clothes worn by the stars attending Fashion Week. It’s all based on what shoppers at home “like.”
“We started realizing that the consumer really dictates trends, even though us fashion people always think we do,” Lubov Azria, chief creative officer of BCBG Max Azria Group LLC, said in an interview at her showroom in New York’s Garment District.
What customers want is to get their hands on Azria’s designs as soon as their Instagram feeds are inundated with photos from the week’s shows, she said.
“It’s all about accessibility,” Azria said in the Sept. 7 interview. It was the morning after the Herve Leger show, and three days after the BCBGMAXAZRIA line graced the stage at Lincoln Center, the first Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week shows to make the looks available directly to the consumer.
Here’s how LikeToKnow:It works. A select group of influencers –- bloggers, celebs and publications –- are able to tag Instagram photos with special links through RewardStyle’s service. Then, customers who sign up can like the tagged posts and receive an e-mail with a page featuring the clothes in the image and a link to purchase them.
That gives social-media users a more direct way to pre- order one of exclusive runway pieces produced from a collection -- like a $1,298 white embroidered and beaded motorcycle jacket that’s expected to be in stock by Oct. 15 -- and the ability to get the clothing two months earlier than ever before.
The catch is that you have to be willing to shell out $500 to $7,000 per garment for the runway designs, and no more than 200 pieces will be manufactured from the collection.
Unlike some lower-end fashion labels that are mass- produced, clothing from lines like BCBGMAXAZRIA or Herve Leger can take months to be made by hand. To deliver those pieces to online customers earlier, Azria has been proactive about production, instead of waiting for orders: fabric has been ordered in bulk and expert seamstresses have been booked in advance.
This sudden evolution has, in part, been sparked by women who have chosen to marry their interests in style and technology, instead of following the standard path to the Garment District or Silicon Valley.
Amber Venz Box, who has more than 32,800 followers on Instagram, co-founded RewardStyle in 2011 as a way for fashion bloggers like herself to make money. Drawing inspiration from the commission that personal shoppers make from boutiques where clients purchase clothing, bloggers using RewardStyle get a cut when their followers buy something through their links.
Last year, RewardStyle drove $155 million in retail sales, a 300 percent increase from the year before, according to the company. In March, Box’s team released LikeToKnow:It, which was used during fashion week for the first time during the BCBGMAXAZRIA and Herve Leger shows.
“For the customers, the comments are always, ‘Where’d you get that? How can I get that?’ Especially for runway,” Box said in an interview backstage before the BCBGMAXAZRIA show. “The best service isn’t teasing them with a product they can’t get for another six months. For the consumer, that becomes uninteresting and unengaging.”
These bloggers have already garnered fans on social media who trust their taste and communicate with them, a valuable audience for brands.
“They’re the visionaries,” Azria said.
Tucked in the seats nearest to the BCBGMAXAZRIA catwalk, bloggers like Shay Mitchell, who has 4.5 million Instagram followers, and Aimee Song, with almost 1.7 million followers, drew tens to hundreds of thousands of likes on photos tagged with LikeToKnow:It links. Azria said she does what she can to support them, referencing a quote from Madeleine Albright, the first female U.S. Secretary of State: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
The Herve Leger collection gave a tip of the hat to strong women, drawing inspiration from onna-bugeisha, the ancient female warriors of Japan’s upper class.
Max Azria, chief executive officer of Vernon, California- based BCBG Max Azria Group, said these are designed for “the new Herve Leger woman,” living in today’s much faster, more digital times.
“She can articulate. She’s a leader,” he said in an interview backstage before the collection’s fashion show. “She grew up.”
The fashion industry has been an opportunity for innovative women in technology -- women who could otherwise be working as programmers at traditional technology companies.
Women are in the minority at tech giants like Google Inc., Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc., making up about 30 percent of the workforce. This image of Silicon Valley as a boys’ club is being shaken up by fashion-tech startups who tend to have a strong female presence throughout the ranks, said Ann Miura-Ko, co- founding partner at venture capital firm Floodgate Fund LP who has backed companies including Refinery29 and Wanelo, a shopping site that caters to young adults.
“If you find a couple of female engineers who say, ‘Gosh, I really want to work on something that I also love in my personal life’ -- those engineers are able to set the groundwork for other female engineers,” Miura-Ko said in an interview. “Having a female voice inside the organization, especially for the customer, becomes a very important component to continuing to innovate.”
Zooey Purdy, now a developer at Refinery29, said she grew up with a tech presence at home, and before reaching college, she created a Harry Potter-themed website that placed users into Hogwarts houses like the book’s Sorting Hat.
At New York University, Purdy used courses in computer science and studio art to break into the fashion industry, landing her first fashion gig designing the website for Nylon magazine.
“When I was studying computer science, it was always a means to an end -- I was always interested in fashion,” she said in an interview. “My interest in fashion and the arts scene helped me do my job better. It’s really empowering to know that I could make what I want.”
New York-based Refinery29, with its trendy perspective and photo-heavy content, has been able to reach some of the millennial women that elite fashion bands are trying to draw. That’s been helped by engineers like Purdy who use their interest in fashion to inform how to best show off content on the site.
Refinery29 started to become a digital destination for Fashion Week in 2007, when its “shoe stalking” photos of stars and event attendees became widely popular, co-founder Philippe von Borries, said in an interview. Pictures of the fashion choices of celebrities and socialites attending the shows -- known as “street style” -- have become as important as the shows themselves.
Bloggers, who point out and analyze such street style, have been given more prominence on Refinery29’s website this year. More than 10 million unique visitors go to the site per month, and each viewer looks at an average of 17 pages of fashion content, the company said.
Marlene Morris Towns, a marketing professor at Georgetown University who specializes in retail, said she expects higher- end clients who may not have had access to stores carrying exclusive collections will want quicker turnover from the runway like Azria is offering. That could be a money-making opportunity for brands that can anticipate demand early and sell online.
“It’s opened up the audience,” Towns said in an interview. “This is how they shop and how they browse and how they get information about brands. You’ll see more regular people buying that you wouldn’t have thought of as fashionistas.
By Alex Barinka; editors: Sarah Rabil, Ben Livesey.