When New York Fashion Week kicks off on Sept. 10, some familiar faces will be missing from the front rows, namely the writers and editors from Style.com, which was shuttered on Aug. 31, and will be retooled as an e-commerce site. Style.com—and the people who built and grew it—revolutionized the fashion industry by bringing full photographic coverage of fashion shows to the masses, showcases that were once reserved only for industry elite. By providing a unique, behind-the-scenes look into NYFW (among other showcases), Style.com effectively democratized fashion, making it accessible, fun and attainable for many. But over the past several years, Style.com fell victim to decreased investment in new technology and languished under corporate disinterest. Condé Nast, Style.com’s parent, pulled the plug on the floundering site in its fifteenth year, and as of today, Vogue Runway steps in to fill Style’s place.
Style originally entered the then-burgeoning Internet fray as an industry gossip column in 2000. Soon after its launch, Style expanded to cover fashion shows and grew more popular with a revolutionary innovation: While other fashion journals might publish one or two photos from the shows in their magazines (after all, print space is limited and expensive to produce), Style.com sent photographers to snap photos at all of the shows, and then upload every single image to the site. Style effectively tapped into the kind of total access that the Internet creates and consumers demand, and with that, Style.com offered the first comprehensive and genuine view into fashion show coverage available without actually being there.
From that point, Style.com owned fashion shows in ways that no other publication—print or online—ever did. The site posted photos of every look that came down the runways, including details and accessories. Consumers visited the site in droves. Style.com quickly became an online lookbook for the next season’s trends. Shoppers would go into stores and request “Ralph Lauren’s look number 16 from Style.” It wasn’t an official “look number,” per se, it was Style.com’s number. Through August 2015, it was still the most visited online-only women’s fashion resource.
Condé Nast realized there was e-commerce gold to be mined.
In 2001, Style.com partnered with Neiman Marcus to launch an online store that featured real editorial and merchandising, teams behind it. Instead of simply reporting on fashion shows, this early mover e-commerce site would use Style.com’s authority as a runway lookbook to connect consumers with the products they coveted, and Condé Nast would profit from the retail desire the online store was fueling. The team was small and the first collections they sold were decidedly elite (and considered way expensive for e-commerce at the time), but the venture would undoubtedly be worth it in the end.
But after the WTC attacks less than a week after the shop opened in the fall of 2001, the initial exuberance for high-end fashion e-tail suddenly seemed frivolous, and shoppers stopped shopping and the investment didn’t pay out as it was supposed to. Shuttered less than five months later, the online shop was written off as a failure, and the e-commerce bug disappeared from Style.com. Any future efforts to leverage fashion authority into direct commerce revenue, at both Style.com and Condé Nast, were small and unimaginitive. Style.com returned to its roots, bringing the runway to the masses. By now, however, Style.com had competition.
FirstView, online since 1995, had been studiously learning from Style.com, investing in photographers and videographers to improve the quality of content on its own site. And in 2005, Refinery29 was founded, opening its own online store shortly after, and expanding its editorial work outside of fashion.
Style.com also faced internal competition from Vogue. With one hundred years of history as a trusted fashion magazine, Vogue was much better funded than the upstart Style.com, and had access to fashion’s inner circle. When vying for resources, print dollars won out over digital pennies.
So, Condé Nast International Group has taken over the URL Style.com. They’ll run it in cooperation with the U.S. team as an entirely new British e-commerce website—completely separate from the original “Style.com.” Some of the old editorial team will move over to Vogue.com, some will go on to other things.
What could Condé Nast have done differently?
First, Condé Nast should have invested more aggressively in new tech. Style.com was an early adopting revolutionary, a true rarity in the fashion industry. When Style.com realized other sites were copycatting them, it could have been more effective at staying ahead of the pack with technology solutions and new ways to engage with users.
Second, Style.com should have found ways to avoid competing with Vogue, and new tech would have opened up new opportunities. Style.com couldn’t compete with Vogue to be the preeminent fashion authority, the site simply didn’t have the level of income to justify the kind of content creation required to be competitive (content that Vogue already mastered), or the 100-year brand history. But it did have unprecedented behind the scenes access and a hungry market that was more mass than Vogue’s. Exploring an e-commerce and runway review might have once offered a unique solution, but Refinery29 jumped on the idea that Style.com abandoned after its initial failure.
Third, Style.com could have worked as a startup within a larger media company. In fact, that’s how Style began. But the startup mentality that brought initial success quickly sputtered out; had it been sustained, Style.com might have been able to pivot on the initial e-commerce attempt. Startups are willing to lose now to win tomorrow.
But, hindsight is always 20/20, right?
What has FOUR32C learned?
Mark Jarecke started out at Condé Nast Digital, where he helped turn it into the revolutionary fashion icon that it was. Here’s some of what he learned from the experience.
“Anna Wintour was the best teacher I had. I’ve tried to bring some of what I learned from my time at Condé Nast Digital to FOUR32C.
“I think the first thing is that internal meetings are useless if there isn’t a clear purpose and action following the meeting. Don’t waste yours or anyone else’s time. I learned more one-on-one with Anna than I did in big group discussions.
“Surround yourself with amazing peers. I was so lucky to work with incredible editors, designers, engineers, and business folk at Condé Nast that have gone on to be leaders and influencers in the interactive space. Collaboration is key and a great team makes all the difference.
“Don’t overwork your staff. You have to be aware of what people can reasonably handle. That being said, you have to invest in the right people. If you have the right people doing the right jobs, you’ll have a smaller team creating better work.
“Invest in technology. It opens up new avenues for creativity. And you need to understand your users. I think those go hand-in-hand. Fashion magazine content is dictated by the editors. They’re the tastemakers. Digital is more of a platform for the masses, both because more people can access it and because the interface combined with data makes that content available to a wider audience. Vogue can’t rely on big stories like ‘I am Cait’, as Vanity Fair did, to stay relevant anymore, Condé Nast needs to think of their brands as more than a magazine if they want to compete.
“Good User Experience is Good Design. At Condé we worked on very complex tools and content hierarchies for both Style and Epicurious. The systems we created helped define their categories. This was an amazing opportunity to really understand the importance of good User Experience Design—how to simply express interactivity. We bring this discipline to every project.
“At FOUR32C, we bring an attitude of experimentation and curiosity to our engagements coupled with experience at building products that engage users. And we work fast and flexibly. We don’t do too many meetings. We rely on smart people. We get out there in the world and understand what’s interesting and new—regardless of category.
“Condé Nast has really struggled with digital products. I predict that if they don’t start adapting, their online properties are going to be outsmarted by leaner, hungrier, and more ambitious ones. And that’s not good. Condé Nast has historically brought the worlds or fashion, food, entertainment, and art to the masses. Ironically this is what the internet does really well.
Style.com Timeline of Events and Leadership
|Advance Publications creates CondéNet & Epicurious Launches||1995|
|Style.com Launches||2000||Goli Sheikholeslami
Sr. VP & Managing Dir.
|Style.com partners with Neiman Marcus to launch The Shop||2001||Candy Pratts Price
promted to Creative Director
|Spin-off Men.style.com Launches
Refinery 29 Launches
|Style.com iOS App Launches||2008||Mark Jarecke
leaves to form FOUR32C
|CondéNet moves under Condé Nast & Men.style.com closes||2009||Candy Pratts Prices
|Style.com reports to
Fairchild Fashion Media
President & CEO, FFM
VP & General Manager, Digital
|Style.com Print Magazine Launches||2011|
|Fairchild buys blog network NowManifest||2012||Sean Brown
Digital Creative Director
|Penske Media acquires Fairchild
Style goes back to Condé Nast
moves to W Magazine
|Style.com content moves to Vogue.com||2015||Nicole Phelps
moves to Vogue.com
moves to 23 Stories
FOUR32C is an interactive agency, NY. We’re curious digital natives who bring creativity and intelligence to the world’s most beloved brands. We create thoughtful, compelling interactive experiences by starting every project with questions. Our process leads to evocative digital products designed with a purpose for every pixel.