So Condé Nast has finally thrown in the towel with style.com after a spend of $100m and after the business fell far short of expectations. Essentially what we’re now left with is a much-strengthened farfetch.com after Condé Nast announced a new partnership with the firm to fulfil the ambitions it had hoped to satisfy with style.com. And we also have Vogue Runway, which is essentially the old style.com but rebadged.
And frankly, I’ve not yet spoken to one person in the industry who’s been surprised. Not that they’ve simply watched from the sidelines as the new style.com e-commerce business got off the ground much more slowly-than-expected and generally failed to impress with its offer. Instead, there were few who felt it would make much of a dent to start with.
It reminds me a bit of boo.com. No, not boohoo.com, the phenomenally successful mass-market e-tailer. Sportswear e-store boo.com was an early entrant into the e-tail arena and back in the late 90s raised a scarily huge amount of money from names like Bernard Arnault and the Benetton family that should have known better. It burnt through much of it scarily fast too and eventually imploded.
At the time I worked on a news desk and my colleague MJ and I, who had to make contact with the firm pre-launch to see what was happening so we could write a steady stream of news stories, placed bets on how long it would take to go under. The story here was partly one of hubris and incompetence but mostly it was too early. Consumers weren’t ready to trust their fashion spend to that new-fangled thing called The Internet and even if they were, dial-up internet speeds meant it took forever for one product picture to appear.
style.com may not have had quite the same problems as boo.com, but an inability to meet promised launch deadlines, the luxury of a huge investment and bad timing all seem to have had an effect, even though it was a headline-grabber and had heavy-hitters like style influencer Yasmin Sewell as its fashion director.
This time though the timing wasn’t about bowing too early but perhaps just too late. Condé Nast wanted to leverage its online and social media content to allow the luxury brands it talks about to be directly shoppable. But shoppers who wanted to buy from Gucci, Prada, Loewe, Dior, Preen, Tommy Hilfiger or anyone else already had plenty of choices.
Luxury e-tail specialists like Matchesfashion, Farfetch and Net-A-Porter might be their first port of call, or maybe Harvey Nichols’ or Selfridges website, or perhaps they might go straight to Gucci, Prada, Loewe, Dior, Preen, Tommy Hilfiger’s own sites.
The biggest surprise about the announcement from Condé Nast is that it took the company quite a few months (the reborn style.com only launched last autumn) to realise all this. But once it decided, it seems to have moved fast.
Its link-up with e-tailer-of-the-moment Farfetch sees style.com‘s url redirecting to the Farfetch site. Given that Condé Nast had invested in Farfetch as long ago as 2014, it’s a surprise that it didn’t strike a deal much earlier. Condé Nast knows publishing, its magazines are some of the world’s best known and most respected. But it’s not a shopkeeper.
Farfetch is and seems tailor-made to satisfy the media giant’s ambitions. Its business model is perfect for a start. Farfetch is like a giant online fashion department store with sort-of concessions in it. Those concessions are 500-plus independent luxury boutiques that may or may not have their own websites but that get major exposure via the Farfetch portal.
The difference from a traditional concessions set-up is that customers don’t realise that’s what it is. They go into Farfetch and find products as they would for e-tail sites like Net-A-Porter or MyTheresa. The awareness of the fact that the size 38 you’re after might be in a boutique in Belgium while the size 40 is in London and the 42 in Milan comes later and even then, it’s not given heavy prominence.
It’s a business model that give the customer what she (or he) wants and also boosts the indie stores that sell through it. Congratulations to founder José News for thinking of it and good luck to him as he bags the world’s best known luxury publisher as a partner and prepares for a rumoured $5bn IPO.
But as I said, I’m still surprised it didn’t happen a few years ago…