After attending Cathy Horyn’s lecture last week at MOCAD, I started giving the intersection of fashion and the Internet some thought – a topic Horyn, a fashion critic at The New York Times, put at the forefront of her discussion. And why not, when nearly every other creative field is trying to find its niche in new media? There’s little reason why the fashion industry shouldn’t be able to adapt, but its presence online continues to remain limited at best.

The websites dominating fashion coverage tend to be the same publications that dominate in print – like Vogue, Elle and New York Magazine – but there’s still plenty of room for competition. But it’s not easy, especially when emerging sites are up against roomy budgets, teams of professional photographers and paid staffs of talented reporters elsewhere. The real obstacle, though, is developing new subject matter that only the Internet can provide.

Online content runs the gamut from runway photos and videos to model look-books and ongoing trend updates. Socialite gossip slips in somewhere between behind-the-scenes coverage and industry interviews. Considering the small percentage of people that actually find themselves intimately involved with the industry, it only makes sense that there’s a sizeable market for what goes on behind the velvet ropes.

But the market has divided into millions of individual opinions, with everyone desperate to add his or her voice to the seemingly exhausted stockpile of blog commentaries. With so much input coming from countless directions, how can anyone distinguish the legitimate from celebrity-gossip-laden tripe? Sure, it’s a hurdle that any valid source of online information struggles against, but it’s a particularly uphill battle for the fashion industry.

The trick is finding the holes that have yet to be filled, and according to Horyn, those opportunities rest firmly on the shoulders of merchandisers and designers.

Net-a-Porter.com has a near monopoly on the online sales of cutting-edge designers (with Neiman Marcus, perhaps, coming in close second). According to its website, Net-a-Porter “combines the visual and authoritative impact of a magazine with the shopping simplicity of a catalogue,” effectively merging the consumer’s familiar and tangible experiences with the possibilities of the Internet. Horyn said the company slipped into the market at just the right time, but even she’s surprised by Net-a-Porter’s lack of substantial competition and seems to think merchandisers could do more to keep pace.

Horyn also spoke about another venue ripe with potential – designers’ websites. Hectic year-round schedules might not leave designers with enough time or energy to respond to online demand, but the opportunity is too sweet to pass up. Most designers’ websites operate like an extended magazine ad, but such an approach is wasted when there’s already plenty to go around in print. People need to step away from the idea that fashion is just something pretty to look at – fashion requires interaction. The life of a garment doesn’t end at the foot of a runway. For a product that intends to directly affect its user in such a personal way, websites need to reflect the need and desire for two-way media outlets. (A Marxist might go so far as to say the consumer is so alienated from the garment’s production that we absolutely need to reintroduce ourselves to its assembly somehow, but that’s for another column.)

I completely agree when Horyn says the Internet provides new alternatives that aren’t being cultivated, but there’s a flip side to this equation: What might the Internet take away from the fashion industry? There are few things more exhilarating than that moment when the lights at a runway show flash on, illuminating the room so intensely that your heart has no choice but to skip a beat as music and energy infiltrate the space. Runway is performance, whether or not designers take full advantage of their stages. In photos, the bubbling environment is reduced to an empty backwash, so dynamic models become little more than static cut-outs floating in cyberspace. The demand for deadline reviews and instant online feedback detract from the artful production, and while videos might attempt to deliver this experience to the masses, nothing compares to the real thing.

I don’t mean to suggest that a fashion show should either be seen in person or not seen at all – hell, you’ll probably get a better view of the clothes on Style.com than you would sitting in the second row – but I’m disappointed that no one has created a viable substitute to the interactive quality of a runway show.

The presence of a crowd, the tone of the collection – these rich elements are lost (or destroyed) by their inadequate representations in the media, especially online, where the options for recreating a sense of involvement seem boundless.

Instead of trying to replace the first-hand experience entirely, why not aim to compromise both forms of participation? Don’t just tell the customer how a garment is made – show them. Don’t just snap a flash in the Tent – build a virtual one. I want to feel the mounting heat of a swarming line in Milan, waiting to get into a show; I want to stroll around Bryant Park, stealing glances at what the hot-shot editors are wearing – even if I am glued to my computer screen.

Without an updated technological method, fashion enthusiasts and the general public will only become more absently detached from an industry that is spilling over with smart, imaginative people and a ceaselessly progressive vision.

– Hartmann hates blogs, loves fashion. Send her your thoughts at carolinh@umich.edu.

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