Byline: Nina Farrell

LOS ANGELES — What’s the biggest lesson to be learned from the Internet these days? It’s that branding is clearly the quickest route to the top of the virtual food chain.
And while many businesses online are racing to develop identities in the young but fast-growing Internet industry, the fashion world is in a different position than most.
Because of the highly visual and design-driven nature of the apparel business, the opportunity to take advantage of a medium like the Internet — whose users are specifically looking for that kind of stimulation — is vast, noted Marie Condron, a founder of Supply Curve.com, a cross-cultural site offering accessories, gifts, decorative objects, and beauty, spa and aromatherapy items.
Most online fashion destinations, however, are missing the mark in both function and design.
“Fashion on the Web is still in its infancy, and quite frankly, I’m disappointed in what I see,” Condron offered. “Although no one is denying that it’s hard to get a feel for where the Web is going, the possibilities for fashion are endless. Having a Web presence for your apparel business is important. And it’s also attainable.”
She was part of a panel discussion entitled, “Success.com: Doing Business Online,” held here last Thursday at downtown’s NewMart. The event, presented by the Fashion Business Incubator and the California Manufacturing Technology Center, and moderated by Dr. Gerda Govine of the California State University, Los Angeles, focused on the critical nature of creating a meaningful presence online via marketing, networking and cutting-edge graphics.
Yet a problem for many younger apparel designers is the discipline of branding themselves before they can really sell online. While the thrill of a money-producing machine like e-commerce is tantalizing nearly every industry, the philosophy behind creating a successful apparel business online is not unlike the principles of traditional retailing.
Panelist Jerry Washburn, president and chief executive officer of Little Red Wagon, a consulting and design firm, said he is constantly having to dispel the myth of the Web site that runs itself. Many companies are still going online and simply expecting the orders to start pouring in, he noted, but launching a site is only the first step to finding success in cyberspace.
“The Internet may be a whole new way of doing business, but it’s still a business,” Washburn said. “You have to work just as hard launching and running a Web site as you would opening up a clothing store. That’s how much has to go into it.”
Washburn, whose clients range from apparel companies like Lawman Express, a junior denim line, to online mortuaries and florists, has made a business of offering fully integrated e-commerce and design solutions for smaller Web sites.
As for where e-commerce fits into the equation, according to Condron it is not necessarily the ultimate goal of doing business online. For many designers, she advised, the Web is most useful as a way to advertise. “As a designer launching a site, whether your company is small or large, your site at that point should first and foremost be a marketing tool,” she explained. “It should be a place where people can go to learn about your designs, get information and find out where to shop for them.”
If that’s the case, then the look and feel of a site can make or break an online brand. Something to keep top-of-mind, said panelist Chris Conant, president of the Composition Group, a branding and design firm, is how easy it is for cybershoppers to use a site.
“On the Internet, usability is key,” he said. “It rules the way people navigate and the way they interact with a site. If a user becomes lost or can’t find what he’s looking for, he’ll go someplace else.”
Sites driven by a convergence between creativity and technology, while keeping their content concise and easy to use, are the ones capable of successfully branding themselves, Conant observed. “Branding on the Internet is about pushing a culture, and [about] a consistency in look that you’ve created and that will continue to draw users to the site,” he added.
The visual manifestation of the brand comes in many forms, whether it’s a strong logo or the use of flash animation. Conant warned, however, that heavy imagery can be tricky because whatever the graphic content, it should be relevant to what’s happening now. If the Web has taught us anything, he said, it’s that immediacy is vital. An element of timelessness in a brand, for example, can help avoid having to reevaluate a site’s look in five years, or sooner.
“Building a brand has everything to do with trust,” said Conant. “It’s a promise and a commitment and a sense of continuity. It always has been, and the Internet is no exception.”
Creating an identity and a presence both on and off the Web — together with intelligent marketing — can help to control your brand, Supply Curve’s Condron noted. In that sense, the Net is an excellent showcase for young, unknown designers trying to forge their way in fashion.
Once a brand is established, the next challenge is making oneself visible to the public. Creating a great Web site isn’t of much use unless people know to go there.
“You have to put yourself out there and advertise off the Web,” said panelist Steve Combs, a consultant for the California Manufacturing Technology Center, a management and operations firm specializing in systems development both on the Internet and off-line. “Don’t assume that once you put your site up, people will flock.”
Because the Internet is everywhere and nowhere, search engines have become extremely important to anyone interested in getting their site onto users’ computer screens.
“The backbone of my company has been registering my clients with search engines,” Washburn related. “It’s the quickest way to put your site out there.”
Similarly, Combs, who mainly deals with security issues and business strategies, urges clients to create a “splash” page, or home page, that tells people who you are.
Another way for smaller designers to establish a presence online is by networking, Condron said, noting that there is safety in numbers. Many sites are acting as fashion service providers by partnering with both large and small manufacturers to bring dozens of looks and styles to one home page.
Condron’s site, for example, merchandises goods from more than 20 boutique designers, beauty resources and artists. Supply Curve.com went live online last November and has accumulated an e-mailing list of approximately 4,000 subscribers thus far.
Condron and her partner are looking to bring in an outside investor toward the end of this year.
Another site that networks and brings together fashion from all over the globe is Shopping the World.com, an e-zine of sorts that brings the user inside the boutiques of Covent Garden and Rodeo Drive, among others, as well as offering updates on fashion trends. Shopping the World.com caters to a high-end, jet-setting lifestyle with its assortment of goods from approximately 90 designers of apparel, footwear and accessories.
The site, located at shoppingtheworld.com, was opened in December and is still forming a marketing strategy to build brand equity.
This month, Shopping the World will add goods from up-and-coming designers as well as editorial content from Paris, Milan and Tokyo.
Locally, sites such as Leftgear.com and Fabric8.com also collect a number of labels under one virtual roof. Leftgear’s home page proclaims the site carries “40 of L.A.’s hottest designers,” and it’s also an online guide to everything “Left” Coast. San Francisco-based Fabric8.com has combined humor with fashion to create a junior-oriented apparel business that offers style tips to its users.
“Networking with larger sites is the best way for young designers to get themselves on the Internet,” Condron advised. “That way, they’re letting us do the work for them and they can focus on what they do best, which is designing. All they really have to do is make sure we’re supplied with product.”
With so many avenues through which to enter into the vast, decentralized world of the Web, it all seems to be a matter of defining a niche and then cultivating it. And, as in any business, setting up shop and keeping it there can be more a matter of follow-through than jump start.
“There is so much room for apparel designers on the Internet,” said Condron. “Using the Web for what it’s worth and creating a brand identity that works for you can allow you to do tremendous amounts of business in the long run.”