MAKING IT WORK
WILL THE 24/7 VIRTUAL WORLD EMPOWER THE FASHION COMMUNITY OR ENSLAVE IT?
Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio / Leonard McCants
Will the Internet sap the creative spirit out of the fashion industry, turning its employees into computer drones? Or will it free people from the tyranny of mundane meetings, to empower them to become more involved in the design process?
Will the prevalence of virtual offices eliminate the need for dressing up? Or will it instead spark a pent-up desire to suit up?
These are questions that academics, trend watchers, fashion designers and more than a few potential worker drones are wrestling with as they try to predict how the Internet is going to affect work-life and lifestyle patterns.
Clearly, the Internet’s impact overall at the workplace and at home is just taking shape. And fashion, a world more comfortable with gut-instinct creativity than hard-core technology, is already lagging behind the times.
“The fashion industry is slow to get into this movement,” said Fulton MacDonald, an apparel consultant who in April launched CloseoutNow.com, a business-to-business auction service that allows sellers to get rid of excess inventory. “The industry is, by itself, inherently more art-focused than science-focused. It’s highly fragmented. It’s much more collegial. It relies on newness, fashion, color and style. That doesn’t translate well on the PC.”
Maybe not, but the train is going to leave the station whether fashion’s creative types are on board or not. MacDonald himself admitted that, just before he was interviewed, he’d saved himself several hours of shopping time by buying $1,500 worth of shirts as well as $2,000 on digital cameras — all online.
“I did it all through the Internet. I never spoke to a person,” he said.
Welcome to the New World Order.
Some fashion companies are indeed tapping into the Internet to communicate better with their consumers and suppliers. They are also feeding at the Net’s data trough, seeking out the latest trends in Italy; viewing images of swatches from a factory in Hong Kong; and downloading the latest music from Thailand. “The level of information is moving so quickly,” said DeeDee Gordon, a trend consultant who is taking her cool hunting service to the Web in June. “Things are moving instantaneously from country to country. “
On land, Gordon had been writing and distributing a quarterly trend digest called the L Report. Online, however, her Web site Look-Look.com will deliver to her clients the latest in music, fashion and sports, from around the globe, with much more frequency — virtually on demand — making full use of the Web’s facility with rich media.
In essence, the Net is insinuating itself into the very fiber of fashion’s world, whether many in that world fully realize it or not, and the process is picking up speed. It will change the structure of the interior workplace as well as the merchanisms that govern how companies relate to their suppliers and consumers.
Here, a look ahead:
Inside the Workplace: Cyberspace continues to speed up expectations. As client demands move from delivery tomorrow morning via FedEx to instant access via the Net, it is the workers that are being pushed to produce at a pace that keeps quickening.
“The Internet is changing the way we think, and structure and value our time at work,” said Mark Shields, assistant professor of technology, culture and communication at the University of Virginia. “We’re asked to process more information in a tighter timespan.” And the speed at which workers are asked to perform is infecting other aspects of their lives.
“I think it has an effect on our notion of intellectual depth. It’s made it more shallow,” Shields said. “The waves of information we have to process have made it more difficult to engage in meditative, reflective thought. You spend a lot more time skimming and browsing, instead of reading things carefully.”
Only a couple of years ago, workers relied primarily on phone calls, meetings and doorway chats for interaction. Now, of course, there’s e-mail. With a mouse click, colleagues can voice their opinions, set up meetings and check up on the status of a project, and all at a step further removed from actual human contact.
To some, including Web-savvy fashion players Tommy Hilfiger and Kenneth Cole, that promises greater efficiency. But does that make for warmth in the workplace? Etiquette doyenne Letitia Baldrige believes it “makes for a colder, less-efficient” work world.
“In the office, if people could use the Internet to make people feel better — pay a compliment, for example — then that’s one thing,” Baldrige commented. “But people should get off their duffs, walk out of their offices and talk face-to-face.”
Elaine Hughes, a recruiting executive in the fashion business, said that the Internet’s invasion into fashion’s traditional work space is not necessarily a positive development. “With e-mail, you are documenting the entire world. When ideas become documented, they are not subject to creative interpretation,” she explained.
“What the Internet is doing is confining the idea process, while the greatness of the fashion industry is the creativity on the product side. It sterilizes the business that has prided itself on being the purveyor of creativity.”
Designer Kenneth Cole accepts the scenario that the Internet could have a harmful effect on communications, but he believes that’s not happening in his office.
“People are more connected. People have more access. They are more efficient. They can be part of the process. With the press of the button, you can speak to anyone,” he said.
Cole is convinced that his employees’ access to cyberspace during work has cut down on the total number of meetings, weeding out the mundane and improving the productivity of those meetings that remain. “They are more conceptual, more strategic,” he said.
Tommy Hilfiger believes that thanks to the Internet, communications have improved among employees at his company, while still allowing him to “see people face-to-face.”
Hilfiger also said he values the Web as a personal tool. “I am an information addict. I would like to download as much information as possible,” he explained.
Reaching Outside: As it does for many others, the Internet promises to reshape how fashion firms interact by streamlining the flow of information. It’s a gradual process — even at one of fashion’s earliest pioneers in Web-based business-to-business communications, Liz Claiborne, which started building a digital B2B culture in 1997.
“We are still rolling out many of our B2B initiatives,” said John Thompson, senior vice president of services, systems and distribution at Liz Claiborne. “We have pockets in the organization that are much more exposed. But in terms of a cultural evolution, we have not seen it yet.”
Claiborne’s first step was an extranet that allowed its retail partners to check the status of orders online. In the fall of 1998, Claiborne launched Lizatmarket, a virtual showroom that enables golf pro shops to view the Lizgolf line, right down to the stitch of a garment, and then place orders on the spot. Thompson said Liz Claiborne’s casual division is next in line for a virtual upgrade, with more to follow over the next six to eight months.
Far from sterilization, Thompson said Claiborne’s goal in all this is to enrich its buyers’ experiences.
“They can view the product online, touch the fabric in the showroom and then go back to their offices and view it again.”
Then, of course, there’s the Web’s inevitable impact on companies’ relationships with consumers.
Hilfiger believes his Web site, Tommy.com, launched in December, has taught him a lot more about his customers. Currently, it builds community by drawing visitors with content such as celebrity coverage and company news, and a members-only Club Tommy feature. It will eventually sell selected merchandise online.
“It creates stickiness,” Hilfiger said. “At the end of the day, the brand names that are going to survive have to have tremendous amount of money to draw people to the site.”
However, Peter Connolly, who heads up the company’s Web site efforts, said Hilfiger’s online venture is going to replace any existing real-world contact with customers. “It’s just another vehicle,” he said. “The successful Web sites will be the ones that stay true to the lifestyle core, true to the equity of the brand.”
Work Versus Play: Growing use of the Internet not only at work, but also at home is dissolving the notion of distinct settings for work and leisure, by circumventing the formal structures that had kept those two worlds apart for so long.
“It’s obliterated the objectivity of that demarcation between home and work places,” University of Virginia’s Shields said. “Now, you have to construct it yourself.”
Roberta Elins, chairwoman of the advertising and marketing communications department at the Fashion Institute of Technology, sees the Net as just another tool that gives individuals the power to define their own work space and time. “It’s not much different from bringing home paper files. The people who brought them home before will check their e-mail at home,” she said.
This blurring of work and home may even prompt a revival of the days, more than 150 years ago, when folks literally worked and lived in the same space, said Shields. “The Industrial Revolution created a separate home and workplace,” he said. “Now, we’re going back. It tells you that technological change is not one linear movement away from the past.”
Designer Cole believes that the blurring between work and play time has given him more flexibility. “I can choose to sleep or get up at 2 in the morning and work,” he said.
Clothes that fit the space: So, with the Internet clearly making it much easier for more people to work from home, what will happen to clothing trends? Some argue that there will be less of a need for career clothes as the number of face-to-face meetings dwindles. On the flip side, those virtual-office workers could develop more of a desire to dress up when they do step out in public.
“People will look to dress more excitingly,” said David Wolfe, creative director at The Doneger Group. “You will see people becoming ‘suitier’ when they meet clients.”