The new fashion retailers

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When the women’s ready-to-wear shows begin today in New York, they will be punctuated with the many champagne-fuelled branded store openings that accompany the beginning of the fashion season, from Tommy Hilfiger in New York to Anthropologie in London and Uniqlo in Paris. There will be one retail event, however, that is unlike the others.

On Tuesday, Barneys will launch a “pop-up” shop within its Manhattan department store called Sartorialust that will, says a Barneys spokesperson, be “a temporary showcase ... which we expect to be very natty and eclectic showing how old school Italian can be mixed with designer in a very cool way.” To anyone not involved in fashion, this may not mean much, but what marks out this occasion is that the temporary space will be “curated” (ie, stocked) by a photographer called Scott Schuman.

Who?

Mr Schuman, otherwise known as The Sartorialist, is the man behind a blog of the same name that features photographs of men and women whose style he likes on the street; the pictures are posted online immediately, accompanied by a short commentary. Mr Schuman started the blog “simply to share photos of people that I saw on the streets of New York that I thought looked great” and has since travelled the world shooting regular, stylish people.

Ed Burstell, buying director at Liberty who is responsible for bringing the pop-up shop to the London store for London Fashion Week later this month, calls the blog a “cult-like hit”. The success of the site can be attributed both to Mr Schuman’s aesthetic skill – the shots are all notably well framed and lit – and his judgment: the people featured tend to look original and great, but not weird, so there is an informational aspect to the site. It isn’t sensational, but user-friendly.

However, though Mr Schuman is a talented photographer and a good judge of chic with a book based on the blog out this month, there’s nothing in his pictures to suggest he should be a retailer, or has any real retail credentials. He does have some experience in the area – he ran his own showroom in New York prior to 9/11 and worked in sales and marketing with Valentino and the distribution company Onward Kashiyama – but his blog fans don’t follow him because of that; as far as they’re concerned, he’s a name behind a lens.

Yet he and a group of fashion insiders like him – including Tyler Brûlé, founder and editor-in-chief of the magazine Monocle and a columnist for this newspaper who has opened three Monocle-branded shops on the back of an internet retail shop linked to the magazine’s website, and Nick Candy of the luxury real estate group Candy & Candy, who is planning to open retail outlets to sell the fittings and furniture from his flats even though he has no background in design – are moving out of the shadows and into the world of shopkeeping.

The result, says Robert Burke, president of the luxury consultancy Robert Burke Associates, is a “new wave” of vendors. Indeed, Mr Burke sees this as the next evolution of niche retail: after the socialite retailer (Gloria Vanderbilt, Tory Burch) and the celebrity designer (Jennifer Lopez, Sarah Jessica Parker) comes the socially networked retailer.

Thes difference is that the earlier non-trained retailers were women who clearly wore – and were photographed in – clothes that defined their style and represented a public track record of their taste. For their followers, the decision to shop at their stores was, in effect, a decision about whether or not they wanted to look like a celebrity.

By contrast, Mr Schuman and his ilk have a largely virtual track record, and with it, an even larger virtual community. Mr Schuman’s blog, for example, gets approximately 140,000 hits a day.

Monocle’s website gets 890,000 page views a month, and its shopping page has about 850 visitors per day. Compare this with the magazine’s hard copy subscription number of 12,500; if even a quarter of the online fans become bricks-and-mortar customers, the shops will be in the black.

Indeed, Mr Brûlé notes that his London store had paid for itself within a month of opening, a fact he attributes to its tiny size (“we have a 100 sq ft model,” he says), opportunity in the real estate market, purposefully low overheads and the “people who find us online or in a news agent and come to hang out”.

Likewise, he says, the store in Palma de Mallorca has worked partly because readers who knew the magazine via its online version but could not get it locally went to the boutique in search of the brand.

Similarly, Liberty’s Mr Burstall notes that one reason the store is attracted by Mr Schuman is his “fanatic” online following.

Mr Candy says the idea for his store was sparked by the number of requests from consumers who had viewed the company’s work on the web or in person, and asked if they could buy select bits of the fittings, rather than employing the firm for an entire project. “Having a store will allow people to buy into our world in a way they couldn’t before,” he says. “The great advantage is we already know them; we just have to let them know where to go.”

Just as celebrities and socialites before them could branch out into retail by taking advantage of the values and groups their media coverage generated, now the internet allows a similar move as otherwise low-profile people who would have had no opportunity to air their views can present themselves as experts in their fields simply by claiming the title for themselves. And though Mr Brûlé is arguably better known than either Mr Schuman or Mr Candy, he is still more publicly linked to Wallpaper*, his first publishing effort, than Monocle, which he has presented as a standalone (if slightly obscure) brand name.

“The media is now such that if you have a strong point of view you can put it in a blog and it will show through, even if you don’t have a lot of money,” says Mr Schuman. “Then people will find you. The blog started because I think I had read a book called Just Make Yourself an Authority and it made a lot of sense to me. I thought, ‘I know what I like, and everyone else can decide if they agree’.”

“Fashion is based on dictatorships,” says Mr Burke. “You know: the 10 must-haves of the season. What the internet has done is democratise that, so there are many more voices who can be dictators.”

Combined with the current retail climate, which has seen many stores forced into fire sales, he adds that this has created an opportunity for entrepreneurs like Mr Schuman. According to Mr Burke, a former senior vice-president of fashion at Bergdorf Goodman, department stores under financial pressure traditionally protect their bottom lines by sticking with names and brands they know and styles that they know sell, a strategy that may be safe but is rarely enough to inspire consumers to buy during difficult economic periods.

New retailers fresh from the wild, wild west of the internet and free from any obligations or history are more likely to make innovative decisions about stock that can result in sales. It’s an inversion of the current equation that sees brands with stores moving into online retail; instead, these online names are moving into bricks and mortar.

“Traditionally, luxury retailing and the internet have not gone hand-in-hand, but I think that’s because we were coming at it from the wrong direction,” says Mr Candy. “Instead of trying to move people from stores to the virtual world, we are now trying to migrate them the other way.”

Vanessa Friedman is Fashion Editor for the Financial Times. She writes a weekly column on style, which can be found at www.ft.com/friedman

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