How one woman made online shopping the height of fashion
As Net-A-Porter celebrates its 10th birthday, Liz Kearney looks at the rise of an industry
Imagine a shop where every new dress, from every leading designer, from every new collection, was laid out on an endless rail in front of you, clearly visible from all angles and shown off to its best advantage.
Imagine if, when you touched one, it was transformed in an instant: styled up with shoes, accessories, and a handbag, making it even easier to imagine how you might wear it.
Sounds too good to be true? Welcome to the world of online shopping at high-end fashion website Net-A-Porter -- a site founded 10 years ago, when the idea of parting with your hard-earned cash for a frock you couldn't even try on, let alone touch, seemed ridiculous.
But today some three million visitors browse the site each month, with Net-A-Porter reporting roughly 1,000 sales per day. So, just when did we decide that it was okay to buy a pair of jeans we'd never tried on? And how did one website lead the way?
Rewind a decade, back to the year 2000. We were slowly beginning to get over the novelty of the internet and to realise how useful it could be in our everyday lives -- particularly when it came to helping us part with our hard-earned cash.
Amazon, up and running since 1995, had opened our eyes to the pleasures and ease of buying books online. CD Wow, founded in 2000, brought cheap CDs to the market, and three years later, iTunes was launched, revolutionising the way we bought music.
Gradually, as the decade wore on, we got used to the idea of buying online and as internet security developed, we got over our nervousness at sharing our credit-card details. We started buying groceries from websites -- one friend of mine even bought a car on eBay. Last year, 37pc of Irish people bought at least one item on the internet, up from just 14pc in 2004.
But buying clothes seemed the biggest leap of all. After all, watch any woman in a clothes shop: she'll browse, touch, stroke, and sometimes even smell garments before she even decides what to try on. And she knows that what looks fabulous on the hanger can be downright hideous on. How could she be persuaded to buy something online without ever having touched it?
Net-A-Porter's founder Natalie Massenet has a lot to answer for. Ten years ago she was a 34-year-old fashion journalist, stylist and mum of two who was itching to set up her own business.
Originally, she had her sights set on a chain of coffee shops, but was advised that there was no money in it.
She took that advice on board and opted, instead, for her high-end fashion website. Net-A-Porter, she has said, is a magazine for the 21st century: "A hybrid between a store and a magazine that was delivered digitally".
Whatever she calls it, it's been a roaring success: in April this year, she sold the website for an estimated £50m, and immediately reinvested £15m of that back into the business. Today she is the company's executive chairman and is widely credited with revolutionising the way women buy clothes.
Net-A-Porter succeeded because it had a winning combination of an attractive, well designed site and a huge choice of beautiful, albeit very expensive, clothes.
Crucially, it also offered fantastic customer service and made returning or exchanging items simple -- and free.
When I was given a Tibi shift dress from Net A Porter one Christmas which was the wrong size, one quick email to the website later, a courier picked it up, and I had the correct size in my hand just a few days later. It couldn't have been simpler.
And then there's the wow factor -- anyone who's ever received a black Net-A-Porter box, unwrapped the ribbon and the tissue paper within, to reveal a piece of couture, a bag or a pair of shoes knows what a thrill it is.
"It's a bit of a guilty pleasure," admits Debbie O'Donnell, executive producer of TV3's Expose and a keen online shopper. "When that box arrives. It's very exciting."
Massanet had made buying online sexy -- and easy. Soon, websites such as ASOS.com and Mywardrobe.com were growing in popularity, and the big high-street names also began trading online.
The trend continues to grow: earlier this year eBay launched a new fashion outlet, offering heavily discounted items from high-street stores, and Amazon opened a shoe boutique.
For working women like Debbie, these sites are a way of keeping up to date with trends without wasting hours trampling around shopping centres.
"People don't want to spend all day Saturday trailing around the shops any more," says fashion consultant Maria Kelly. "They just don't have the time."
Debbie O'Donnell agrees. "Since having my baby -- he's two and a half now -- I don't have time to go into the shops to look around any more. So I look online instead. And with the recession, now that I have less money at my disposal, I'm looking around for more competitive prices as well. I shop around more."
But for all that, the old-fashioned 'bricks-and-mortar' store still has plenty to offer. For many women, nothing can beat the pleasure of going into a well loved boutique, trying on a dress, falling in love with it and taking it home there and then.
Maria Kelly says while most of her clients are prepared to browse for inspiration online and do a bit of pre-shopping research, they are reluctant to actually buy something they haven't tried on.
"There are still a lot of people out there who are wary of buying online, often because of the different sizes in different shops," she says.
"If you go into Topshop, or Coast or Monsoon, the size 10 will vary. Karen Millen especially would be a small fit."
It's important, too, says Maria, to see the material for yourself and it can be hard to see on a computer screen how a fabric will sit.
"I often need to look at the material and have a closer look at the clothes to see would it disguise a problem stomach, for instance."
For 'bricks and mortar' stores to survive in the face of growing online competition, they need to really know what their customers want, says Brown Thomas managing director Stephen Sealey.
"The secret of our success is our edit," he says. "We know our customers. We know some of them specifically, others we know more generally. We know what suits Irish people -- we know that for normal Irish skin, some colours are a disaster. We know the weather -- so we know that in the middle of winter, we're going to need more than two thin pieces of silk stitched together.
"We have built a lot of good personal relationships and clients rely on recommendations and a certain amount of business is done on the back of personal recommendations.
"For a lot of people there is no substitute for touching and feeling a garment."
Sealey admits that he keeps an eye on the development of websites like Net-A-Porter, but is confident stores like his will continue to provide what their customers need -- a welcoming environment, a great collection of clothes and crucially, a social outlet: all women know the pleasure of shopping with friends, gossiping while browsing the rails. It will take a while before the internet can match that.