App Time

As the fashion flock gets techy, apps are quickly becoming the chicest way to shop.


You can watch a short film by Karl Lagerfeld, listen to Gucci creative director Frida Giannini’s custom playlists and gaze at Donna Karan’s snapshots from her Ethiopian holiday. We’re talking smart-phone apps here, the latest It item for fashion houses. Yet while plenty are jumping on the bandwagon, only a handful are making sure their mobile applications are shoppable. And no offense to Giannini and her favorite songs or Karan and her vacation, but the sartorial-minded know what’s most important in the grand scheme of things: shopping.

“An app is about wasting time or saving time, and one of the easiest ways to save time is to make shopping very quick and easy,” says James Gardner, founder and CEO of CreateThe Group, an interactive marketing agency for fashion and retail. “A key reason for doing m-commerce is to allow you to purchase whatever you want, wherever you are.” (M-commerce, by the way, is techspeak for mobile commerce, and it’s a catchphrase that could soon become as popular as “e-mail.”) Gardner’s company has collaborated with David Yurman and Karan on their apps, neither of which offers m-commerce, but Team Karan says to expect it before the year ends.

Apple’s App Store—where more than 140,000 apps are available—has yet to give fashion its own category. So all designers are located within the Lifestyle genre, which is upwards of 430 pages long and chock-full of everything from “Adorable Kittens” to “Zen Proverbs.” (Google features apps for its phones at its Android Market, and BlackBerry does the same at its App World, but so far designers are taking the more popular Apple route.) Apple doesn’t comment on the ifs and whens of launching new categories—there are currently 20—though one executive, who wished to remain anonymous, says there “might” be a fashion classification around the corner, but the company “likes surprises to be surprises.”

Diane von Furstenberg has a few tricks up her chiffon sleeve: The designer’s first app is set to arrive this spring, offering about 20 key pieces via “Looks We Love,” a compilation of press and buyer favorites updated quarterly. “It’s a step in growing our business, because we want to give people the option to shop in whatever way they want,” says von Furstenberg. “We already do so many things from our phones, so shopping is a natural progression.”

Tommy Hilfiger has been at it since last fall with his free app (most designer ones don’t cost a cent), which offers his entire collection for sale. “It’s just like shopping in our stores but without the crowds,” is how he puts it. Lacoste will make a similar move this spring, when its m-commerce app hits the iPhone circuit. “We’re not doing anything too gimmicky,” says CEO Steve Birkhold. “Our customers want their polo shirts, and they want to get to them quickly and move on to their next application.”

Speaking of polo shirts, Ralph Lauren has two apps: Ralph Lauren Collection and Rugby Ralph Lauren, the latter of which lets users customize rugby shirts and buy them right then and there. But that’s not the case at the designer’s Collection app, where customers can rotate an image of the iconic Ricky bag, but a shopping cart icon is nowhere in sight. Company execs say there are no plans to add m-­commerce to the app, even though Lauren’s son David notes that he and his father are both big app fans. “My favorite one is Shazam,” says David, the company’s senior vice president of advertising, referring to the app that recognizes any song playing by holding the phone in the air. “And I always visit the Rugby app, because I love showing my friends how to create their own designs.”

Shoppers can’t whip up their own button-downs at Gap StyleMixer, but they can virtually match the clothes in their closet with those of the retailer’s—and buy any item (excluding children’s) they desire from its m-commerce store, which was added to the app in December. “We started to get feedback from users who were saying things like, ‘Oh, I really like that jacket, but I wish I could buy it,’” says Grace Wong, senior director of brand communications. As for the StyleMixer shtick, Wong likens it to Clueless. “Remember when Alicia Silverstone’s in her rotating closet?” Wong asks. “Imagine you had your whole closet on your app, and you could put outfits together, save them and share them with friends. That’s what we’re doing.”

While companies like the Gap and Rugby have pushed themselves to get creative with their apps, some Web sites barely had to rethink their strategies. Gilt Groupe, for instance, revolves around exclusive online sample sales that begin every day at noon Eastern time and end 36 hours later. So the company’s m-commerce app, Gilt on the Go, was a no-brainer. “We had a number of very vocal customers who were kind of crying out because they weren’t at their desks when our sales were starting,” says Shan-Lyn Ma, director of product management. Net-a-Porter’s app, meanwhile, mimics its Web site experience, which means access to more than 300 luxury brands with a few taps. (This just in: Net-a-Porter and J. Crew have teamed up. So come May, some of the retailer’s merch can be snapped up on Net-a-Porter’s app.)

Shopping is the holy grail for customers, but for now there are many fashion apps out there still missing that magic “Buy now” key. And at Gucci that’s by design. “I didn’t want it to be a one-dimensional, fashion-only app,” says Giannini, who teamed up with producer pal Mark Ronson to create the app’s custom playlists and Gucci Beats, a virtual turntable of sorts where guests can DJ mixes. “I started from the idea of creating an intersection of fashion, music, lifestyle and technology—but music is at the heart of it.”

Chanel, the first luxury fashion house to enter the App Store, zeroes in on its runway shows and ad campaigns, and it’s a similar story chez Fendi and D&G. Currently, the latter has no m-­commerce plans, but that doesn’t dissuade Stefano Gabbana from justifying his app. “We don’t do clothes for ourselves,” he says, “so we value the opportunity of having a dialogue to better understand what people want.”

Besides, Gabbana and Domenico Dolce are ahead of the game, since most designer houses still fall into the have-not category (we’re talking to you, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Prada and Yves Saint Laurent). CreateThe Group’s Gardner thinks the fashion set is simply taking a “more considered approach to apps,” while others say that, for newer designers at least, it’s all about the Benjamins—the average app launch costs anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000.

Jason Wu, however, just needs time to do his homework, which includes adding new content to his Web site and bringing e-commerce into the mix. After that he’ll think about keeping up with the Joneses. “Right now we’re building the groundwork,” he says. “I don’t want to do something overnight just because everyone else is doing it.”

As for Richard Chai, he’s enjoying the calm before the storm. “There’s a certain intimacy that I would like to keep with my brand, and we’re still young, so I feel an app isn’t appropriate yet.” In other words, he prefers to keep it old-school. “There is a classic side to me,” he says. “I still draw with a No. 2 pencil.”

Retouching: Retouching Limited. Net-a-porter image: courtesy of Net-A-Porter.