From a retail and research point of view, then, the Internet is coming on in leaps and bounds. What is not quite so impressive is the way that these sites actually look. The Internet as a medium is not nearly as visually pleasing as the increasingly sophisticated pages of fashion magazines, not to mention designer ad campaigns, and the brains behind the aforementioned sites have broken little ground where this is concerned. Enter Peter Saville and Nick Knight - big-name British graphic designer/art director and photographer respectively, and two of the most visually literate minds of the past 20 years - and their new site, show.uk.com, and you have a very different story.
"The Internet is the most quickly expanding medium in the world," Knight says, "but part of the problem with the web is that it looks so ugly. It's one of the ugliest mediums ever, because you get this window in the middle of your desktop area, and you have all your desktop items all over it, everything overlaps. It's like me trying to show you a nice picture, and it's the size of a Snappy Snap print, and I put it on a copy of the Yellow Pages, or the Radio Times, so it looks a mess. Most of the stuff printed and shown isn't designed to be shown on the Net. You're dealing with different chemical reactions. The colours work differently. In some ways, you're developing a whole new medium."
This is precisely what show.uk.com aims to do. The site will include short films, shot specifically for the Internet, musical accompaniments, pulsed images, as well as stills. Knight is setting up Net cams in his studio so those who care about such things will be given behind-the-scenes access to some of the most high-profile models, stylists and hair and make-up artists in the world, working live with the photographer from his studio.
"The Internet is a very democratic medium. It occurs to me that I would have loved to have been there when Richard Avedon was shooting Dovima and the Elephants. All those great pictures that you see as one moment in time and we try and read into them, see the painful process gone through to reach those images. Fashion photography is very glamorous, but when you go into a photographic session it actually doesn't have that much glamour to it. But there are odd moments."
It helps somewhat that to say Knight and Saville are well connected would be something of an understatement.
"I said to Nick, if we do this, it can't just be the Nick and Peter show," says Saville, "that would just be embarrassing. We should invite other people to contribute, so now it has evolved into a big, moving, group show."
Those who have already contributed to show.uk.com include Massive Attack, Kate Moss, Craig McDean, Corinne Day, David Chipperfield... the list goes on. The list of those involved with the site reads like a Who's Who of British fashion and culture, and it's barely started. The possibilities seem to be endless. So, given the visual restrictions of the medium, what exactly is the appeal?
"Often Vogue talk to me about photographing the modern urban woman, that's where they're aiming at," says Knight. "Well, the modern urban woman has breast cancer and is in a car crash. But that's not the modern urban woman I'm photographing for Vogue. There is a balance there that needs redressing. The site gives me somewhere where I can communicate those things. It isn't meant to shock. It's just a way of speaking, another visual communication - a bit like starting a magazine or a television channel."
Knight has long challenged the fashion establishment, safe in the knowledge that, if you are actually going to change anything, you're more likely to be able to do so from within. As well as shooting huge global commercial campaigns for the likes of Christian Dior and, more recently, Lancome, his more visually challenging work has recently included photographing models in their seventies and eighties, for a Levi's ad campaign, Sophie Dahl for i-D, and the equally curvaceous Sara Morrison for British Vogue.
The photographer was also behind the series of portraits of men and women with physical disabilities that appeared in Dazed & Confused, guest edited by Alexander McQueen. Given that all of these have sparked some of the most heated fashion discourse in the last decade, it's safe to say this man is willing to put his money where his mouth is.
Saville, equally, sees show.uk.com as an arena for expressing ideas that may not fit into the commercial mould. As someone who spent his formative years as a graphic designer/art director at Factory Records, working first with Joy Division then New Order, he feels he was "spoilt in many ways. I had complete freedom to do exactly what I wanted. There was no agenda."
His first experience working with Nick Knight was, to Nineties sensibilities, almost indulgently creative. In the mid-Eighties, while Saville was busy creating a new visual identity for the Whitechapel Gallery, then presided over by current Tate director, Nicholas Serota, he teamed up with Knight, art director Marc Ascoli, and fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto to produce collections catalogues that changed the face of fashion as we know it.
"The notion of a graphic design sensibility - the way a logo looked, the typography - being integral to photography had never really happened before," Saville says. The people he worked with at that time, he notes, were more like patrons than clients. Today, with only a handful of corporate giants handling both the fashion and music industries, both are bigger businesses than they were then. Commercial restraints are, therefore, greater.
"I don't think it's right to grab the first bit of commercial work that comes your way and make it fit your own agenda. Neither is the devaluation of a moral agenda for the purpose of promoting fashion consumerism acceptable. That leads me to show.uk.com. I've always had things I wanted to do without the consideration of a client, things that weren't art but they were coming from the heart, if only from the part of the heart that goes shopping if you like."
It is precisely because neither Saville or Knight wanted to mould their ideas to suit any such commercial requirements that show.uk.com is entirely self-funded. Saville says: "We don't want investment because then there's no such thing as a free lunch. Our site isn't boo.com, it's not Nike or whatever, we're not selling clothes," Knight adds. "We haven't asked anyone for any money for the site. I didn't want to accept any money from anyone who will put a financial spin on it. I don't want us to have to meet an audience of 30,000 or 40,000 or whatever. If one person looks at one of the things on the site, then that's fine."
show.uk.com is likely to have more of an impact than that, however. Early work put out on the site will include Diamonds - a short film by Knight in which Kate Moss, filmed through the window of a Manhattan skyscraper, relates the story of the diamond necklace given to her by Johnny Depp. Suffice to say, Depp did unspeakable things with the piece before handing it over. Then there's Doll Story, a shoot of a model made up by Knight's children, their young family and friends. "We laid down all this make- up and the children painted the model completely free of restraint," Knight says.
Sweet features stylist Jane How's favourite garments from the collections, remade out of sweet wrappers then filmed by Knight on a 3D scanner. But Saville's Waste Paintings will have pride of place on show.uk.com. These are pieces created at the end of each commercial job, at which point the designer shreds any material and "turns it into something better, hopefully, make it like a Rothko". Knight's obsession with cars is in evidence in Crush. The photographer has placed cameras inside a car which has then gone on to be pulped - Massive Attack have produced the soundtrack.
There's a glorious creative freedom to the whole, not seen in this country or anywhere else for that matter, for many years. The only question it raises is whether Knight and Savillemight possibly be accused of biting the hand that feeds them.
"Good," says Knight. "It deserves to be bitten."
Saville says: "The Internet is possibly the most egalitarian means of communication. A kid can sit in his bedroom in Norway and play a guitar and people can hear it - he doesn't need a record company. A boy can write a book in India and he doesn't need a publisher. I said to Nick, if we had a home page we could just do all the things we want to do."
A visual treat's in store, then, for the humble likes of you and me.
show.uk.com launches in mid-January