Fashion 2.0: Digital dress-up
Online shopping has revolutionised the way we buy our clothes and now new technology is changing our habits in store, too. Harriet Walker gives the latest gadgets a go
After a decade in which online retail has threatened to almost annihilate traditional bricks and mortar, you could be forgiven for assuming that shopping on your own two feet was a thing of the past. Add to this one of the worst economic crises in history – a period which has seen footfall plummet on the high street – and it looks as if the future's digital.
It is, but not in the way you might assume. A spate of recent openings in the capital is proof of how fashion brands are adapting to compete with the rise of online convenience by fitting their premises out with technological gadgetry that promises to make shopping there an experience well worth the effort.
"Many luxury brands have been reluctant to embrace new technologies as their values rest on craftsmanship and tradition," explains Olivia Solon, associate editor of Wired magazine. "But a new breed of creative technologists and interaction designers are showing that circuit boards and pixels can be beautiful and aspirational as well as functional and ubiquitous." It depends to which theory you subscribe: that being in a shop makes you more likely to spend, or that the ease of one-click purchasing is more liable to make you profligate.
Either way, businesses must come up with increasingly complex – not to mention entertaining – ways of parting us from our cash. The new Burberry store on London's Regent Street is a monument to the brand's 156-year history as a heritage supplier of traditional outerwear. But alongside the pomp and circumstance sits some of the high-spec tech that the brand has become famous for recently. The 44,000 sq ft space houses 500 speakers and 100 screens, which feature brand imagery and catwalk videos, but will come into their own at in-store gigs and live-streamed fashion shows.
"Regent Street is one of the most architecturally and culturally significant projects we have undertaken," says Christopher Bailey, the label's chief creative officer, "bringing our physical and digital worlds together to create amazing experiences that encompass everything from fashion, to heritage, to music."
The aim is make customers feel like they are physically within the brand's website. If that sounds slightly oppressive, think of it this way: shopping in this store feels like the future as you imagined it as a child.
The old-school luxury is there (but of course) with added extras. Mirrors morph into video screens as you approach and at certain times of day, they screen rain showers within the store as part of an exciting immersion exercise; one that will, Burberry hopes, subliminally encourage you to buy one of their famous trenches.
Bring an item close to one of the mirrors and the screen shifts automatically to give you a 360-degree view of it. Sure, you could just turn it over in your hands – but who wants that when you can have it projected 15-feet high? Take a jacket into one of the changing rooms and an auto-sensory tag inside directs the mirror to show you it with zoom-able details, or as it was worn in the catwalk show. That might mean seeing how a 7ft-tall 19-year-old looked in it, but what's self-esteem compared to feeling a bit like Tom Cruise in Minority Report?
"It can be a bit gimmicky and tacky," says Olivia Solon, "but luxury brands seem to be extremely conscious of this – it very much depends on the execution." In Mayfair, a three-storey Georgian townhouse has recently been refurbished as the flagship store of McQ, Alexander McQueen's sister label. In the window, painstakingly embroidered, full-skirted tulle and appliqué dresses stand as testament to the house's commitment to atelier-level workmanship, while inside a raft of whizzy electronic devices are just as indicative of its progressive mindset.
Placing magnetic frames onto a touch-screen table allows you to explore the label's lookbooks and catwalk imagery; with one drag and flick, you can "throw" pictures onto a floor-to-ceiling screen on the wall opposite to either watch the show or see outfits in glorious technicolor. If there's something you particularly like, you can email it to yourself or your friends, or share it on Facebook or Twitter, with another few swipes. And all the while, you can pretend you're manning the Starship Enterprise.
We wanted to create a story and a home for McQ," explains McQueen's creative director Sarah Burton. "The store offers special catwalk pieces alongside ready-to-wear collections in a rich, immersive environment."
The mens- and womenswear floors boast interactive mirrors, which switch from slideshows to giant cameras when you step in front of them. Try on some of this season's Blackwatch tartan, snap yourself and email it to your friends to get their opinion on whether to buy it or not. It builds on the fact most people are taking these kinds of shots on their phones behind the curtains anyway – only this time, you do it on the shop floor. But if you're posting the picture on Facebook, chances are you're no shrinking violet.
While these installations are undeniably fun, it remains to be seen how efficacious they might be at pulling us out of our spending slump. But they make being inside a store more exciting and will go some way towards making customers feel valued as visitors rather than mere cash-cows. The digital aspects of these new stores are as much part of a branding exercise as they are about gathering data from social media, widening appeal or luring you in.
That's the logic behind the interactive screen at Bond Street's newly revamped DKNY store. In keeping with the youthful spirit of Donna Karan's diffusion line, the brand already has quite an online presence and focus. Its Twitter feed, DKNY PR Girl, was the first of many to make use of a more personal, witty and insider approach that genuinely interests followers much more than the hard sell ever could.
In the store, you can use a large touchscreen wall to access the PR Girl blog and Twitter and find out more about what she has been up to, and you can watch back the runway footage from the label's biannual shows in Manhattan. For a brand that is rooted so firmly in Big Apple culture, seeing the clothes in their original habitat gives a new context to the versions hanging up around you.
These high-end brands are at the forefront of shopping in a digital world, but it won't be long until the technology makes its way to a high street near you. Several stores already provide iPads so you can check their stock more easily; in 2010, Topshop, working with Nick Knight's visionary SHOWstudio site, held a series of sessions where customers looked in a webcam mirror and received live-chat feedback on their look from a selection of fashion experts.
Whatever comes next (dressing a hologram of yourself from the comfort of the café, perhaps?), our love of shopping and passion for gadgets is bound to result in an ever more personalised shopping experience, which suit even the pickiest of fashion palettes.
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