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Fashion on the web: Le click, c'est chic

Ten years ago, you had to head to the city to buy designer threads. Then a clutch of new websites changed the way we shop for ever. Harriet Walker on a fashion revolution

One of my favourite fashion scenarios is in the film Clueless, when its clothes-horse protagonist, Cher, decides what to wear to a party by trying on every outfit she owns and taking Polaroids of herself. I love it for its very healthy combination of total pragmatism and reckless indulgence. I first watched the film 15 years ago, and if someone had informed me then that this would become the modus operandi for all style-discerning women within the next two decades, I would have laughed in their face. And hoped they were right.

Soon, though, it will be – thanks to sites like Stardoll.com. My eight-year-old niece (a budding Cher) loves it. Simply create an online avatar that looks as much (or as little) like you as you wish, and dress them up in cartoon-rendered designer pieces, from prom dresses to pyjamas. It's the paper doll 2.0, although with slightly less class (the hair, make-up and styling available so far favours Texan beauty queens above French Vogue editors). It's no virtual wardrobe quite yet, but with the potential to upload a photograph of yourself and digitally try on pieces straight from the Paris catwalks, it's further proof of how the internet has revolutionised the way we see fashion and shopping.

"58 per cent of the UK public think that shopping online is more convenient than shopping on the high street," says Robert Bready, product and trading director of Asos.com, which celebrates its tenth birthday this year. It stands for "As Seen On Screen", and the site's original remit was to offer copies of celebrity red carpet dresses or off-duty looks at high street prices. Over a decade of solid and successful trading, though, it has branched out to become a comprehensive online boutique, offering trend pieces, workwear and beauty ranges across all prices, with a designer label section and a commitment to nurturing young fashion talents, too. You can still search for "Peaches Geldof", though, and it's a function not to be sniffed at in a climate where pocket money is perhaps the only consistent source of ready cash.

"The high street was slow to realise the potential of online," continues Bready, "not just as a sales avenue but as a means of engaging with customers." Asos also has a blog, where customers can post opinions of clothes, photos of their Saturday night glad rags and see behind-the-scenes at photo shoots for the site. It aims to foster a sense of community among shoppers, as if to make up for the lack of changing room badinage, elbowing and queues.

Topshop.com runs blogs and competitions, and has a Twitter site which flags up not only new pieces going in-store, but also how many doughnuts the editorial team have eaten that day. Shoppers no longer feel on the "other side" of the fashion industry. Topshop recently cemented its "cool" credentials by collaborating with esteemed fashion blogger Jackie Dixon, of Showmeyourwardobe.com, over Fashion Week to capture some of the best street style looks from the shows. And on Asos, pieces available to buy are videoed on models so consumers can see how fabrics move and fit, and the site also stocks high street labels like French Connection and Reiss. Has fashion eaten itself?

"Luxury brands were initially sceptical about the internet," agrees Emily Zak, executive editor of Vogue. "They reluctantly developed slick and bland websites, while swearing off internet sales, afraid of cheapening the brand or shopping experience." There is something to be said in defence of real-time shopping, of sipping a champagne in the Prada showroom while an elegantly coiffed man waxes lyrical about your neck, but websites like Net-a-porter.com, which is also celebrating 10 years in 2010, are proof that there's nothing budget about online fashion, stocking pieces by Vivienne Westwood and Marc Jacobs as well as super-luxe labels such as Bottega Veneta and Oscar de la Renta, whose dresses sell for upwards of £2,000. "Every product arrives beautifully wrapped, all products are easy to return," adds Zak. "Net-a-porter has made us more comfortable with shopping online across the board."

It certainly has: John Lewis and Jaeger both recently announced that their online sales are second only to those in their London flagship stores. For those slavish fashion followers living outside the capital and far from city-centres, the internet has been a godsend. Whether for shopping or simply for inspiration, it provides fashion resources to people who don't necessarily have the means of accessing them physically. The progress of internet fashion has parallels with the Sixties' youthquake: I always imagined the entire nation swinging away, decked out in Mary Quant from about 1966 onwards, until my mother gently explained that not many people living in, say, the Outer Hebrides, or even Milton Keynes, were likely to get their hands on a piece of the action. But with the internet, they can.

Alexander McQueen's spring/summer 2010 show, which was streamed live on fashion photographer Nick Knight's SHOWstudio.com, has been watched by more than 1.5 million people on YouTube. The seasonal shows are not open to the public, and invitations are usually issued to around 300 journalists and buyers. "That 1.5 million people wouldn't otherwise have seen it," says Knight. "Some fashion magazines have a circulation of 2,000, but you can't argue with the sorts of numbers the internet generates. It allows everyone across the world to see fashion, why would you stop them? These clothes aren't in the magazines until three months later." Knight has also used SHOWstudio to broadcast live from sets of shoots with the likes of Kate Moss, as well as creating interactive content for global users to experiment with and comment on, in the name of opening up fashion to a wider audience. "Previously, something could only exist is someone could make money out of it," he adds. "On the internet, people will read it if it's good."

The rise of the blogger is another way in which the internet has eased the catwalk elite's stranglehold on information and taste-making. From moonlighting magazine editors and newspaper writers who enjoy the freedom of anonymity to say exactly what they think about the collections, to tenacious teens trying to make themselves heard, the web provides a greater platform for opinion, as well as opportunities for publicity on a shoestring for young designers. With the likes of Susie Lau, of Stylebubble.typepad.com , and 13-year-old Tavi, who writes Tavi-thenewgirlintown.com, now firmly ensconced on the front row, there's a definite feeling that this breed could be the future of fashion. But the freedom of speech and immediacy that is their strength is also somewhat undercut by the very lack of regulations. "Bloggers are disadvantaged," says veteran industry commentator Colin McDowell on his own blog, Colinmcdowell.com , because we all know that what they write is neither edited nor refereed. So, at this stage at least, what they stand for is much more interesting than anything they might actually say."

It is this sense of the internet's ability to breathe life back into fashion that has made it so important in the industry's recent evolution. "Fashion loves newness," continues Nick Knight. "And fashion film is where the excitement is." Designer Gareth Pugh this season created a short film with SHOWstudio which aired in New York and online two weeks before his catwalk show in Paris to great acclaim; Tilda Swinton meanwhile has starred in such films for Pringle. McQueen's broadcast show is proof that there is an audience for the countless fashion films being shot and broadcast online, and Giorgio Armani is set to live stream the Emporio Armani autumn/winter 2011 menswear collection on Saturday at Live.emporioarmani.com. "Fashion reaches deeper than simply clothes or images," says Gareth Pugh, "and the internet allows this to be seen. I remember waiting for the fashion week supplements to see anything new, but now you can see it a couple of hours after the event, or beamed straight from Paris, to your computer screen or mobile phone. It's insane!"

The clamour to get to know the very latest fashions is something that entertainment mogul Simon Fuller tapped into with his recently launched Fashionair.com, which showcases videos, interviews and editorial pieces alongside interactive styling and shopping functions. It's the sort of place you could waste several days on. "There was a huge opportunity to merge the interactivity of the web with great video content, in order to provide a more engaging experience," says co-founder Sojin Lee. "I wanted to harness that 'eeee' moment, when a girl squeals in excitement after finding the dress she has been searching for."

In an industry whose very existence relies on the cachet of staying ahead of the curve, the internet is a great leveller. With trend-spotting and inspirational sites like Fashionair, as well as Style.com and Nowness.com, almost everyone can claim to have been on board with The Next Big Thing from the outset. Cool is only a click away.

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