Fashion: The couch potatoes of America get better dressing: Roger Tredre finds that TV fashion shopping is a case of Shop Till You Drop Off

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Indy Lifestyle Online
FASHION shopping by television ain't half boring. A typical evening's viewing on America's QVC Network last week was a snooze through an hour of 'Watch It]' (watches and jewellery), followed by an hour of Oleg Cassini dresses and an hour devoted to Bill Blass swimsuits.

Phyllis Lambkin, the reassuringly middle-aged and middleweight presenter, did her best to keep things moving: 'Petite women should look just great in this suit,' she enthused. That's if there were any still awake.

It is unfair to mock QVC, however. Fashion shopping by television is picking up big audiences. This spring it is on the verge of a significant breakthrough in the US, with repercussions for fashion retailing worldwide.

QVC and HSN lead the market, but ABC-TV, NBC-TV, Time Warner and Viacom (the company behind MTV) are all working on their own television fashion formats. Macy's, one of the US's biggest retailers, is also considering launching its own channel, according to reports in Women's Wear Daily.

In recent weeks, the US retail industry has been reassessing the potential of QVC Network, which reaches 44 million cable TV viewers. The reason for the excitement is the arrival of new chief executive Barry Diller, former head of the 20th Century Fox movie and TV empire, a man with connections in the right places.

Diane von Furstenberg, one of the first designers to show her clothes on QVC last November, took dollars 1.3m ( pounds 870,000) worth of orders after her first TV show. This statistic alone has convinced many doubters that televised fashion shopping has a future.

Other US designers who have sold on QVC include American purveyors of star- spangled glamour Bob Mackie, Nolan Miller and Arnold Scaasi. Last month, the Liz Claiborne group made its debut. Even Calvin Klein, who visited the QVC headquarters in May, has expressed strong interest.

But the biggest name to link up with QVC is Saks Fifth Avenue, the giant store group. Saks is planning three fashion TV shows this year, featuring the company's Real Clothes collection.

Saks' move into TV shopping has provoked a landslide of interest, with Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom tipped by US analysts as the next retailers to test the waters.

Enthusiasts claim the new way of selling will transform retailing. R Fulton Macdonald, president of International Business Development Corp, said: 'This technology will destroy most traditional retailers - in 15 years, 50 to 75 per cent of stores as we know them will be out of business.'

But fashion shopping by TV is not without its problems. The current shows are hardly compulsive viewing. However comfortable the idea of armchair shopping sounds, busy working women may not want to sit through hours of presentations by Phyllis Lambkin.

For designers, there is the additional problem of demonstrating on television the cut, finish and fabric quality of a well- made garment. TV shopping in the US, rather like mail order in Britain, is still dominated by downmarket products. More to the point, it takes much of the fun out of shopping. It is a case of look but don't touch.

Could QVC work in Britain? In the very early days of Sky, mail order firm Grattan sold clothes through a four-hour morning slot. David Jones, former boss of Grattan and now chief executive of Next, says the project failed because Sky was still in its infancy.

Now he believes there is a genuine opportunity to use television to sell basic clothing, although he is not convinced it is effective for high fashion.

Jones' analysis is cautious. 'I don't believe TV selling will take off in my working life. It might in yours.' It seems a British shopping channel is many years away. Maybe that's just as well.

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