Shopping: Designer shopping on the Internet - Turn on, tune in and shell out
Saturday 22 August 1998
A website launched in May this year aims to offer designer goods throughout the world, all delivered at no extra charge and within two to ten days. British fashion designers have gone technological and decided to sell their wares on the Internet, so now there really is no excuse for not having a thing to wear. Presumably, the idea is that even the most cosmopolitan of shoppers can take time out from a busy schedule to get the latest designer must-have - and no one will even know that you are not working, because you can place your order from behind the safety of a computer screen.
The website calls itself The Best of British and it certainly has an impressive menu of designers. Photographs of Lulu Guinness's handbags, Neisha Crossland's scarves, Dinny Hall's jewellery, Bill Amberg's leather goods, Bouchon's bottle-stoppers and Babette Wasserman's cufflinks are all accompanied by pictures of the designers themselves and, when you delve further in, a resume of each designer appears (perhaps used car salesmen should try this ploy).
We are told that all Dinny Hall's pieces are hand-made in her Soho studio and "come attractively packaged in Dinny Hall boxes". Neisha Crossland, we learn, has been making scarves since 1994, having originally been inspired by the displays of 16th-century brocades in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Bill Amberg's resume is somewhat more abrupt: "Bill was born in Northamptonshire, the home of the English leather trade."
The screen layout is simple but attractive, with an authoritative Union Jack flying proud at the top of the page and an easy-to-use shopping system. All the products are illustrated to help you make your choice, and the site somehow manages to create just the right balance between being overly twee and aggressively cool.
The items for sale at the site are usually changed each week and, as well as the six designers, there is a definite catering for the "stay- at-home" tourist market with numerous non-designer buys.
Many of the site's customers are American and gift baskets stuffed with Scottish smoked salmon, port, cheese and confectionery, an interesting selection of 20th-century prints, handkerchiefs and Antoni and Alison T-shirts - currently the most popular items - are all catering to a foreign idea of fashionable Britain.
A little further in, the "promotion" screen gives details of a pounds 36 (pounds 62.50 for those ordering from the US) goody box filled with "traditional" British culinary favourites such as, er, dry-roasted peanuts, Baxter's cream of tomato soup and Jacob's Crackers. With products such as these, it is easy to imagine homesick expats as well as Anglophiles across the globe hooking up online to order their monthly rations of nostalgic British tucker.
Bendicks mints are the first items on the page and, tellingly, the prices are in US dollars first, with pounds in brackets. Another sign of the site's catering to the international tourist market is the "Britain-in- miniature" site at the bottom of the page. Here you can find out the very latest cricket news, catch up on British weather, check on train timetables and holiday cottages throughout the land, or find the essential news page that informs you: "Prince Raises Money For Charity Playing Polo".
Fortunately, the work of the six main designers is clearly accessible and good value. The cheapest designer item (each designer has between six and nine products on sale) is a silver-plated champagne dropper from Bouchon, for pounds 21. The most expensive item is a sleek Bill Amberg rocket bag at pounds 410, but there are plenty of mid-price items. Babette Wasserman's cufflinks are all pounds 35 or pounds 40 and Dinny Hall'sjewellery starts at pounds 39 for a pair of silver hoops. My favourite has to be the Bill Amberg "labyrinth" basket which looks just like a corset; it costs pounds 90 ($149).
The reason why the goods are so reasonably priced is straightforward. With none of the overheads that a shop has to cover, overall costs are lower and retail prices reflect that. The Antoni and Alison T-shirts cost only pounds 24.99 at The Best of British, whereas boutiques in London are selling the same T-shirts for pounds 36.50.
With the only obvious drawback to the site being the relative lack of clothes on the list (apparently people do not like to buy clothes without first trying them on), it is small wonder that on an average day 1,100 people visit "the shop". But is this really as much fun as physically walking into a shop and caressing a Neisha Crossland scarf, sniffing a Bill Amberg design or posing in a mirror with a glitzy Lulu Guinness handbag?
If shopping via a website such as this is the best you can do, then fine - and no doubt for many it will take a lot of the pain out of Christmas shopping. But next time I save up enough money to choose myself a little designer number, I know that I will be making the absolute most out of the experience, and walking confidently through the doors of a shop that has elegant display rails, enormous mirrors, discrete price tags, glass counters and real, live sales assistants.
The website can be found at http://www.thebestofbritish.com
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