Focus: A fashion for online hemlines

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The Independent Online
HEMLINES MAY go up and down at unpredictable speeds, but the need for up-to-date information in the clothes business never goes out of fashion. So the idea of providing the latest style information on the Internet seemed to offer an obvious market to Marc Worth, who founded the Worth Global Style Network (WGSN) with his brother Julian.

But rather than give the material away free as do most Internet sites, WGSN decided to make clients pay for it. Any WGSN subscriber who missed yesterday's opening shows at London Fashion Week can dial into WGSN's vast interactive archive to catch up on Britain's latest designers. The pictures in today's papers, plus previews, reports, overviews with key statements and individual collections - can be called up in vivid colour and detail on a PC.

Two years ago, the Worth brothers were in the clothing trade but neither had touched a computer. Now they see themselves as "the Bloombergs of the fashion industry", with more than 280,000 pages of style information on the Web - from snapshots of the most trendily dressed passers-by in London, to the latest catwalk sensations in Paris and in-depth fabric specifications to details of suppliers worldwide.

Designers, retailers and manufacturers have proved willing to pay for this database, now accessed through the Internet. In Britain, WGSN counts Marks & Spencer and Coates Viyella among clients; in the US, Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren, JC Penney and Sears. And a dozen educational institutions, including De Montfort and Leeds universities, have signed up.

WGSN aims to enrol 25,000 subscribers worldwide by 2001. It is an ambitious target; at present there are 1,000 users, each paying pounds 1,850 for a password, giving subscription revenues of pounds 1.5m. Marc Worth, 38, says: "We considered making the site free, but our view is that if we make it free, people don't value it. It's a business-to-business tool." The brothers - Julian is 36 - believe advertising and e-commerce will provide additional revenue streams.

In June this year, the Japanese bank Nomura bought a stake in the company for pounds 15m, and the company's revenues are projected to be pounds 140m in three years. A linked e-commerce site, including auctions of surplus fabrics, machinery and stock, will start in the New Year, and Japanese and Spanish-language versions of the network are planned, with a classified jobs section. WGSN has recruited researchers in the major fashion capitals to trend-spot, and photographers are already on the beat, snapping the contents of shop windows. There are plans to go live with catwalk show footage.

At Nomura, Bozkurt Aydinoglu read about the company's plans in November 1998. "We became very excited about what they were trying to do," he says. "What we really liked was that it was something that could genuinely address obvious problems. Geographically, these are diversely spread industries that need to acquire information about what's happening on the other side of the world. WGSN began as an information-only service but the strategy is to use this to build a wider community of users and establish a hub for interchange."

The Worth brothers were apprenticed to the clothing trade at 16 in their father's Nottingham-based business, HeatSeal, making heat-applied transfers, labels and badges. They began to create holograms for clothing and designs for patterned hosiery, as favoured by Diana, Princess of Wales in the Eighties. But they hit a snag: they were selling only a fraction of the commissioned artwork. "We'd commission 10 pieces - if you're lucky the customer buys one," says Marc Worth. "What do you do with the rest? We thought, `Let's create a website, post the surplus designs and charge to download them'."

That did not prove lucrative, but it sparked other thoughts. Fashion trend forecasting, which until then was disseminated mainly by heavy, bi- annual publications costing thousands in subscription fees, was ripe for interaction. "The minute those books were published, they were out of date," says Mr Worth. In September 1997, the Worths began to develop a 20-page website, with fashion drawings and forecast reports. "We took it to customers, choosing people we thought would be particularly critical. Everyone said, `As soon as it's ready, we'll buy it'." This went on sale in the December and was followed, six months later, by the launch of a more developed service.

At first, satellite connections seemed the fastest way to transmit information, and the fee for subscription and installation was a hefty pounds 5,500. Mr Worth says: "We signed up customers who included Levi's and Liz Claiborne, but we had a lot of technical teething problems. But not one turned around and said, `Forget it'. They knew it was something completely different. The industry lacked a one-stop shop for this type of information. If you were to try to obtain all this separately, it would cost you an absolute fortune."

As Internet connections speeded up, the satellite method became obsolete. Unlike many Internet start-ups, the Worths provided the seed capital, investing pounds 2m of their private money. WGSN's rapid growth demanded more investment and last September the Worths offered a pounds 15m stake to an outside investor. Within two weeks, they had 12 letters of intent from banks and venture capitalists. The Nomura deal was eventually struck 10 months later.

Expansion plans include a direct mailshot next month, offering a 200,000- piece free 30-day trial, doubling staff numbers, and forays into financial information, audio-visual content, trade fair reports and consumer research. If all goes to plan, the business could move into profitability by next July - a far earlier breakeven than for most Internet firms. A flotation is anticipated within two years. The network's global scope also gives it the edge. "With the Internet, we can go anywhere," says Mr Worth. "Where one market suffers, another prospers. It's all about staying ahead of the competition, staying in tune with what the consumer actually wants."

Part of the challenge is to create an infrastructure capable of generating and sustaining chat, trade, advice and advertising. "We're trying to create an industry-specific community," says Mr Worth. "It would be nice to think designers would talk to each other on the Internet. In the US, they use the chat room a lot. I have reservations about whether that's likely in the UK. Consumers want to talk to each other. I'm not sure businesses do."

Claudia Crow, who oversees the PR for London Fashion Week, says designers had seen Internet fashion sites as a threat, even banning them from shows. "Seeing a picture in the papers is one thing, but if people can download designs worldwide, or sit and look at something time and time again, it becomes more difficult to contain and control."

This made designers reluctant to accredit Internet companies. But the frostiness is thawing, although most designers are still far from exchanging ideas online. Ms Crow believes they might use WGSN to reach far-flung suppliers. "Designers always look for more specialised services, and this would save a hell of a lot of time finding new people."

Marc Worth is keeping his eye on world opportunities. "We count major retailers such as JC Penney, Sears, Nordstrom and Coles Myer as clients, and they will have the first opportunity to review British talent. We have an ideal opportunity here to promote British designers abroad."