Some luxury companies may see it as just another way to sell expensive handbags, but the internet has opened up a whole world of opportunities for boutique fashion makers and fashion consumers. Cottage-industry-sized enterprises are able to sell their weird and wonderful creations on a scale far smaller - and subsequently more exclusive - than the mass-production of the fashion industry can support. That's good for designers, freeing them up creatively, and it's even better for shoppers, who now have access to the sort of unique, one-off pieces that were formerly the preserve of the jet-setting classes - those who would pick up Czech amber, Touareg silver, Texan cowboy boots or Portobello Road vintage fashion on their world travels.
The online fashion business is a highly flexible operation compared with resource-intensive physical stores. "It's less risky, which suits an experimental spirit," says Nina May, owner of the independent designer boutique ninaandlola.com. Helen Brown, founder of the "crowdfunding" site Catwalkgenius.com, adds: "Technology provides the access, communication and economies of scale to allow previously unimaginable collaboration and commercial opportunities. There's a democratisation of sorts going on, and an explosion of choice."
Today, if you want to co-create your clothes, shop at a deliciously deep discount, fund the collection of your favourite designer or buy rare antique jewellery there's an e-commerce outfit that can cater to your style whims. "Power to the people" isn't only a political ideal, but a principle that e-tailers are putting into practice to engage consumers in the creative process. At the forefront of this movement is Blank Label, a Shanghai-based company. On its site, men are no longer just shoppers; they design their own shirts within a set of configurations to suit their needs.
"We are offering an incredibly compelling design-it-yourself experience with a simple visualisation of the dress shirt you are co-creating," says Danny Wong, one of the company's founders. "We allow you to customise every single feature on your dress shirt to really make it uniquely your own, and more importantly, we make it affordable, with prices starting at US$45 [Dh165], with most shirts averaging $72."
It's an interactive platform that results in more satisfied shoppers because they get exactly what they want and need. "I think there is a ton of growth to be had in this space because co-creation is the next level of consumer orientation," says Wong. "And with Gen Y's entitled attitude, co-creation companies will continue to thrive. There has already been massive growth in the industry." Shoppers can now also be investors, with a series of crowdfunding platforms that allow a return on their investment - with style points. London-based Catwalk Genius allows people to take part in a fund-raising pool ranging from £5,000 (Dh28,760) to £50,000 to produce a collection by a visionary designer - such as the lauded London-based Katie Eary, who counts Lady Gaga among her fans.
"We offer fashion followers the opportunity to get really involved with independent brands. They can buy directly from them and get insider perks in return for support," says Brown. On the flip side, these sites are providing resources to talented designers. "We're offering design brands the opportunity to reach their audience in a much more cost-effective way than they can get anywhere else," says Brown.
It's a mission that Cecilia Pagkalinawan, a luxury-industry veteran who worked on Burberry's e-commerce site, is tackling as well at the soon-to-launch Styletrek.com. "Many independent designers do not have the manpower or capital to create and manage their own e-commerce sites or market themselves globally," explains Pagkalinawan, who is the company's chief executive. "Up-and-coming designers deserve to have access to the same resources as established brands.
"Our business does not grow unless the designer is successful, so we are putting considerable resources behind the designers we feature on Styletrek." Despite its focus on incubating designers, the benefit isn't lost on consumers: "Shoppers have access to top designers and fashions worldwide," says Pagkalinawan. You know it's a trend when stylists get involved. Sarah Sulzberger Perpich, a New York-based fashion stylist who runs the wardrobe consultancy Stylish Sarah, uses the apparently endless resources of the internet to find pieces that are missing in her clients' wardrobes.
"The best things I find online for my clients are jeans and shoes," she says. "Many times you can find a style of a jean that isn't the most popular, so it's not in every store - like the high-waisted Bardot jeans by J Brand, which work so well on many women." According to Perpich, heels that are not ridiculously high or trendy, and which are both stylish and practical, are like gold dust in physical shops, but they can be found readily online.
In fact, there is a multitude of speciality online boutiques teeming with chic pieces not available in mainstream outlets, including the likes of Ninaandlola.com, which has an international roster of independent designers such as Stine Goya of Denmark and Clarissa Labin from Germany, both of whom make covetable pieces that are hard to come by outside their own countries. For vintage pieces, sites such as Atelier-Mayer.com feature well- curated items, such as a rare Jean Patou dress from the 1920s or Balenciaga dresses from the 1960s, as well as costume jewellery and accessories.
The owner, Carmen Haid, has used the internet as a tool to establish a global clientele to whom she caters with travelling trunk shows (she stopped off in Dubai a couple of months ago), and a newly established London showroom. Meanwhile, eBay remains an astounding and ever-changing resource for antique and vintage clothes and jewellery from around the world. Looking for the perfect black necklace to go with that dress? The auction site has hundreds on offer, from 19th-century jet to 1930s Czech glass and 1970s plastic. Seeking kimono silk to make into a cocktail dress? Buy handpainted material for $70 straight from a Kyoto seller.
Recycled and vintage clothes have an ethical appeal, of course, and those who are concerned with such things can find many resources for handmade and sustainable pieces: type "ethical fashion" into Google and more than six million hits appear. Discount fashion is also widely available, with Net-a-porter.com's discount offshoot, theOutnet.com and the UAE site www.modahouse.com both offering high-end designer pieces for a fraction of their retail prices.
But it is those with a love of the unique, the highly individual and the wildly quirky who can really benefit from online fashion. Department store buyers who have their accountants to answer to simply can't take risks with their budgets, and with the added economic judders of the past couple of years, have had to play it even safer than usual. The more adventurous stylistas, then, who love discovering new designers at markets or picking up one-off pieces from craft fairs, can satisfy their longings with sites such as Hidden Art (www.hiddenartshop.com), which sells the work of highly trained designer-makers; Pretaportobello.com, which brings Spitalfields' and Portobello Road's buzzing London market stalls to the web; and, of course, Etsy.com, where budding designers can sell their crafted pieces for as much or as little as they choose, and make it a hobby or a career. Certainly there's some ropey old rubbish on there, but there are also hidden gems for those with the patience to search.
At the higher end of the market, Couturelab.com sells handcrafted luxuries such as exotic Nancy Gonzalez handbags and Anish Kapoor-designed jewellery; and the ever-popular French boutique Colette has special collaborations with designers both eminent and obscure. Closer to home, Dia-Boutique.com brings together clothing from the best Arab talents, such as Karen Karam and Georges Chakra. It's a "dynamic gateway where the most interesting, unique fashion designers from Beirut and Istanbul to New York and London come together", says its founder, Rasha Khouri. "Our designers forge contemporary fashion, design and art trends that are equally influenced by voices from the East as by the West.
Where else can you get a scarf from New York, a dress from Lebanon and a jacket from Istanbul that are all by designers who show at the top fashion weeks and are featured in Vogue and worn by celebrities?" It's still a waiting game as to which of these pioneering young companies will flourish in the digital age of fashion commerce, but there is one clear winner: the shopper.