The Genteel
October 30, 2014
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Illustration by Shingo Shimizu.

As the digital world continues to become the new developed world, I find myself doing more with virtual assistance: maintaing some sort of "social life," consuming and creating content, and, well, general sundry tasks like, say, shopping.

While I used to troll newsstands, I now troll Tumblr's dashboard, and, by consequence, get a glimpse of, say, GQ's latest offerings or the new spring collections. With The New Yorker's increasingly sophisticated digital and social content dissemination, I stand in the aisles of big bookstores less, and I no longer have to wait for LOVE magazine to make a delayed appearance at a specialty shop - I just browse the content on its website. If you're buying a fashion magazine, you've got to really want it. Or you're probably travelling…and even then, without an iPad. 

eluxe.ca susie sheffman
Susie Sheffman's monthly column on eLuxe.ca.

All of this shifting within magazine culture has had a particular impact on how garments come to the attention of consumers. Consequently, it's provoked a change in the e-commerce approach to consumer culture, perhaps promoting us to inevitably sidestep the print process altogether. 

E-retailers and bigger brands are creating digital editorial portals - and/or blogs - faster than most magazines, causing a ripple effect in how garments reach pages and what advertisers are doing about it. It's a veritable evolution of standard mail order catalogues: first they went digital, and now retailers are working overtime to produce content that blurs the line between an advertisement for their store and objective fashion editorial (tinged with a finesse once reserved for glossies) designed not only to engage readers, but also to sell them something.

In Canada, national stores have begun to create their own virtual e-zines that serve to lure shoppers not just with clothing, but with supplemental content on the world around fashion. Hudson's Bay Co. has B Insider. Luxury haven Holt Renfrew created its Holts Muse blog shortly thereafter. Both contain stories structured with the intent of ultimately showcasing clothing available within their shops, both physical and virtual. Both have a wide brand selection, so there's variety, just like a magazine - except the "Where To Buy" back-of-the-book section features only one store. There is a higher, more complex standard of presenting what we, as readers and shoppers, could possibly want to buy, with more explicit suggestions on why we should. There are no printing or shipping costs so there's a high return-on-investment and you know who's looking at what instead of throwing a giant catalogue into the trash. Online, there is room for creativity and risk.  

Take eLuxe.ca, a Canadian shopping website that has been pushing the boundaries of connecting with, and relating to, hungry online consumers. Built on ten tenets - called "The Power of 'e'" - the website aims "to keep fashion savvy women across Canada entertained, engaged and empowered… Simply put, eLUXE is the perfect marriage of magazine and merchandise." 

And the website is succeeding, due - in part - to its not-so-secret weapon: fashion director Susie Sheffman, a 30-year veteran of the print industry who held the same title at FASHION magazine. Sheffman was enticed to explore this new online world because she was "blown away" by the site's chief mastermind, Joanna Track, and her business model, having previously established a successful women's lifestyle portal. "I thought, 'If I don't jump on it, someone else will,'" she reflects on the decision. After consulting for a brief period on the site's editorial direction, Sheffman, an editor with a fiercely astute styling eye, signed on full-time last March. "I wanted to step into the future of fashion, and what's happening with this relationship between product and editorial and content."

It's a veritable evolution of the standard mail order catalogue: first they went digital, and now retailers are working overtime to produce content that blurs the lines between an advertisement for their store and objective fashion editorials...

eLuxe produces a weekly virtual "magazine" that features four distinct style-centric stories and corresponding merch picks, or "edits," including a monthly section where Sheffman points readers-cum-shoppers toward the best of a current trend. (This month, it's all about "knowing your whites.")

Sheffman approaches the process of creating this new wave of e-content in the same way as she did in her print magazine days. "[Working on the site] is a more holistic approach because there's a clear responsibility to the reader," she says, explaining how she routinely goes out on market calls with the site's buyers to help decide not only what's "trendy" or what she can create content around, but what visitors might actually want to buy. "I had no direct responsibility for selling anything [when I worked at the magazine], and it wasn't my business if the products actually sold; I was there to inspire and help readers."

At eLuxe, Sheffman is hands-on in all aspects of the business and the reader, and instant feedback - through pageviews, shopping statistics, etc. - lets her know what people are responding to. Her team shoots about two fashion editorials a week, plus all of the garments off-figure, and the speciality content reserved for e-mail newsletters. It's almost more to keep up with than in print work. "I get off on the realistic approach [of showcasing clothing]. In a lot of ways, you have to be a lot more creative [online]: you're on tight budgets; you're shooting real clothing. It's a creative challenge to show how fantastic a garment is, and to both entertain and educate your readers."

And similar portals also exist for men. Last May, Yazid Aksas launched sharpmen.com, "an online destination for men looking for style and lifestyle at members-only prices." New content is produced daily that allows men to shop, connect, share tips and advice and discuss men's interest topics from fashion, sports and tech and gadgets to home and design, food and drinks, grooming and travel. The approach here is different, with narrative-based videos on YouTube - men are visual creatures, yes? - produced in-house from the site's New York office. 

Aksas got the idea for the shopping site-cum-magazine after watching TV and noticing that shopping channels were focused almost exclusively on women. "I thought that, as a guy, I'd love to see more stuff for me," he says. "We decided to launch online because that's where guys spend their time now and we based it on YouTube - which is the core of our marketing strategy - because that's where everybody goes to watch videos." 

It took Aksas seven months to develop the concept and he notes that the site is one of the first to leverage the video mega-portal as a commerce platform. With two writers on staff dedicated to original content creation, a new video is uploaded each day that includes the regular series "Refuel" and "Ask A Model." In "Refuel," for example, Sharpmen takes a celebrity for a ride in New York City and makes stops at his places of interest, filming everything on location. Since its launch, Sharpmen has signed approximately 150 partner brands that are featured weekly.

I wanted to step into the future of fashion, and what's happening with this relationship between product and editorial and content.

Meanwhile, some print magazines are trying to keep up with this current e-comm vogue. Early in June, French magazine Purple debuted its new website re-design with a commercial component that, alongside browsing the current issue and editor recommendations for cultural activities, allows users to shop the products seen in those pages. As WWD reported on the launch: "Purple claims to be the first online magazine with a shopping tool that allows users to jump from an editorial page to the point of purchase to buy a product with a simple click. By clicking on boutique icons, visitors will see zoomed-in thumbnail images and information about the items featured in diary entries." These features also extend to Facebook sharing capabilities, "personal" boutiques with favourite items that can be "heart'd" like Instagram. Esquire and GQ have been doing similar things with a "shop-in-shop concept" on websites like Park & Bond

And these new business developments go both ways. At the end of June, Refinery29 developed its commerce corner with a redesign of its "Shop" section. According to a story about the announcement on social media bible Mashable, "editors will be actively involved in the commerce parts of the site, helping shape what makes it into the Shop." (Just like eLuxe.)

Yazid Aksas sharpmen
Yazid Aksas. Source: tumblr.com.

So is the goal of these websites to complement or sidestep the reader experience and editorial process of print magazines? For Sheffman, e-commerce websites that offer polished editorial content complement the change-of-pace within the industry, digital and otherwise. "[Magazines] are a long, drawn out process; [online] is so immediate," she says, as we wonder whether a monthly magazine can be deemed newsworthy anymore. "What I do relies more on my gut reaction now; we're not mired in a lot of process here, we can go out and really serve our readers well." For Aksas, the goal is to create something seamless between editorial and shopping. "As a man, if I read about or watch a great product, I don't want to find out where I can buy it, go there, get it, etc. I just want to press 'Buy' and be done with it."

As for the future of the print magazine and its relationship to readers: "I still love to, and want to, look at a magazine," notes Sheffman. "I think print will have to step up to the plate [to] create images that have more lasting appeal, like an art book or a high fashion photography book. It needs to have staying power."

The goal, it seems, is for magazines to endeavour to create something truly beautiful. But e-commerce will probably catch up anyway. Sheffman hopes to develop eLuxe's editorial into a click-through magazine format, with more departments like travel, beauty and culture. "We're still a start-up, so there's a lot more to explore. Obviously, we want to evolve to have more eyeballs on the site, but we also want them to love our content. We want to teach readers not to be afraid of fashion or trying something new, to trust our voice."

And maybe they could teach magazines a thing or two in the process. 

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