On a warm Sunday in September, stylish men and women lined up on a street in New York City's Meatpacking District to see a preview of the fall/winter collection of Frank & Oak, an ecommerce startup for menswear. It was the brand's first presentation during New York Fashion Week, so it was something of a coming-out party.
Inside, the bare industrial space evoked the workshop of famed inventor Nikola Tesla, complete with work table, assorted tools and a faux electricity machine. On plywood platforms, 12 models stood facing the crowd, dressed to ward off the winter chill. There was a green tweed suit, a double-breasted glen plaid blazer, a chunky white cable-knit sweater and, of course, the obligatory scarf or two.
The crowd passed through in shifts. As they left the workshop, guests were each handed something unusual: a copy of the inaugural issue of Frank & Oak's own quarterly magazine, The Edit. Printed on heavyweight environmental paper, issue No. 1 is 26 pages long, features actor and designer Waris Alhuwalia on its cover and is full of words and visuals designed to appeal to Frank & Oak's customers. Along with a profile of Alhuwalia, there is a piece about Montreal-based furniture company À Hauteur d'Homme, which has designed a men's valet for Frank & Oak, and a photo feature on what to pack for a fall trip to Portland.
Whether they realized it or not, guests were holding in their hands the vanguard of a growing trend among ecommerce brands: the convergence of online retail and editorial content. Increasingly, digital retailers are finding value in weaving story elements around their products as a way of compensating for the lack of the sensory experience one finds in brick-and-mortar stores. And some are going even further, commissioning words and images with no obvious sales component.
Fashion marketplaces Net-a-Porter and Gilt Groupe pioneered the trend, and over the past three years it has snowballed. A new wave of ecommerce startups is now getting traction in the marketplace by marrying high-quality editorial with online shops boasting fast delivery, excellent customer service and lust-worthy products.
It's a strategy that is paying off for Frank & Oak, which received $5 million last October from Lightbank and other investors. Some of that money was put toward editorial efforts. Right now, three of the company's 100 employees focus entirely on researching and creating stories. While that may seem like a small fraction, it is a sign that the company is serious about educating and entertaining its customers.
"Especially for guys, contextualizing clothing makes a lot of sense," says Ethan Song, 29, Frank & Oak's co-founder and creative director. "Clothing is not just clothing."
Michael Phillips Moskowitz, founder of one-year-old startup Bureau of Trade, wants nothing to do with unmemorable junk. The Bureau, as it's called, curates "narrative merchandise" -- unique clothing and lifestyle items, even classic cars and taxidermied scorpions -- for discerning men and makes the goods available for purchase online. "Precious pieces," the 35-year-old Moskowitz calls them.
His New York City-based team of five is supplemented by eight part-time curators in cities around the world, from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, all of whom are tasked with finding stylish clothes, interesting books, vintage watches, antique furniture and other desirables for the Bureau. Some are found on eBay and Craigslist; others are sourced from trusted boutiques. Moskowitz himself spends time overseas once a quarter, hunting in shops, bazaars and souks. When he finds a merchant with an item he wants for the Bureau, he talks him into putting it online. The Bureau gets a cut of every purchase made through its website.
The goods are grouped by theme, often something au courant, though Moskowitz has also organized larger collections. Continental Rift, for instance, focused on Africa, with droll teaser videos released in the days before its launch. Either way, each item is tied to a larger story. "Storytelling and commerce are inseparable," Moskowitz says. "Otherwise it's just stuff."
It isn't surprising that a retailer who aspires to be "the merchandise equivalent of the Library of Alexandria" cares about the provenance of his wares. But he goes further, saying that as local and regional ties have loosened their hold over the past century, and racial and ethnic differences have become less contentious, our identities have come to be defined primarily by what we buy, where we eat, how we shop and other markers of cultural consumption.
It's an idea that has been voiced by Tyler Brûlé, founder of media brand Monocle, which serves the global cosmopolitan elite, and others: In today's world, possessions evidence character. In its extreme formulation, it's the idea that, at least in the eyes of others, we are what we surround ourselves with. By marrying shopping with storytelling, brands such as Bureau of Trade and Zady, a New York City-based fashion retailer that launched this month, charge what might otherwise be mere acquisitiveness with the primal human need for meaning.
"Online shopping is increasingly about exploration," says Tyler Thoreson, vice president of men's editorial, creative and customer experience for Gilt. "It's less transactional."
It's a mistake to look for an immediate return on your investment in editorial, he says. Brand visibility, goodwill, excitement, customer loyalty -- these are the things it achieves. "You have to ask yourself what your goals are. Is it [sales] conversion, or is it marketing and branding?"