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Fashion Forward

Up close and personal with fashion industry entrepreneurs who are making it big on the Web

With all the mud slung on fashion Web (read: gossip) sites, it's difficult to see the fashion industry as anything other than a playground of snobbery where only cool kids cavort. But despite its apparent exclusivity, it is penetrable. So if you've read a million fashion magazines (including imports) a month for as long as you can remember and rise early on Saturday mornings to catch not cartoons, but Style With Elsa Klensch on CNN, don't hang up your obsession just yet-the Internet just may be your ticket.

Kristin Bruan, 24, had zero industry experience before founding Access Style Inc. (www.accessstyle.com) in New York City last February-zero relevant experience, anyway. "I was a young girl with no college education [New York University's on hold right now], with a great job, making a lot of money," says the descendant of generations of Wall Street professionals who herself worked on Wall Street as a day trader and sales broker before becoming an entrepreneur. "I only knew I liked to surf the Web, read magazines and wear nice clothes."

She also knew from her editorial-director friend, Lisa Schulner, a former "Buyer's Guide" assistant editor for Woman's Day magazine, how frustratingly inaccurate store information in the back of magazines often is, making clothes a serious headache to locate. Bruan thought, Why not let "girls in Middle America who don't have hip fashions at their fingertips" buy clothes from the pages of their favorite teen magazines on one Web site? Everyone else deemed her insane.

Between juggling work and school, Bruan erected accessstyle.com in a corner of her dad's Wall Street office. About $10,000 in personal savings (a private investment and VC funding followed) and thick skin moved things along.

Initially asking Seventeen magazine-the first partner on a list that includes Jump, Teen, Twist and YM magazines-to join forces with her unknown site certainly tested Bruan's gusto. "People laughed in my face," she says. "They said nasty stuff like 'Don't come back until your store pays rent.' " But her upraised chin eventually convinced everyone. Since accessstyle.com's launch last October, sales have increased 500 percent-a feat Bruan attributes to its style-advice feature "Ask Sophie" and a page which matches girls' body types with the right clothes, displaying designs from every angle. "The thing with selling clothing on the Internet," she says, "is that you're competing against stores with dressing rooms."

Of much-touted fashion e-tailers that are suffering despite raising millions of dollars, Bruan says that spectacular graphics aren't enough if a site lacks functionality. Alex Berenson, 30, co-founder with Dusty Cohen, 31, and Gregg Ostrow, 30, of Kik Wear Industries Inc. in Los Angeles, agrees. "The attention span of kids shopping online is limited," he says. "And we wanted to present a functional and simplistic enough site that anybody-including 12-year-old kids with their moms' credit cards-could place orders."

Just don't forget about the clothes. "At the end of the day, if you don't have the goods, no one cares what you look like," offers Berenson. "You've got to have the right style, fabric, trim and price to drive the market." Kik Wear, a manufacturer of hip since 1991, launched K-land (www.kikwear.com) last June to an eager young audience. But even if Web sales grow "phenomenally" as expected (at press time, they're at about $350,000 of the $25 million projected for 2000), Kik Wear will support its brick-and-mortar retailers "110 percent." Any day now, they'll launch a business-to-business site featuring an online ordering system and an easy preview tool for stores.

Access Style is filling the small-town-girl niche, and Kik Wear is adding a virtual edge to everyone's coolest street vibe-but who's catering solely to guys? Remember Laura Eisman, 34, of Girlshop.com fame? Last September, she launched Guyshop.com, featuring labels like Ben Sherman, Bowa and Left Field on this hunch: "It's an untapped market-and there are guys out there with incredible style who just don't like to shop." Well, even if they do and won't admit it, now they can do it in privacy.

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