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Three's a crowd, Nine is just ridiculous

Just around the corner from my desk something strange is happening.

Miles and miles of hair is being teased into place, bucket loads of make-up are being applied and delicate feet are being squeezed into heels higher than some low rise buildings.

As I haven’t been recruited into the Rocky Horror Picture Show (yet), the crimping and primping must be in aid of Singapore fashion extravaganza  - Audi Fashion Festival.

An appearance by Lady Gaga’s stylist has created the most column inches, but for me taking a look at the way local fashion is embracing online is a more interesting exercise.

Most noteworthy is the appearance of Future Fashion Now at the Singapore shows. This innovative e-commerce concept allows people to watch shows being streamed live and pre-order items they like (almost) direct from the runway.

It’s doubly interesting because it’s yet another (albeit temporary) entrant into an already crowded market place.

It would be an understatement to say that e-commerce portals specialising in Asian brands have been the growth industry of 2012.

In the middle of 2011 there were more or less no retail portals dedicated to selling Asian brands. Fast forward that to May 2012 and you can’t throw a Louboutin in the air without hitting one on the way down.

A brief countback in my head saw me come up with NINE sites (there are probably more). All in a market which hasn’t exactly embraced the e-commerce model.  

That’s right. NINE sites. Keep that number in mind while I add some context to that. Singapore’s biggest fashion ‘marketplace’ site (with 50,000 retailers on board) achieved revenues that average out at S$60 per registered user or S$1,400 per merchant in 2011. Yep. NINE sites.

So the three immediate questions which arise from that are 1, Why are they all here?  2, Will they all work? And 3, who will succeed?

I’ll leave the first question up to people with far more knowledge of fashion than me. Namely Singapore based stylist and writer Rana Wehbe, who runs 'Bonjour Singapore', one of the most popular local fashion blogs in the country.

She actually says even through most of the sites privately say they have a bigger audience in the US - they are trying to pre-empt a curve that doesn’t really exist yet.

“Asian American designers are really getting popular in the West. And as people like Jason Wu (who dresses Michelle Obama), Alexander Wang and Richard Chai grow in popularity, so has the interest in their heritage.

“I think there was definitely a niche in bringing designers still based in Asia to the attention of the world. Unfortunately everyone either had the same idea at the same time, or there were quite a few copycat sites. It’s now in this odd position of having very mainstream pretentions without really having even been proven as a niche yet."

And she’s right. There is no rhyme or reason for quite so many sites to be entering an unproven market at the same time.

There is absolutely no hard data that supports the notion that Asian based fashion e-commerce is a sleeping cash-cow shaped giant.

When you have a minimum of NINE sites occupying the same space, and pretty much the same mission statement, something has got to give.

My personal opinion is that half of this new crop of e-commerce sites will fail – primarily because they forgot to do one important thing - their homework.

Flicking through the sites and you can see the problem. From a UI perspective there’s quite a bit of Net-a-portitis going on. So they feel the need to not just sell clothes, but sell a lifestyle too, throw in a bit of editorial and away you go. 

What they seem to forget is that Net-a-Porter has access to the biggest selling brands on the planet, editorials by some of the fashion world’s leading lights and 100 odd million sophisticated consumers on their doorstep. This just isn’t possible at the Asian level, especially with the level of exposure these brands are getting. 

In short, you can grow a brand on the back of Gucci and Prada. But if all of your brands are smaller, you need to invest the time and effort to actually help grow the (for example) Depression brand in order for it to be mutually beneficial.

And because they didn't appear to do their homework extensively, some of the sites spend a great deal of time cannibalising each other’s business instead of developing their own niches. Yes many of them have their own USPs (cash on delivery or starting 'local movements' for example) but for the most part they are cosmetic/gimmicky and not game changing. Indeed, many of the sites offer similar propositions, the same designers in rotation and the same online magazine format.

Five years down the line, my best case scenario will be for two or three of the smaller sites to join forces to take on the Rocket Internet backed giant of Zalora, with perhaps one or two innovative players forging their own path.

The sites I see having the greatest chance of long term success are the e-tailers prepared to recognise that your business model has to adapt quickly – that your home market is where you need to focus in the beginning, and that in Asia it often means engaging with your consumer offline as much as online.

One such example is Eriin.com, which quickly realised that targeting foreign markets should be a long term strategy and that staying nimble and building your brand identity is the key.

In the space of six months, Eriin has gone from being a “site bringing Asian fashion to the world”, to a multi-faceted brand, known for interesting offline collaborations, serious editing of collections and a desire to raise the profiles of ‘their’ labels into the bargain.

As an aside - they also spent considerable time and effort building their brand socially before the site even existed. A smart move for anyone considering operating a small web based business.

And that – in a nutshell – is the solution.

No matter how much time I spend writing about the differences between online in Asia and the West, there is one universal truth. Adapt or die.

It's a bit of a cop out but its simply the truth for start-ups in Asia, the US, Europe, even the North Pole. Thinking laterally, finding your real USP and being flexible is the only way to survive.

Let's check back in five years time and see if I'm right.

PS: For those fashion minded people. The NINE sites that I came up with off the top of my head are listed below (in no particular order). You might want to check them out. 

Picture Credit: A lookbook shot from Singapore label Noel Caleb/Cornelyus Tan 

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