Monday, June 4, 2007

San Francisco Chronicle

Women's apparel sites up ante with customized and interactive features

In the world of fashion, where looks count for everything, apparel Web sites often put style over substance. Everyone's got a gimmick. The Web sites will automatically download software such as Flash Player 4 or Shockwave for animated, moving images.

Issey Mikaye's Pleats Please (, winner of a fashion Web site award , begins with a screenful of swirling shoes that can leave one slightly queasy -- and no option to buy them yet. The fun custom-blend beauty site, (, allows the customer to create individualcustom makeup colors, provided you fill out a personality questionnaire -- which asks, among other things, if you were a house, which kind would you be? The options include: "I'd be a maintenance-free house with an exercise room."

At Neiman Marcus (, the gimmick is the interactive Manolo Blahnik shoe boutique where you can click on a slingback stiletto and watch it float dreamily across the page.

Even Lands' End (, the down-home clothing company, recently introduced a 3-D measuring system on its site. Click on a variety of body-type options or sizes, and the image of the woman you say you are appears on the screen. Click on the clothing options provided and you can dress her up like a Barbie doll.

All this can be loads of fun if you own a fast computer with DSL access. Those with ordinary phone-line hookups should be prepared for a possible slow ride through the sites.

That said, it's still exciting to surf fashion Web sites given the incredible range of products for sale. Digging into fashion sites is a great way to get an instant education on designers, products, fabrics and the latest styles.

Most sites have zoom-in or enlarge options, very helpful tools in determining fabrics and detailing. Most sites also do a good job describing items in great detail, and some sites, such as Casual Corner (, allow the consumer to click on a color swatch for a better idea of what the difference is between "cobalt" and "azure."

But unless you fit perfectly into every size 10 skirt ever made, it's going to be tricky to order clothing online from unfamiliar labels. Accessories are a much safer bet. A digital image of a handbag, a watch, a belt, is very close to the real thing.

In hunting down purses, The Chronicle turned up a startling variety of styles on a variety of sites. The major department store sites can have dozens of bags from mostly familiar labels, such as Dooney and Bourke, Furla, Prada , Fendi, Gucci and many others.

The Purple Skirt ( site has lots of bags with a whimsical, kitschy feel, such as the selection of embroidered or beaded bags by less familiar designers Like Lulu Guinness and Isabella Fiore. And also a few high-end leather bags by Jamin Puech of France. While the Purple Skirt site (co-founded by actress Tracey Ullman), is fun to look at and has eclectic choices, selecting a handbag can be time-consuming, since only two items per page are displayed. Surely the Web designers can manage a few more photos per page.

Just about any garment or accessory you can think of is up for grabs, from one-of-a-kind bias-cut skirts for about $150 made of new and vintage fabric at Louise Hedley's site (, to a $1,000 baby llama coat and other handwoven items from Peru, at Peruvian Connection (, to affordable costume jewelry at Joan Rivers' site ( ). Petite? Itsybits ( might be for you. Larger? Silhouettes ( is also ready to serve.

One very useful all-purpose fashion site is Chic Simple (, which among other nifty features such as wardrobe basics and trends, also provides links to dozens of other interesting fashion sites.

Apparel Web sites are plentiful and multiplying every month, but some of the biggest names in the business are still gearing up. Prada? Coming soon. Ditto for Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. Barneys New York (, a sophisticated site with animated graphics and lots of categories, has adopted a wry attitude. Click on women's shoes and read: ''We're reluctant to advertise our shoes; so many of you are addicted." But it also says, "You can't shop from these pages, yet."

But no matter how handsome the site, the biggest hurdle for online apparel sites is the customer's reluctance to play guessing games with sizes and fabric. According to a recent Internet shopping survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers that appeared in Women's Wear Daily, 81 percent of respondents said the biggest problem with shopping online is the inability to try on the merchandise.

A few final words about bargain shopping. Off-price sites, such as Smart Bargains
( ) or Bluefly (, are tempting, but like any outlet store, sizes and styles are very limited. Shopping at Bluefly, a terrific site with lots of designer names, is very hit and miss. A search for a Prada dress turned up just one item, a short, ivory sleeveless crushed velvet dress with jet-black beading, for $500 in sizes 6, 8 and 10. And once it's gone, it's gone.