The design studio four32c posted a tribute/obit for Style.com recently and though it was good to see recognition for its pioneering work, for the sake of digital history, it’s also important to get on the record some corrections about the story. It´s also important given the impact the pioneering work at Style and — more to the point — Vogue.com had on digital coverage of fashion that has followed.
My friend and frequent collaborator Joan Feeney — the genius who led so much of the innovation of the early web at Condé Nast — sent the four32c a note with some clarification and edification; they didn’t run it and so I volunteered to. Joan writes:
The obituary of the site that either missed or misrepresented some significant facts and circumstances about the origins and early days of the site. There was no place to comment, so Jeff offered to post this note I wrote to get the record straight, in case anyone cares someday. I likely wouldn’t have written it except that my recollections about the start of Epicurious have been in demand of late, in celebration of that site’s 20th anniversary, and so many of these Condé Net memories and details are front of mind as is the lack of reliable histories and records about those days.
Contrary to what was posted on four32c, we launched Vogue.com the year before we started Style. And Vogue.com, not Style, was the site that shot and posted every single look from every runway show on the day of the show from the major fashion cities — which, as noted, was revolutionary in many ways.
Until then, designers had restricted the number of looks that could be published to fewer than half a dozen, and even that small sample could be published only during a brief window for a specified period after the show (runway shows typically featured about 60 or 70 looks). No one but Vogue, meaning Anna Wintour, could have done that — it was Anna, and her proxy at Vogue.com, Anne Buford, who persuaded the designers to let us in, despite the fashion houses enormous general misgivings and specific fear of piracy.
If Anna hadn’t decided it was right and timely to open up fashion shop on the Internet, I believe it might not have happened to this day, so resistant, reluctant, and occasionally hostile were the designers and their businesses to the idea. But because Anna blessed it, it came to pass. A startup would have had no sway with the designers, let alone enough yank to get almost every one of them to agree to something so alien and that they couldn’t see as offering any benefit to themselves.
(Even with Anna’s tremendous support and Anne’s tremendous efforts, a few French designers blocked us from attending their shows; and even after we got the designers’ permission, the models’ union, which was very strong in France, forbade us to use the models’ images. It was a vastly complicated enterprise, and it all happened on Vogue’s watch and because Anna decreed it. Fiona da Rin, the Paris editor for American Vogue was a huge help with the diplomacy effort. She would take me from fashion house to fashion house with my laptop to demonstrate not only the website and prototypes of the coverage, but often showing them the Internet for the first time, assuming they had a connection, which they often did not; I had a canned presentation to show in that case.)
One of the other extraordinary things Vogue.com did with the show coverage was to tag the photos so that users could search/sort by collection or piece (all Italian skirts from Fall 2000, for example, or all Ralph Lauren sweaters from every season). One of the selling points we made to designers was what a great resource it created for their own use and historical archives, which it did. It was effectively instantaneous coverage — something completely foreign to fashion at that time.
Melissa Weiner was the genius who made all those amazing tools back at the office. We took the Voguemobile RV to the European shows, and transmitted photos back to the US, where Melissa did her magic getting them tagged, labeled, and online within an hour or so, no matter what time of night it was. The first shows we did were in New York, September of 1999, in the tents at Bryant Park, and we briefly went dark when a hurricane flooded the tents.
“Cams” were a big thing back then — it was considered cool to aim a web cam at the office coffee pot so you could check to see if there was fresh coffee, I guess you had to be there — and we had a camera with a live feed posted at the models’ entrance to the tents, which unfortunately ended up trained on the portable toilets. Inevitably this became the Can Cam and was very popular. Those, as we say, were the days.
Part of why we insisted that the runway coverage be the comprehensive and that their be nifty tools to manipulate the data (searching, sorting, saving) was because we were very vigilant in those days not to compete or reproduce what the magazine did. So we always began the development process by figuring out what magazines were unable to do, and making those things as our creative brief. We had infinite space, data bases, and no time delay, and committed to defining our products by the use of these attributes unique to the web. If something could appear in print, we didn’t need to put it on a screen. I believe that zero “repurposed” material appeared on the site.
I was editorial director (or editor in chief, I forget) of Vogue.com and later came up with the notion for Style.com, using the model Rochelle Udell had come up with for a new online brand (Epicurious) to host Gourmet, BA, and other branded and original content. Style.com, of which I was editorial director (or whatever) would be home to Vogue and the Fairchild brands (WWD, W), as well as other CNP and original fashion content, and Vogue.com moved into that tent. (Style.com was also intended to help centralize the many various foreign editions of the magazine brands at one location.)
The original and brilliant designer for both Vogue.com and Style.com was Lesley Marker. I bought the name/url Style.com from the Limited. I don’t recall how or even if they had used it, but once we owned it, it was never a gossip site (as the obituary states). Many of the other tools, approaches, and systems we used for Vogue.com and Style.com also came from the work we were doing on other Condé Net sites, which then included Epicurious, Swoon, Phys, and Concierge. For example, the Neiman-Marcus e-commerce arrangement was based on one we had done for Epicurious with Williams-Sonoma.
In the spring of 2000, Vogue.com did an online event with Chanel, where we hosted the resort collection live and let invited users pre-order looks based on detail shots we took of every item the second it came off the runway. Chanel was interested not just in selling outfits but in finding out what looks/colors/fabrics shoppers were interested in before the company even began the manufacturing process; fifteen years ago, they were aware of how valuable that data was to making their business more efficient and effective. Chanel was always one of our most enthusiastic partners. It was dissonant and thrilling that the Chanel executives brought our team up to Coco Chanel’s preserved apartment to discuss our Internet partnership.
Style.com became the larger home for the runway coverage; I think we still branded it as Vogue, though I am not sure.
There are several other key contributors who deserve credit for inventing fashion coverage online back in the late ‘90s; if anyone is interested, I can send more information. The early photographers did extraordinary work when the equipment and the support were unreliable and unwieldy. While Anna Wintour is given some credit in the Fourc32 telling of the story, it isn’t made clear the kind of coverage we were able to do would never, ever have happened if it hadn’t been for Anna’s decision and commitment to make it happen. I believe no other person or group could have persuaded the fashion industry to participate. Then or now.
I’m glad to have this bit of history not only because I go to watch all this magic as it transpired but because I think it’s important that we not lose the memory of how the web began. It amazes me that Epicurious is 20 years old. I started my first site for the parent company, Advance (a weather site called RainOrShine.com, just to get our feet wet) 20 years ago. The memories fade.
So I recommend reading Eric Gillin’s wonderful oral history of Epicurious. I was delighted that XOXO brought together the founders of Suck.com for their 20th anniversary; I wish I could have watched. I hope that other pioneers have the courage to show their gray hairs and dredge up their memories before they are lost. We were there at the start of it all.