Startups Have a Few Hurdles to Overcome Before TV Shows Can Truly Become Shoppable

Blogs and apps that show fans where to buy the clothes they see on television are becoming a viable business, one that some costume designers are reluctant to be a part of.
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Dhani Mau
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Blogs and apps that show fans where to buy the clothes they see on television are becoming a viable business, one that some costume designers are reluctant to be a part of.
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There has always been interest in the clothes actors wear on television. Identifying the clothes on a few shows, generally those targeting younger female audiences -- think "Gossip Girl," "Pretty Little Liars" and "Sex and the City" -- has oftentimes verged on the obsessive. But it wasn’t until recently that audiences had access to resources for finding out, and in many cases buying, the clothes they see on-screen.

Tumblr was one of the early resources for TV outfit credits, and now just about every TV show, especially those with contemporary, stylish characters ("Pretty Little Liars," "Scandal," "Revenge," "Hart of Dixie") has at least one or two fan-generated blogs dedicated to chronicling what its characters wear, many of them very SEO-friendly. Try Googling “Pretty Little Liars fashion” and see what comes up.

Over time, these Tumblrs and blogs, all created by obsessed fans who likely had jobs or classes to attend during the day, started getting better and better, and other, more ambitious bloggers caught on to the desperation of viewers wanting to know what their favorite TV characters wear -- something that can also be seen on social media. Now, there are broader, more professional-looking sites that compile outfit credits for various weekly TV shows. One of the most popular is WornonTV.

Founder Linda Wilks launched the site in 2012 and it’s since grown rapidly, allowing her to quit her full-time job. In the past two months alone, her traffic has more than doubled: February saw 500,000 unique visitors and 4,000,000 page views. She says her revenue comes from affiliate links and advertising.

Wilks says that "Pretty Little Liars" and "Hart of Dixie" (which I’m convinced people only watch because of Rachel Bilson’s impractically on-trend doctor wardrobe) are among the most popular shows to shop. "Pretty Little Liars" is especially popular because much of what the little liars wear is drawn from affordable stores like Urban Outfitters, she says. And now the show has a clothing line collaboration -- another result of viewers' desire to dress like their favorite TV characters -- with Aeropostale.

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Wilks isn’t the only blogger in the game. Chloe Bell launched a similar site, ShopYourTV, in 2011. Its readership, while not quite as impressive as WornonTV, is substantial -- about 150,000 uniques and 600,000 page views per month. Her site makes money primarily through affiliate links, though she also has advertising, and she aims to offer her readers more than just outfit credits. She’s recently begun including more editorial content, including interviews with costume designers, and wants to expand into shows in more countries. She also wants to build an app “which will help people find outfits while watching a TV show, by taking a photo and uploading to a helpful community.” Of course, such an app has already been developed, but more on that later.

The most recent addition to this genre of website is Pradux, which launched this year and is the most tech-driven, complex and, for lack of better words (and because I just like the word), fancy. Founder Alex Koblenz is noticeably business-minded, and while his competitors are more like blogs, Pradux is more like a database, allowing one to sort by season, character or episode, and even find archived items from season one of "Gossip Girl." One of the site’s most intriguing features is that it allows anyone to embed any of its outfit credits, so someone managing a show’s fan blog could include outfit credits by embedding them from Pradux. Of course, Pradux would get the commission if an affiliate link was used.

Koblenz boasts that the site has “a high-end aesthetic,” while many fan sites can tend to look amateurish, and that helps in his efforts to work with high-end brands. “The site has to look a certain way," he says.

Pradux also has several other components, like a user-generated feature that allows anyone to upload their own outfits and tag their clothes and accessories -- commission is split 50/50 between the user and Pradux.

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While a mobile extension of Pradux is still in the works, others have attempted to tackle mobile TV shopping right off the bat, with the goal of becoming a Shazam for fashion on television. A company called Get This began promotional efforts about a year ago and promised an app that would allow people to shop what they see on TV shows like "Revenge" live while it’s on the air, though we haven’t heard much about it since.

A similar app, Gandr, launched quietly just few weeks ago, but has had difficulties getting off the ground and getting multiple TV shows on board. The problem with making that information available in real time, as the show airs, is that developers have to get all the information from the networks and costume designers well in advance. And given the newness of this type of technology, networks and costume designers may not have the time or resources to deliver that information. Another challenge is the fact that fashion items are only available in stores for so long. And whatever costume designers don’t create themselves, they typically purchase, and since what’s in store while a show tapes may not be the same as what’s in store while the show airs, it can be difficult to find shoppable pieces.

While bloggers Bell and Wilks occasionally get information from brands and costume designers, they typically find credits by searching descriptive terms on Google and platforms like ShopStyle.

There is an obvious opportunity for networks and individual shows to release the clothing credits themselves, and build a healthy business in the process. Not only could they develop their own affiliate revenue schemes, but they could also negotiate more product placements to fashion brands who want their items on screen.

In fact, that's already starting to happen. Bell notes that "Pretty Little Liars" has recently started to “Live-Pin” outfits from the show, and that the makeup department from "Reign" shares the makeup products worn on each character through Twitter.

Meanwhile, "The Mindy Project" currently has a “Shop the Show” feature on its website. “The studio will look through my continuity books and look at the labels that are coming up so they can make sure they’re available to the public when the episode airs,” explained the show’s costume designer Salvador Perez.

And brands are certainly already pushing for placement on popular TV shows. “I get 1,200 emails a day at least and I am constantly having to turn them down,” says "Pretty Little Liars" costume designer Mandi Line. “I feel like a celebrity because they’ll do whatever they can to get the clothes on the show.” It makes sense, from the brand’s perspective. “It’s almost like if you put a necklace on ("PLL" character) Aria, you’re good to go.”

Costume designer Jill Ohanneson is also bombarded with PRs trying to get their clothes on her show "Revenge," offering discounts of 20 to 30 percent and free clothes -- which can be tempting when there are budget constraints. But Ohanneson says she "won’t just put stuff in because we’ve gotten it for free." She adds, "I’m really blessed they’ve given me a decent budget for the show. I’ve been on so many shows where I have had to resort to that, like, oh I really need some help, and you end up using what you can get for free.”

But costume designers seem more fearful than excited about networks getting involved with brands and "shop the show" projects.

“I know that networks and studios and PR companies are heavily invested in ‘shop as you view’ projects. They do worry me slightly as a costume designer because I would prefer not to be told what to put on an actor so that it can sell,” says "Scandal" costume designer Lyn Paolo. “My creative license would be gone.”

Indeed, every costume designer we spoke with says his or her first priority is doing what is right for the character. “Our job as a costume designer is to make sure clothes are appropriate, make sure they flatter the actress,” says Perez.

"This is not about fashion for us," says Debra McGuire, costume designer for "The New Girl," who says she does not let PRs influence her decisions. "It is about the writer's vision and the character."

“I don’t ever want to compromise the character or the storyline just to say, I’ve got this brand on the show,” emphasizes Ohanneson.

That’s not to say there isn’t a way to work with brands that could benefit everyone involved. Paulo gave "The Great Gatsby"’s partnerships with Brooks Brothers and Prada, wherein the brands’ clothes were featured in the film and the brands used the film as part of a marketing campaign, as a positive example. “That’s a dream collaboration,” she says.

"As the consumer demands [clothes seen on TV], the network might start asking for [partnerships with brands] but it would have to be a tie-in situation,” says Perez.

The thing is, it wouldn’t be up to the costume designers. “It’s up to the studio because they wield the power,” explains Paolo. “One would hope that you would be able to say [to the studio], ‘That’s not exactly right.’”