Some may say that Style.com was a bad idea from the start. When it launched in 2000, it was designed to serve as the online home for Condé Nast's upscale glossies, Vogue and W. Even then, deciding not to use an established brand name to kick off the publishing house's foray into digital content felt archaic. Why set yourself up for failure like that?
But fashion publications were even slower to embrace the web than anticipated, and Style.com was able to use that first-to-market advantage — combined with a smart, talented editorial staff — to build a reputation quite separate from the magazines it was meant to represent.
It took 15 years for Condé Nast to realize the setup didn't make sense.
The hard part, though, is that along the way, Style.com became the fashion media's core. It's the directory, the library, the resource center. Direct competitors happily reference it, because in a lot of ways, it's neutral territory. It also became a launchpad for young designers: a review on Style.com was a sign you'd made it in. And once you were in, it meant something.
I understand the owners of Style.com decided to keep the URL, even after choosing to do away with its editorial content: the name already has the trust of fashion's most fervent consumers. But I'm not convinced that it will thrive as an e-commerce site.
I don't write about the media very much, mostly because, as a freelance writer who accepts payment for her work from many of these magazines and websites, it feels incorrect. (It's the same reason I don't do brand consulting.) I've contributed to Style.com numerous times, mostly writing runway reviews, so there's no denying my opinion could be skewed because of my personal connection. But I do have some general feelings about commerce plays by content companies that are by no means specific to this particular situation.
Many publishers believe that commerce will save their businesses. After all, they were already shilling product through advertising and the cozy relationships between publicists and editors. "Let's not kid ourselves, we're all in this business to sell clothes," is something I've heard more than one editor say. What they don't understand: commerce needs context — some sort of story — but it doesn't require a full-fledged editorial operation to survive. Net-a-Porter doesn't need Porter: It's a compelling, complementary way to market its product that NaP can, at the moment, afford to produce. But it's not the meal ticket. Publishers might do okay with commerce, but it probably won't ever be their meal ticket. It's very telling that Refinery29 — the website that all major women's interest publications discuss at length and aim to emulate — chose to do away with its commerce business, even though the company says it was generating a few million dollars a year. Consumers are eager for information, and the most successful online properties offer a lot of it. They also have begun to figure out a way to sell advertising at a premium. To bet on an entirely different sort of business is more than risky: it's confusing.
Right now, publishers are scared. And with reason. It's obvious that we're entering yet another period of massive change, with many more entities completely transforming or shutting down altogether. But to see one of the industry's most valuable resources become a casualty is nothing short of heartbreaking.