How Unhip Amazon Can Walk the Fashion Runway

May 11 (Bloomberg) -- When I caught Jeff Bezos’s eye at the press preview for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Costume Institute exhibit, which Inc. sponsored, his face burst into an enormous smile. I’d like to think this was because the Amazon chief executive officer likes me so much. (We see each other socially on rare occasions.)

But I suspect he was mostly glad to see anyone he recognized. We were probably the only two people in the room who could tell you who Linus Torvalds is, or Myron Scholes: two nerds, however grown-up and pulled together, in a crowd of fashionistas.

Amazon is an unlikely sponsor for a Costume Institute event, and Bezos an exceedingly unlikely fashion advocate. “Before we got involved, this event wasn’t on my radar at all,” he said of the museum’s celebrity-filled annual gala.

But his company is trying to get into high-end fashion retailing, and sponsoring the Met exhibit and the fashion world’s party of the year is a good way to get attention. If nothing else, it gets Bezos and Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour speaking on a first-name basis.

A cultural gap remains, however. “It could never be cool to shop for fashion at Geek cooties will come attached to your clothes,” an early commenter said about Monday’s New York Times story on Amazon’s foray into fine fashion. Another wrote, “Do you want to be cool or pay the lowest price? Your decision.” The Times story ended with a jab at Bezos for not knowing the brand of his own shirt or shoes -- and for letting a tacky ID badge dangle from his Prada jeans.

Fashion Already Online

Net-a-Porter has already demonstrated that you don’t have to be a flash-sale site to sell high fashion online. So have the websites of department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. In the specialized vintage market, so has 1stDibs. The problems of presentation and fit can be overcome.

The real question is the cultural one: How can a middle-brow company like Amazon become a credible source of fashion rather than merely apparel? Here are a few ideas the company might consider:

1) Emphasize that you are providing a large market, rather than a mass market.

Mass markets spread the fixed cost of producing the same good over a lot of different buyers. They tend toward homogeneity and one-size-fits-all products. Large markets simply have a lot of people in them. A large population can transform a formerly unprofitable niche into a profitable market. The bigger the market, the more varied the goods. That’s why you find more variety in New York than in Kansas City.

The big advantage an online retailer like Amazon offers a fashion house is the chance to bring together all the potential customers scattered outside the largest cities. At the pricey end, at least, Amazon is not looking for a mass market. It is creating a large one -- making room for many more niche brands and potentially for a given brand’s full line of styles. Success doesn’t depend on dumbing down fashion. And selection, not low prices, is the killer app.

2) Don’t be Macy’s when you can be Bloomingdale’s.

Macy’s Inc. owns both department stores, but Bloomingdale’s Inc. carries more expensive, exclusive fashion brands. Amazon’s primary site competes with middle-market Macy’s. It needs a different brand to compete with Bloomingdale’s. That could be MyHabit, its existing upscale flash-sale site, or it could be something new.

Local Partnerships

3) Extend fashion-oriented philanthropy outside New York.

The Costume Institute gala is a huge, high-profile event -- a great way of attracting one-time attention. To sustain the fashion connection at a fraction of the cost, consider similar partnerships with regional museums that have strong fashion collections, such as the Phoenix Art Museum or the Kent State University Museum, or with schools of fashion design, particularly those in regional markets, such as the Savannah College of Art and Design or the Columbus College of Art and Design. Finding regional partners would reinforce the “large market” strategy, positioning Amazon as a place to find styles not otherwise available locally.

4) Provide an outlet for emerging talent.

The true test of a fashion authority, whether a magazine editor, a boutique owner or a stylist, is the ability to spot important designers before they are famous. Amazon could invest in hiring established talent spotters as in-house authorities. But that isn’t necessary, because the company offers something every aspiring designer craves: distribution. All it needs is a partner with the right eye.

One possibility is Franca Sozzani, the innovative editor of Vogue Italia. Speaking last Friday at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, she returned again and again to the need to identify and nurture new design talent. The magazine’s Vogue Talents website is a showcase for aspiring designers, and its annual contest not only recognizes and publicizes young designers. It also helps them build careers by connecting them with fashion-house jobs and distribution channels, including Yoox and QVC.

With the nonprofit Fashion4Development, Sozzani is also nurturing about 20 promising new African designers. The first task was identifying them, but now, she said, “we have to find distribution for all of them,” so they can create lasting enterprises rather than one-time collections. “I don’t want to do charity,” she said. This project, too, has distribution deals with Yoox and QVC, as well as the Italian retailer OVS. Why not Amazon?

Fashion people like to believe that their field represents values such as creativity, beauty, self-expression and craft. And it does. But fashion is also a vehicle for making fine distinctions between insiders and outsiders, the cool and the uncool. If Amazon wants to succeed in the high-fashion business, it needs a way in that doesn’t depend on the decidedly uncool strategy of just cutting prices -- but also doesn’t demand a chief executive who speaks fluent fashionista. Fortunately, it has plenty of potential partners who are cultural natives.

(Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She is the author of “The Future and Its Enemies” and “The Substance of Style,” and is writing a book on glamour. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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