Gilt Groupe: A Look That’s Worth a Million HitsDecember 01, 2010
New York Times
by Catherine Saint Louis
ON the afternoon of what has come to be known as Cyber Monday, Alissandre Martines, 23, a French Polynesian with high-arched eyebrows, was making a color-blocked scarf by Me & Kashmere look like a must-have.
Mindful of the tiny rectangle she would inhabit on Gilt Groupe, the designer discount Web site, Ms. Martines flashed a little personality as she moved in front of a softly illuminated white backdrop, to the sounds of Prince playing on Pandora. There was a smirk. A hand on the hip. A mischievous, close-mouthed smile. But Ms. Martines didn’t bring a hand to her face (that would hide the neckline), nor did she do any fabulously contrived poses.
“You’re doing straight catalog shots, but still need some expression,” said Philip Attar, the art director in charge of the shoot at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, explaining the challenge of modeling clothes online. He was sitting in front of a computer as images of Ms. Martines popped up. “Got it,” he called, when one satisfied him. The process involves “selling clothes to people who can’t touch anything,” Mr. Attar said, “so even if only for one second, you want to have some connection with her.”
Last year, customers nationwide spent $19 billion online on apparel and accessories, according to comScore, an Internet research company. This growing market has given rise to another category of catalog modeling, with different requirements from the Sears books of yore.
Online apparel retailers want women who look good in motion since 360-degree shots of merchandise (and often video) are de rigueur. “It’s our responsibility now to not only educate models to look good on camera, but also to educate them in how to move,” said Ivan Bart, the managing director of IMG Models worldwide, adding that top-tier magazines also now often require doing B-roll video for their sites in addition to print editorial spreads. (Moving well also helps with the 50-odd clothing changes a session sometimes required of online models.) “The Internet is definitely driving it,” Mr. Bart said. “People are understanding that’s the way the consumer is being seduced.”
Web models need to be attractive, of course, but not intimidatingly so — the better, the thinking goes, to woo shoppers who may be browsing at 3 a.m. in their slippers. Many niche apparel sites direct their models to evoke just-off-the-street charm with a touch of je ne sais quoi — in other words, be “relatable,” but not a bore (as opposed to the unrelentingly cheery models on the Web site of a department store like Macy’s). While Gilt uses models full of don’t-you-want-it attitude to sell their high-end products, Rue La La, Ideeli and Swirl by DailyCandy ask their models to exude friendly warmth, rather than hauteur. Shopbop, meanwhile, uses the same distinctive models in such heavy rotation that shoppers nickname them.
Elena Greenwell, a six-year veteran of Shopbop who is known simply as the Redhead, says she is recognized by fans even at the beach without makeup. “I’ve had people say, ‘You look so pissed off,’ ” said Ms. Greenwell, of Ford Models. “I am the opposite of that girl. If you saw the outtakes, we are always laughing and dancing.”
Shopbop also frequently features a come-hither brunette, Iskra Stoycheva, a Bulgarian-born resident of Milwaukee who has been working for the site for seven years and is often shown with slightly parted lips. “I’m bored with regular work,” said Ms. Stoycheva, a Factor model who also does print catalogs. “It’s just not enough to do. It’s not stimulating enough for me.” Plus, working at Shopbop is like collaborating with friends, she said. (She gets to do her own hair and makeup there; Internet shoppers, it seems, welcome a whiff of amateurism.)
A daily e-mail featuring either of these women acts as a Pavlovian trigger for customers to examine new arrivals on the site, which has approximately five million visits per month, according to Shopbop. “People come to see them as personalities,” Morgan Wendelborn, the site’s style director, said of the models, who routinely drive to Madison, Wis., from Chicago or fly in from New York for shoots. Ms. Wendelborn, who runs the site’s model castings, said “I want a girl who actually looks like she has personality. People do relate to that. She kind of seems like me. She looks like she’s having fun, even if she’s not smiling.”
Being “relatable” on Shopbop and elsewhere entails dressing a sophisticated, somewhat age-ambiguous woman in outfits that appear down-to-earth despite three-figure prices. Her body language seems to ask “Don’t I look good?” Her aura of cool suggests she doesn’t need an answer. The professional online model is skinny, sure — but size 4s, not zeros like many on the runway. “Seeing clothes on someone like them really resonates with consumers — not a runway model, not an austere glamazon,” said Hillary Mendelsohn, an online marketing expert and founder of thepurplebook.com, a Zagat guide to the Web.
The fast-and-furious shoots for online apparel purveyors also help convey a sense of off-the-cuff authenticity. “Oh, you can definitely do 80 outfits in a day,” said Lindsi Miller, 21, who models once or twice a week for Swirl by DailyCandy, their sample sale site. With a hint of pride, she added, “They tell me I’m the fastest changer they’ve ever had.”
Perfection isn’t required. Bony knees aren’t airbrushed smooth. Models sometimes work the same baffling expression ad nauseam. Referring to online modeling generally, Steven Reider, a manager at Elite Model Management, said, “I don’t think it’s ever made anyone a star on the global playing field of models.”
Still, Ms. Mendelsohn contends, consumers relate to them. “I don’t think that people want to see a perfect model,” she said. “The ones that attract us the most are ones with effortless cool who are actually approachable, that you could be friends with.”
Swirl by DailyCandy, which is about a year old, uses quirky models who appear “smart but not snarky, friendly but not annoying, someone genuinely cool, not in a supercilious way, but in an exuberant relatable way,” said Eve Epstein, the creative director for Swirl, who hires for the 32 to 35 sales a month, which are shot in a studio in Los Angeles.
Gilt, which has roughly 100 women’s and 80 men’s ready-to-wear sales monthly, works with some luxury brands to find appropriate models. “Some brands are very clear about their style guidelines,” said Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, the chief merchandising officer of Gilt. Other brands let the site cast their shoots, which take place in two shifts between 8 a.m. and 1 a.m. at one of their eight studios in Brooklyn. In those cases, the aim is broad appeal. “We don’t want a model to appear intimidating in a way they do in a fashion show,” Ms. Wilson said. (Ms. Martines, a Gilt regular, recently finished shooting for Agent Provocateur.)
Gregory Costello, the creative director at Ideeli.com, a free flash sale site where members can pay for earlier access, discourages contrived poses that are staples of fashion magazines. “Both arms up, elbows out — we don’t go for that,” he said. “That’s also not how you, mother of one, would be standing at the cocktail party in your Donna Karan dress.” Mr. Costello, who is pro-smiling, wants models to show personality in the site’s eight daily staffed shoots. They do about six more with no people.
The jury is still out on whether flesh-and-blood models are even necessary to move merchandise sight unseen. Bluefly and the OutNet mostly use mannequins on their item shots. Net-a-Porter, the international luxury online retailer that feeds the discount OutNet, crops out models’ faces, as if to disabuse them of the prevalent notion of our time that they can be more than clothes hangers. The site shows multiple views of a $1,355 Miu Miu asymmetric strapless crepe dress, and a video that clarifies where the slit in the hem falls. But the statuesque model wearing it remains faceless.
Bluefly’s quick selling periods made investment in models seem unwise, said Bradford Matson, the company’s chief marketing officer. He said that some of the models hired for the site’s home page are runway walkers but are styled to be “approachable.” In September, however, for the first time, Bluefly had models on its item pages don some boxy-cut cashmere sweaters to see if they increased sales. They were pitted against headless torsos wearing cashmere on the same page.
Consumers said they appreciated the zoomable pictures and videos, Mr. Matson said. But he added, using human beings only slightly increased sales.