Theory Launches E-Commerce Site: Cool Clothes, Boring Concept

Last Updated Feb 23, 2010 7:49 PM EST

Those who follow fashion are a somewhat tech-savvy bunch, feverish fingers flying as they type, text, or tweet to hunt down the latest "it" look. So it's somewhat of a surprise that Theory, a decidedly contemporary brand (founded in the dotcom era), took so long to get its Internet retail game on.

Best known for sleek, minimal separates for men and women, pieces from Theory's collections were previously only available through traditional department stores such as Saks (SKS), selected boutiques, and online retailers such as RevolveClothing.com. This week Theory unveiled a revamped Web site complete with "innovative" e-commerce and a blog. Will the embedded videos featuring professional stylists help to increase revenue? Probably. But the results may be marginal.

The Theory brand is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Fast Retailing, the Japanese holding company which also owns Uniqlo. Globally, Theory brings in a tidy sum for its parent -â€" a $430 billion sales base in the US and Japan -â€" and represents more bricks than clicks.

Yet Theory went ahead and got its own shopping e-cart, presumably following in the footsteps of such design luminaries as Dolce & Gabbana (who were also relatively late to the e-commerce party). In effort to make the shopping experience even more interactive, Theory added the aforementioned innovation and linked everything up to Twitter and Facebook.

However, incorporating professional stylists' picks and tips to generate sales is not a new concept on the Web. Marketing like that is alive and well at such haute hives as Vogue's Style.com and Aol's Stylelist. But Theory's hoping that the concept will work in reverse -â€" clicks to bricks â€"- and is populating its stores with mannequins featuring the stylists' concepts. Interesting, but not likely to trigger a fiendish rush for a certain blouse or pair of trousers.

So is the reason for this e-commerce and social media push to mine the potential of taking the brand viral? If that's the case, Theory's still behind the 8-ball. The new wave of interactive shopping has already begun. Note ModCloth, a women's apparel and accessories retailer that encourages engagement with a "Be the Buyer" program that allows customers to vet new products. Items with the most thumbs up get offered for sale.

A spokeswoman for ModCloth told me the response has been enthusiastic, although it's too early to tell how big a role crowdsourcing will have in their overall stock mix. She does say, "Be the Buyer will continue to give customers an increasingly larger voice in determining what products they see on the site --and more broadly, what kinds of products they'd like to see on the Web site -- which will inform the decisions of our physical buying team."

Then there's Polyvore, a hybrid fashion site that allows users to create photo collages based on actual products available for sale. Polyvore recently raised over $5 million in new capital from Matrix Partners because one of its principals noted the site's potential to "revolutionize e-commerce in the apparel category."

Perhaps Theory's brand strategists already know this. And they don't care. Indeed, the announcement for the new site included a special offer for a limited edition t-shirt emblazoned with an "I'm a Fashion Insider" graphic. As the offer put it, this is the brand's "signature tongue in cheek approach; because, in Theory, you don't have to be a stylist or a fashion editor to be on the insider track."