Photo by Tiffany Kelterer

If there’s one thing everyone has in common, it’s clothing. No matter where you are in the world, you’re more than likely wearing clothing, which explains why the industry that produces it had global sales topping $1.9 trillion in 2019.

It’s safe to say that the market also offers more diversity of options than ever, with tens of thousands of brick-and-mortar establishments in the United States alone. And there are countless online brands that benefit without the overhead associated with a physical storefront. It’s become easier for small companies and independent designers to launch their own products online.

But despite the ease and accessibility of online shopping, the in-store experience still trumps e-commerce, with U.S. denizens spending $268.7 billion in-person in 2019 versus $110.6 billion online, according to Statista.

That might be surprising amid the decline of shopping centers and the apocalyptic photography of abandoned malls with captions like, “Elizabeth Taylor reportedly shopped here.” Sifting through racks of clothing might have seemed like it was becoming a bygone activity, but entrepreneurs Elisa Yip of SSKEIN and Patricia Markevitch of Alicia Peru — two Bellevue-based purveyors of high-end fashion — said customers still have a strong desire to experience clothing in person.

Business of … Fashion

Elisa Yip, founder of SSKEIN. Photo by Saieliza.

Markevitch co-owns Alicia Peru with her mother, Alicia Rodriguez, who launched an iteration of the fashion brand in the 1990s. After Rodriguez’s retirement from modeling, she began importing alpaca wool and selling custom designs at trade shows as well as consulting with clients in their homes to design bespoke knitwear.

Rodriguez and Markevitch officially launched Alicia Peru as a knitwear label in 2008 and spent several years selling fashion and homeware products wholesale and at trade shows before opening a storefront on Bellevue’s Main Street in 2018. Roughly 70 percent of what they sell is their own label — namely coats, capes, sweaters, cardigans, throws, and scarves — and 30 percent is other like-minded clothing and home brands.

Markevitch said the vast majority of their sales are generated from in-person shopping. Pre-COVID, she estimates that 1 percent of their sales were online, and now it’s about 15 percent. Those figures could be because most of their customers are women in the 40s and above, she said — an age group that’s more likely to buy clothing in person.

Markevitch prefers it that way. She said she likes having a personal connection with her customers, and there are some she’ll personally call to inform of new merchandise.

Business of … Fashion

Alicia Rodriguez (top) and Patricia Markevitch, co-owners of Alicia Peru. Courtesy of Alicia Peru.

So, even though Markevitch doesn’t spend a lot of time cultivating a following online via Instagram — a platform that’s considered key for fashion marketing — she still considers it a business must-have.

“What I like about social media and what I like about the website is that it gives the customer a snapshot,” Markevitch said. “In 2014-15, you had to have a website. Now it’s social media. … It’s a discipline. (Instagram) is all about having a color scheme and coming up with all these videos. Now you have to talk to the screen and talk about yourself, but at the end of the day, it’s sales. It’s easier to do that in person.”

Yip, on the other hand, launched her luxury knitwear brand online in June 2020 with a strong social media and online presence. The website has a magazine-like feel — almost experiential. Full-screen photos of beautiful women wearing SSKEIN jumpsuits, bodysuits, and sweaters dominate the site, but they’re not just posing on a backdrop. They’re out in the world wearing SSKEIN designs.

Yip also has a behind-the-scenes page with blogs about why she uses the highly sustainable alpaca wool to create SSKEIN clothing. Yip’s background as a fashion influencer and designer at Nordstrom will come as no surprise after clicking through the pages of her website. SSKEIN’s online presence feels like a hybrid of the personable “influencer” model — which relies heavily on a balance of personal realness and curated beauty — and an online store.

Business of … Fashion

Patricia Markevitch, co-owner of Alicia Peru. Photo by Elisa Markevitch.

She said 90 percent of SSKEIN’s sales are online, which is supplemented with wholesale to online and brick-and-mortar boutiques, and in-person trunk shows.

“Everything we do, from designing the product to marketing campaigns, we have social media in mind, as it’s one of our main sources of communication to our audience,” Yip said. “We create story tales to take our audience into the world and lifestyle of our brand, and it comes from our products to photoshoots and video content. Social media not only allows us to share with our audience, but it also seamlessly helps us convert sales. ”

Jaeil Lee, a professor and chair for the apparel design and merchandising department for Seattle Pacific University, agrees that having an online presence is a now-crucial part of running a fashion company. The frequency of online shopping and who is buying what can be somewhat generational, Lee said, but everyone checks a computer. Everyone uses Amazon.

“I never thought people purchased underwear or shoes online,” she said. “You know the company Zappos? When they started their business, a lot of people laughed at them. Shoes are complex. You want to try it on before you purchase it, but they’re doing great. Consumers are well-trained and educated on what they can get online. If you tried to purchase shoes online, this website asks you what your shoe size is and will do a comparison with other brands so they can provide the perfect fit. This is really a different era.”

Business of … Fashion

A model sporting SSKEIN clothing. Photo by Saieliza.

SPU’s fashion program used to be more heavily wrapped around being successful with a brick-and-mortar store, but as part of the curriculum now, students need to create online markets and social media platforms to back them.

Lee said that online versus in-store shopping isn’t mutually exclusive. Most fashion companies and clothing stores are a blend of e-commerce and in-person, and so the whole experience needs to feel connected.

In some ways, customers expect more from the brands and companies they buy from. They expect a seamless and beautiful experience online and in person. When asked if SSKEIN would have been as successful if it had been exclusively online, Yip said, “No.”

“It wouldn’t, especially for a new brand,” she said. “We have to slowly build trust around the brand and product with our customers.”

Fashion is so tactile, Yip said. People need to touch it. “I used to shop more often in stores, as I like to touch and feel the materials,” she said about her own shopping pre-COVID. “I love the experience of getting excited about a product you can touch, which is an emotion you can only receive in-person versus online.”

All three women seemed to agree — the in-person shopping experience is here to stay.

Nordstrom Rolls Out New In-Store Concept on East Coast

In its most recent in-depth report, Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Co. interviewed Nordstrom Co-President Pete Nordstrom about its newest omnichannel adaptation.

The 120-year-old department store opened its seven-story Manhattan flagship location in 2019 and is rolling out Nordstrom Local outlets around the city to support online pickups, returns, alterations, and personal styling. Nordstrom tested this model in Los Angeles a few years earlier and found it helped “boost the omnichannel experience.”

“Physical stores make for a better online experience rather than having to ship stuff back through the mail,” Nordstrom said in the 2020 report, “(and it) creates trips to a physical store, so you get a chance to sell (customers) something else if they’re returning it or changing it.”

Nordstrom, well known for its customer experience, wanted to make it easier for people to visit an in-store location, but it also wanted to create a more seamless connection between the digital and physical store worlds. And, ultimately, people began spending more money.

Whether this model will expand to the Pacific Northwest is unclear, but Nordstrom seems to be keeping his eye on how it performs in New York.