Can brick and mortar retailers survive? For years, that’s been quite literally the billion-dollar question. Customers, executives and retailers alike are still debating what role, if any, physical stores will play as online shopping grows exponentially. Amazon alone essentially made bookstores obsolete, critically wounding various other business in the process. Fashion, on the other hand, is an entirely different beast. An industry entirely predicated on how clothing fits you specifically, various small boutiques are thriving despite the presence of behemoth e-tailers like Farfetch, MR. PORTER, SSENSE and END., who collectively control the men’s online fashion space.

Fashion’s newfound online platform is not without its perks. Finding specifically what you’re looking for has never been easier. Most brands are carried by dozens—if not hundreds—of stockists with web stores, more than happy to ship anywhere in the world within a matter of days. Farfetch’s business model is evidence as such. The London-based company essentially amalgamates brands and products from more than 700 boutiques into a single catalogue, allowing customers to shop one of the most diverse catalogues anywhere through a single online porta, while providing independent shops that lack the infrastructure a global audience.

That said, within the fashion space, the entire e-commerce marketplace is essentially a bottom of the barrel price competition, often with those willing to take slimmer margins, carry the burden of heavy shipping costs and carrying a wide range of sizes prevailing—even if to their own detriment. In the sense, independent brick and mortar retailers, who can develop a local and loyal clientele, deal with more predictable buying patterns, and as such play a crucial role—and undoubtedly will continue to—in men’s fashion.

At a glance, the marquee online retailers seem drastically different. Product imagery, styling, content and vision vary from one store to the next. While exclusive product is common, in fact there is tremendous overlap between what these stores actually carry—which in the end is what truly matters. Without the constraints of physical space, online retailers are free to carry as much of a given collection as they wish. Additionally, they often stock items that don’t necessarily mesh with the overall aesthetic, simply because they are hyped and guaranteed to sell. Given the nature of luxury markups, sites can still break even when pieces are on steep discounts—in some cases, they can still make a profit. Overall, these practices lead drastically different retailers to adopt nearly identical business models. No matter what they sell, every store winds up the same.

While monotonous, from the customer standpoint this redundancy can be great—what’s not to like about having the ability to purchase exactly what you’ve been looking for, for one third of the price? That said, the repetitive product and constant sale life cycle has removed a defining characteristic from retail: stores selecting pieces that not only they believe in, but can actually sell. Point of view becomes irrelevant.

Given the way we currently consume fashion, we often fail to recognize the role buyers play in curating stock and building a narrative. While most of the big e-tailers still make tough decisions, they can still by dozens of skus from a respective brand—unlike a traditional brick and mortar location, which is inherently limited by floor and storage space.

That said, these constraints force physical retailers to choose pieces that align with their respective vision, those the best resonate with their prospective buyers. Location, climate and audience all play a factor. This curatorial aspect helps individual stores stand out, but also showcases brand versatility.

Consider a brand like Stone Island, whose extensive collection is always available in a dizzying number of textile and color combinations. Given the inherent constraints of brick and mortar, a store can only carry a tiny percentage of any given collection, however due to the nature of the brand itself, specific garment-color-textile combinations may end up at only a single location. Of the hundreds of stockists, stand-alone stores may wind up with a not necessarily better, but more interesting collection than much larger competitors. The nature of brick and mortar stores incentivizes boutiques to pick pieces that are not only salable, but add brand cache. As such, two similar stores often wind up with exceedingly different takes on the same collection—something both intangible and irreplaceable.

In fact, Farfetch’s model itself seems to vindicate the role that independent brick and mortar retailers play. The company relies on the fact that its network of stores will invariably have different selections of products—be they brands or specific items within them. It is tacit recognition that the most holistic representation of what fashion has to offer comes from myriad and varied retailers each building a seasonal collection in their own image.

While the curatorial aspect of brick and mortar is clearly important, physical retailers also offer a valuable space for people to interact with clothing. Coming across an upcycled maharishi military parka in a store, as this writer did, may lead to a purchase while online it would have simply gone unnoticed. From the way an item is merchandised to small intricate details that are impossible to detect online, curated boutiques force us to notice pieces we may otherwise have skipped in a giant brand catalogue.

The intrinsic nature of clothing is exactly why some of the biggest luxury e-tailers are doubling down on physical store fronts. SSENSE’s newly-opened Montreal flagship, for instance, hopes to combine the positive traits of e-commerce—selection—with the experiential side of physical retail by offering prospective shoppers a chance to pre-select items online to try in in-store on a designated day. Apart from its digital-to-physical strategy, the multi-storey space is simply a rolling series of immersive installations and exclusive product—concepts that work best IRL. Based in New Castle, English stalwart END. maintained small physical outpost for years—tiny in comparison to its gargantuan online offering. Now, the company boasts multiple stores, including one in London, banking on the perks of an elevated retail experience.

Physical spaces offer something that e-commerce simply cannot: an experience. Colette, no doubt what was the marquee fashion boutique worldwide, was legendary not only for its production and curation, but for the vibe it presented. Everything from the employee's style to the smell of the store was a factor. These characteristics simply don’t translate online, no matter how crisp a product shot is, or how in-depth an original video series.

So, while e-commerce will clearly dominate the future, old-fashioned brick and mortar retail is such a fundamental part of the fashion space it will never fail. Small independent stores offer the first round of curation. They offer experiences. They introduce new brands in ways that are meaningful. They have a feeling, a smell, a look, a familiarity that is reassuring and encourage people to take risks—something massive e-tailers simply cannot hope to do.

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Tags: mr-porter, retail, ssense, end, shopping