LONDON Designers are embracing a growing crowd of internet-savvy fashion followers taking catwalk glamour beyond the coveted front row, with many young creators welcoming a trend they say brings them closer to consumers.
After years of shunning the internet, a changing luxury market has forced even top fashion houses to welcome the world wide web and, more recently, a burgeoning blogging and micro-blogging, or "tweeting," culture.
For young designers like 29-year-old Canadian Mark Fast, showcasing his collection of body-molding knitwear at London's fashion week, the blogosphere offers a voice to new opinions and a platform for the startup brands themselves.
"It's a great way to reach many more people," Fast said backstage, as models and dressers swarmed ahead of his show.
"Everyone has an opinion -- it's nice to hear what these people are thinking, to give them a voice. Why not?"
Fast has become a darling of the controversy-hungry blogging crowd after choosing larger models to showcase his collection alongside the more traditional, long-limbed size zeros, a move he says that is more about diversity than ruffling feathers.
Mary Katrantzou, who showed her collection of structured dresses in dramatic, 18th-century inspired trompe-l'oeil prints alongside Fast, said bloggers offered her useful input, but most critically, put her in direct touch with consumers.
"It is a new way of getting in touch with people and finding out what they feel about your clothes," she told Reuters.
"Before, it was the shop (buyer) that had access to the customer. Now you have direct access."
Older designers like veteran Paul Costelloe echo the idea, arguing bloggers also bring them closer to a new generation of consumers: "It's a different sort of following, sometimes younger people who don't know about the baggage I've been carrying -- they just look and see what I'm doing now."
MOVING IN ON FRONT ROW
Not everyone has welcomed the voice the internet has given to people as diverse as teenage bloggers Tavi Gevinson and Bryan Boy and fashion stalwarts like Vogue's Vogue.com site.
But bloggers and contributors to online fashion sites are now a common sight and, increasingly, are moving closer to the front row normally reserved for heavyweight editors and buyers.
Helping to boost the impact of instant fashion views, London Fashion Week's organizers have streamed many of this year's shows live online, with fashion house Burberry even going 3-D.
But the meeting of internet and cutting-edge fashion isn't about to make the catwalk redundant.
"The expense, the fact that people have to travel across the world to see catwalk shows, that it would cheaper to look at pictures online, has meant people discuss whether there is any point," Dolly Jones, editor of Vogue.com, said.
"But there is a starry nature -- fashion is exciting and people want to celebrate it. The catwalk gives it that focus for celebration."
For Scott Schuman, a former showroom owner and now the name behind the celebrated Sartorialist street fashion site, blogs and sites beaming catwalk shows across the world could actually increase the appeal and potentially make runway shows pay.
"I asked people in my blog, would you pay (to see a show)? A lot of them said yes," he told Reuters on the sidelines of London's fashion extravaganza.
"It won't make (shows) redundant, it will make them entertainment. The Oscars used to be just a trade and industry thing -- now it's big entertainment."
(Reporting by Clara Ferreira-Marques, editing by Paul Casciato)