Are high-end fashion retailers living up to their brand when they go online?

Translating a luxury brand into an ecommerce proposition that accurately reflects the brand identity and values is a major challenge. I’ve sat in many meetings where the brand guardians have a fundamental disagreement with the ecommerce team on how the site should work. I’ve seen ecommerce people scratch their hands in dismay when UX is compromised simply to fit within brand guidelines that were designed for an offline world. 

So this month I’m reviewing 4 fashion retailers to look at how they’re living up to their brand reputation through the ecommerce store. I’ve included one pureplay as a contrast to the multi-channel retailers:

  2. Prada
  3. Burberry
  4. Whistles

I’ve used 3 simple criteria to evaluate the brand presence online:

  1. Content quality
  2. Navigation efficiency
  3. Added value services

Content quality

This isn’t a lazy assumption that content marketing is now king. It’s a recognition that core to the brand presence of most high-end retailers is engaging content that absorbs people into the world of the product and through this tells the brand story. So do these sites provide great content?


I think MR PORTER does content brilliantly. There’s a mix of brand experts and stories about interesting/inspirational men whose experiences and outlooks align with the brand values.

The business has invested time and resource in creating content stories that fit with their customers’ lifestyle interests. For example, The Journal provides content features that relate to the lifestyles the business has identified as being important to its customers. Within these content features they feature relevant products, but the focus is on the story and using content to inspire, entertain or educate.

John Brodie (ex GQ) was recently appointed as Editor-in-Chief. They’ve worked with some of the best names in journalism and fashion to ensure that features, shoots and interviews are topical and engaging.

Below is a recent feature from The Journal called “Something in the heir” about 6 New York Men and their sons. Smart content marketing.



Prada makes stylish content. The copy for the Pradasphere project is beautifully crafted and wonderfully enticing:

“A cosmos of its own composed of heavenly bodies set in complex orbits. A universe of contradictions and endless elaborations ­– noble causes and base temptations ­– where idealism meets vanity, intelligence meets passion, fashion meets fiction. Welcome to the Pradasphere.”

Damn it, I want in and I’m not even in their target market!

The site has a very cool UI feature where each content component can be moved around like a window. So you don’t have to lose what you were reading just to open a new piece of content. Play around with ‘Projects’ to see what I mean.


From a UX perspective, the white on black is a nightmare to read on a smaller screen. I had zoom even on desktop to make it easily legible. Content success, UX fail.


Burberry does catwalk glamour rather nicely. From the second you land on the homepage, you’re presented with the iconic trench coat adorning beautiful models. It’s deliberately seductive and a good way to align with offline brand marketing.

Art of the Trench is arguably Burberry’s flagship content project, sitting on its own subdomain. It leans heavily on HTML5 to showcase video and the imagery is bold and in keeping with the brand. There is a user generated section to allow people to upload their own trench coat images. Each image is tagged with the user’s name and details of when/where the image was shot. It’s a nice social touch.


I’m still staggered though that Burberry is at the bottom of page 1 in Google for “trench coat”. Bonkers.

The Acoustic content spot is great and a good way of aligning the brand with young, cool musicians to establish the lifestyle connection. The videos are styled consistently and have a faint whiff of nostalgia to them, aligning well with Burberry’s place as an iconic British brand with a strong heritage.



Whistles uses a separate navigation bar for its key content options: Journal, Look Book & Inspiration. This makes it easy to seek out content (but I really, really don’t like the massive green cross that is stamped on the menu option you click – very odd).


The Journal is well presented. Sleek, high quality imagery that is befitting of a high-end retailer.

The Look Book is visually strong and presents the clothing well but very odd that each look isn’t given an appealing name. ‘Look1’ and ‘Look2’ sound very mechanical and not aligned with fashion.

Navigation efficiency

Service is key to luxury. Online, making it easy to get where you want is critical and navigation is the primary tool to achieve this. So are these sites easy to navigate using menus, search & faceted navigation?

I always get disappointed by the perfunctory nature of high-end fashion retailer’s navigation UX. I understand that generally the brand vision is to keep the site clean but that doesn’t preclude an engaging approach to navigation.


I love MR PORTER but the drop down menu is dull and uninspiring. Whilst the content delights, the menu leaves me cold. Why not promote related content in the menu to break up the links, or showcase the most popular brands/products?

Perhaps they have tested this and it doesn’t work. I obviously don’t have that insight but at face value, the navigation feels bare bones.


The site search works pretty well, with redirects in place for brand searches taking people to the relevant brand landing page. Predictive search is a nice touch but it’s basic – it doesn’t match at product level, which is a big fail.

However, the search results page is easy to use and the zero results page is helpful with suggestions and promotion of key content.


The main menu isn’t great. Instead of using a drop down or slide out, you have to click each option to open up sub-options. Why make people click? It’s odd because the ‘Filter by’ option at the top of product list pages uses the drop down pattern.

The biggest fail is that there is no site search bar anywhere. So how do you search for something if you can’t find what you want? Or if you prefer using search to menus? I don’t think that forcing people to behave in ways they’re not used to is a positive UX. Brand integrity is obviously critical but not at the expense of UX.


Again, I don’t get why I have to click to see sub-categories from the main menu. And again the white on black isn’t very accessible. For me that’s not a great way to showcase the brand as people like me (whose eyesight isn’t perfect!) will struggle to make out what the headings say.

And don’t get me started on the search results page. Oh well, if I must.

Visually it’s lovely and fun to scroll. But where is the ecommerce functionality like page sort and filter options? What if I want a red trenchcoat? I’ve now got 182 results to wade through to pick them out. And as red coats aren’t grouped in this master list, it’s hard to compare them side-by-side. Not impressed.

Perhaps brand passionistas really don’t care about these things but from a pure ecommerce perspective, it doesn’t make sense to me to ignore features that are proven to increase click through and conversion rates.



The main navigation again is functional but basic and uninspiring. No use of the drop down to showcase products, or customer reviews, or anything fun other than the text links.

Did I mention the green cross thing? Seriously though…..

Site search has a few UX holes, including:

  • It recognises misspellings but doesn’t redirect you to that search results page – you have to click again e.g. ‘sunglases’ doesn’t automatically return results for ‘sunglasses’
  • There is no predictive search being used.

However, it does return content results as well as products, which is better than the other sites. This is a major UX gap for MR PORTER in my opinion; if I search for “something in the heir’, a key journal content campaign, there are no results found.

Overall, I find navigation on these sites quite disappointing. It’s functional but not engaging. There are some nice touches but blatant gaps.

Added value services

When you enter a luxury brand store, you expect to be delighted, tantalised, your senses teased by the creative wonder of the store. You’re not just popping down to Argos to buy a phone cover. So do these brands excite me? Do they give me play tools to make my online experience more engaging?

Here’s an overview of features you can take advantage of:

Feature MR PORTER Prada Burberry Whistles
Live Chat
Live data
Social feed
Style advice
Mobile apps
Personalised service
Compare products
Prominent customer phone line
Call back
Multi-channel content


MR PORTER gives you the motherload. There’s nothing revolutionary here but it’s delivered well. This is why I think the brand stands tall above the other high-end fashion retailers I reviewed. The website exudes style confidence, not by the team shouting how good they are but by letting the content and the stories do the talking.

Below is a screenshot of the MR PORTER Style Council landing page. The heading says it all: “Insider tips from the world’s most stylish and best connected men”.


Comments and questions

What do you think? Please drop by and share your comments, questions and experience. Please also share any relevant links you think readers would be interested in.

Follow-up reading

Econsultancy: 5 Great Websites from Luxury Brands

Econsultancy: Where are luxury brands going wrong online?


  • Great article James. I agree it’s certainly a challenge for the high-end retailers to recreate that brand experience online – I think the maturing of shoppable video technology could result in some interesting changes in the luxury ecommerce market. It will be interesting to see how it develops.