FAST fashion took on a new dimension last night with the latest figures showing Britons spent more than £1 billion buying clothes online last year.
From sensible white knickers to Stella McCartney's latest opulent creations, the vast array of clothing available on the web means it is now rivalling the high street for sales of fashion and accessories.
According to market analysts Mintel, the online fashion market has grown by 461 per cent in five years and sales of fashion and footwear soared to 1.2 billion last year.
The figures have seen 2006 declared the "defining year" for internet sales, leaving companies yet to market their products online working furiously to establish a presence on the web.
And last night it was claimed Mintel's figures may actually underestimate the real value of internet fashion sales.
The Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG), which promotes online retail, said sales reports from its members - which include companies with a major online presence including Next, Marks & Spencer, Boden and Landsend - showed that 2006 sales were nearly 2.5 billion.
Jo Evans, managing director of IMRG, said: "Internet shopping is just so easy and that's the attraction of it. It is a joy compared with struggling along busy high streets, encountering terrible service or finding they don't have it in your size.
"Also, we are all so much busier these days and if we can get our shopping done at the click of a mouse it gives us more time to spend the weekend with friends and family."
Ms Evans predicted a growth in sales at the opposite ends of the fashion market, with stores like H&M and Tesco launching websites to sell their "fast fashion" products, and upscale brands including Jaeger seeking increased sales from more affluent web surfers.
Other stores such as New Look which have previously not focused on the online market are now expanding their internet operations, and it is predicted the market could grow by a further 138 per cent in five years.
Factors which have contributed to the growth include increasing broadband connections, more consumer confidence and a wide range of products being offered online.
Neil Mason, senior retail analyst at Mintel, said: "The online clothing industry is still in relative infancy but there is little doubt that 2006 was the defining year for the online fashion market.
"Last year was the first year that the business case for selling fashion over the internet came close to being proven and fashion retailers have only just started to see the justification in investing millions in improving their internet presence.
"The challenge for retailers is to make internet fashion-shopping a more effective, enjoyable and profitable way of buying clothes than conventional home-shopping has been until now."
THEY'RE WEARING WELL
AMONG the market leaders in internet fashion sales are British companies Boden and Net-A-Porter.com.
Both took early advantage of the growing trend to carve out a profitable niche in online sales.
Boden, set up by Johnnie Boden in 1991, now has a turnover of 102 million and employs more than 600 staff. Launched in 1999 as a mail order company, 56 per cent of its UK sales and 70 per cent of American orders are now via the internet.
Net-a-Porter.com is at the luxury end of the market. Since it was launched in June 2000, sales have grown from 1.2 million to 21.3 million in 2005. Sales have nearly doubled each year since its launch and the company expects similar results for 2006.