Internet clothing sales reached £1.2bn in 2006 and have increased by 461% over the last five years, according to figures from market research company Mintel.

Despite the obvious drawback of not being able to try before you buy, sales passed the £1bn barrier for the first time. Mintel is labelling it a ‘defining year’ for online fashion, as retailers invested heavily online.

Online clothing sales still only account for 3% of the overall market - a lower proportion than in other sectors, with the IMRG estimating that the web now accounts for 10% of total retail sales in the UK.

It is growing though – on top of the 44% rise in sales last year, an increase of 138% is expected between now and 2011, when sales are predicted to reach £2.9bn.

Mintel analyst Neil Mason said clothing retailers’ online investments are being rewarded (ignoring the Gap or Lillywhites calamities we’ve written about recently):

“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 of pounds in improving their internet presence.”

It seems that catalogue operators, such as Next, dominate the online clothing market, with the biggest five sharing 52% of the market between them. High street retailers and niche firms like Boden each hold a 19% market share.