By Robin Givhan Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2004; Page C01
Only days after the fall 2004 runway shows in New York, garments from Proenza Schouler went up for sale on eBay. Barely a year old, the design house does not have anywhere near the brand recognition of Ralph Lauren or Donna Karan. But to astute readers of glossy magazines and red-carpet watchers, Proenza Schouler was the new designer drug.
Characterized by its gunmetal sequins, structured bodices and lean tailoring, the company's merchandise is not the sort one expects to find amid eBay's old compact discs, garage sale collectibles and oddball tchotchkes. But eBay, the Internet auction site with $2.17 billion in net revenue, is evolving. It had helped to sponsor designer Narciso Rodriguez's runway show and auctioned pieces from his modernist collection as well as autographed bottles of his new fragrance. Cozying up to the fashion industry and lasering in on its rarefied customers has become part of eBay's bigger plan.
"With 105 million users, we can find a customer for every product," says eBay's style director, Constance White, who signed on last summer expressly to raise the company's fashion credibility.
One of White's first contributions to eBay is "Personal Style," an online trend report with links to the appropriate live auctions. The newsletter's mission is to give sellers a better idea of what to hawk, and shoppers more information on what they should buy.
EBay hopes a more muscular, articulate fashion presence will help increase the overall volume of its Clothing, Shoes and Accessories category. High-end brands and their hyped designers are expected to generate prestige and visibility for the site. Fashion-savvy customers are already eBay users -- and more are surely sniffing around the site. Cater to them with appropriate products, and not only will more like-minded shoppers follow but so will more middle-of-the-road consumers and bargain hunters.
With Proenza Schouler, eBay not only was aiming at a truly committed fashion customer but was also touting its own fashion expertise. The young label's designers, Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough, had famously sold their Parsons School of Design graduation collection to Barneys New York. Almost overnight their runway shows had become a breathlessly requested ticket and eBay co-sponsored their fall 2004 show. Many companies -- from cookie makers to cell phone manufacturers -- offer financial assistance to designers to align themselves with an industry noted for its glamour. But eBay was looking for more than a sprinkling of stardust.
Months before the Proenza Schouler fall collection would arrive in stores, eBay bidders had a chance to purchase the urbane ensembles that had just been strutted down the runway. The designers also offered about 100 other items from fall 2003, as well as pieces from their spring collection. They sold all of their runway shoes, which had been created for them by stiletto king Manolo Blahnik. None of these items were currently available in stores.
They even auctioned off four tickets to their spring 2005 show. New York fashion week isn't open to the public and tickets typically are not available for purchase.
"With eBay, it's so easy and fluid," Hernandez says. "It's just another store: Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, eBay."
The site -- with its vast reach and low overhead -- allowed the designers, during the 10 days of their auction, to connect with potential customers from California and New York to those scattered across the Midwest and South.