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.
"Our biggest market is New York, California and Texas. But in the Midwest, there's millions of people reading fashion magazines and we don't have a retail outlet in most of those areas," Hernandez says. "EBay is very democratic. Anyone from anywhere can access it."
Like two entrepreneurs who just had their stock posted on the Big Board, Hernandez and McCollough logged onto eBay every day, eager to see how their merchandise was selling. "We sold samples from previous seasons, production overage. Instead of shipping it off to Century 21," the discount store, "we tried to make money out of it," Hernandez says.
"For our show, we have to make 60 pairs of shoes . . . and we don't have a shoe line yet -- 'yet' being the operative word. Sixty pairs of shoes at $400 a pop. It's hard to get that [back] through a sample sale," Hernandez says. Traditionally, sample sale shoppers pay wholesale prices or less.
"At the end of the day, we need to make money," he says.
The four tickets to the upcoming September show sold for a total of $1,571.99. That's pure profit. The seats will cost the designers nothing except the stress of rejiggering their seating chart.
"It's a really great thing and we're so happy they discovered us," Hernandez says. "It has no downside."
The Virtual Boutique
EBay is transforming the way the fashion industry does business, not just by expanding the market for runway samples but changing how designers market themselves, judge consumer demand and research their collections. Last year, $23.8 billion worth of goods were auctioned or sold at fixed prices on eBay. Clothing, shoes and accessories accounted for $1.8 billion.
"We've got our foot in the water," says Allie Stearn, manager of eBay's Clothing, Shoes and Accessories category. "Now we're establishing ourselves in the marketplace." As the fashion industry has embraced eBay, the category has rapidly expanded and evolved.
Last year, the division grew by 56 percent to move $659 million worth of merchandise in the United States alone, according to eBay data. And more than half of the items listed are new, compared with only 15 percent in 2001. In March, the most commonly searched term across all of eBay, which sells everything from BMWs to old gym socks, was "Louis Vuitton." The most expensive fashion item sold in 2003 was a multicolored Louis Vuitton Murakami handbag for $50,831.
EBay has become a new kind of retail outlet, allowing designers to sell merchandise, collectibles and one-of-a-kind pieces that in the past might have gone directly into their archives, been sold at rock-bottom prices in a sample sale or written off as a loss. EBay isn't trying to replace Saks Fifth Avenue or H & M. Instead, it is functioning as a flea market, auctioneer and retailer of last resort.
"With eBay, the drawback is you can't try on the clothes," Hernandez says. But "with some stores, there's such a pretense and people don't want to deal with that."
EBay is helping lesser-known designers get their names and merchandise in front of fashion consumers who do not have easy access to stores stocked with the trendiest items. Thanks to catwalk footage that runs virtually unedited on cable television, the enduring influence of "Sex and the City," makeover shows that regularly spout designer names and the transformation of celebrities into walking billboards, it is possible to find shoppers tucked into the farthest corner of Podunk who speak longingly about Jimmy Choos. EBay provides a direct, inexpensive link to those consumers.
"One of the things that eBay is very good at is just building a brand in terms of getting that name out there," White says. "There's a dollar business, but there's also brand exposure."
The Web site has become a barometer of trends and a rough measure of fair market value. At any moment, one can look at eBay to get a real-time reading on the heat being emitted by certain brand-name items. Are Ugg boots still hot and selling above retail or have they cooled off? In November, there were 3,400 listings for Ugg boots. By the end of June, there were 320.
As demand fades, so does the supply. Last May, eBay averaged 1,870 listings for Louis Vuitton Murakami handbags. Last month, there were only about 500. An item on the rise? Luella Bartley handbags.
How much is a used Hermes Birkin bag really worth? What's the value of a 1950s-style mink jacket now that practically every designer showed one on the runway for fall? The answer is available on eBay as users bid against each other on everything from a tie-dyed Prada jacket from the spring 2004 collection to a vintage rhinestone brooch by Miriam Haskell.
Designers are using eBay like a virtual archive of vintage fashion. They search it for old clothes, which they can use for inspiration or inspect for technique. As so many established fashion houses seek to resurrect themselves, their new designers are no longer limited to their local museum, the library or their own incomplete archives. They can discover their house's history scattered through eBay's auctions.
"I use it to buy vintage to do research," says Patrick Robinson, who designs the Perry Ellis women's collection. He has purchased old Perry Ellis pieces on eBay, including a vintage scarf that inspired a yellow button print incorporated into the fall collection.
After reading that the late socialite C.Z. Guest favored Hattie Carnegie jewelry, Robinson researched Carnegie's work on eBay. "I got thousands of hits," he says. "I bought the clothes for my personal collection. I cornered the market on her jewelry and used it to style the collection."
Since he started reading a biography of the Wright brothers, he has begun searching for clothes from the early 1900s. "They have clothes from way back. Sometimes they have clothes of museum quality," he says. "It's a great tool. I can basically buy from all over the world, particularly France and London. But I bought something recently and it turned out to be from someone in my own building.
"I'm a little addict," he says. "I look at it every day."
The fashion industry's enthusiasm for eBay is in sharp contrast to the suspicion with which it has eyed new technology in the past. When Internet sites first began posting runway photographs, for example, some designers barred photographers with Internet clients from their shows. In Paris, a designer trade organization took legal action against Web sites that post runway photos. Designers were worried that the Internet would make it easier for manufacturers to knock off new looks and feared diluting their aura of exclusivity. Mostly, those concerns have passed, although there are still holdouts.
EBay's evolution from vast flea market to online designer showroom has been, until recently, organic. EBay began in 1995 as a collectibles site. By 1998, clothing had become a major category, Stern says, but one dominated by castoffs. It was the equivalent of a rummage sale. A couple years later there was an influx of high-end designer merchandise, Stern says, but much of it was coming from Park Avenue and Gold Coast closets or from fashion editors who were trading in their free designer handbags for cold hard cash.
Before long, serious entrepreneurs, remorseful shoppers and jobbers followed. Everyone seemed to know someone who had found an eBay deal or discovered a lively subculture of people with kindred interests. Before eBay ever became their business partner, Hernandez and McCollough regularly shopped it for Air Jordan sneakers from the late '80s and early '90s. "They're not used," Hernandez says quickly. "They're back-stock."
Finally, designers began informally selling their own surplus merchandise.
"Everybody's clothes are sold on eBay," says designer Diane von Furstenberg. "It doesn't take away from the quality of the product."
Designers, like everyone else, are drawn to the site because it makes both buying and selling easy. It provides the sales platform, the marketing and the customers. It collects small fees for hosting an auction and posting photographs. And it takes a cut of the final sale price, generally from 1.5 to 5.25 percent.
Von Furstenberg is the latest and highest-profile designer to sell merchandise on eBay. Her first auction, which ended June 27, included vintage dresses, garments from her spring 2004 collection, signed bottles of her fragrance, a gold evening gown worn by Angelina Jolie and featured in Vogue and another dress created for Uma Thurman. She too auctioned tickets to her spring 2005 show in New York. The proceeds will benefit the charity Dress for Success.
Von Furstenberg seemed a natural match for eBay: She has her own e-commerce site and was one of the first designers to take advantage of the home shopping market on television. In 1992 she created a line of crepe de chine dresses called Silk Assets for sale on QVC. During her debut two-hour appearance, she sold $1.5 million in merchandise.
White has brokered all three of the designer auction deals. In hiring White, eBay tapped into the goodwill she earned after more than a decade writing about fashion for publications including Elle, Women's Wear Daily and the New York Times.
"I love Constance," von Furstenberg says. "I really wanted to support her."
"I'm doing a favor for a friend. All the proceeds are going to charity," she says. "I really can't go wrong."
When first testing the waters for a designer auction, White says, "I braced myself. I didn't know what to expect. At the same time, I was emboldened in thinking that many designers, if they have a certain point of view, most probably they're open-minded to trying new things.
"It was no coincidence that we approached Narciso [Rodriguez] because, whether consciously or subconsciously, he seemed to be someone with a very modernist point of view. . . . We felt we could attract an extreme fashion customer. Having said that, what about these other people? Not everyone is a size 4. Can we offer a few more sizes? What about shoes?"
"There is an incredible breadth of customers," White says. "There's the Hermes bag customer and the Narciso Rodriguez customer. And in addition, there's the customer who wants to get the Gap or Elie Tahari."
Getting the Goods
In February, eBay auctioned clothes, jewelry and collectibles from "Sex and the City." The HBO series, credited with bringing high-end fashion to the masses without diluting the aesthetics of the designers, put dresses and jewelry worn by the show's stars on the block and raised more than $44,000 for charity. The beauty of eBay, of course, is not the auction itself but the accessibility of it. EBay levels the playing field for shoppers -- it doesn't matter if they're in Los Angeles or Indianapolis.
The biggest hurdle is navigating the site to find the merchandise. Combing through hundreds of listings for the one elusive gem can be time-consuming and exasperating. A search for "Manolo Blahnik" one recent afternoon turned up more than 600 hits. Typing in "Prada" produced 7,197 listings. Sometimes the photographs of the merchandise, which are generally not professionally shot, make it difficult to judge quality and color. And there is the matter of enduring the sight of a good deal of profoundly bad clothes.
There also is the risk of succumbing to a forgery. Private sellers of expensive designer brands commit much of their advertising space to promises of authenticity.
They brag about having the original hang tags, the dust cover, the receipt or a certificate of authenticity. And there are plenty of close-up photographs of labels and other identifying insignia. But there is always a risk.
Tiffany, for example, recently filed a lawsuit accusing eBay of aiding and promoting the sale of fakes. EBay spokesman Hani Durzy says the company has worked with Tiffany and other brands for years to help them protect their trademarks. EBay has "given them the tools to report problem listings, which we promptly remove," he says.
But for the fashion industry, eBay is not another Home Shopping Network or QVC, neither of which managed to shake off a certain unseemliness in the minds of those on Seventh Avenue. Hawking clothes on television might have been a way to make quick cash, but following Joan Rivers on the sales floor was not the way to burnish your image for the long haul.
EBay is different. Because it is an auction, it has built-in exclusivity. The focus is on the product. There is no hard sell, no ingratiating barker. And there is the excitement of bidding, the rush of competition, the thrill of the hunt.
"The true eBay experience," says designer Patrick Robinson, "is winning."