The Bay Area likes to imagine itself as existing beyond fashion. But that was before Gilt Groupe—not to mention Kaboodle, Chictopia, and Moxsie. Suddenly, a string of offices and warehouses from Sunnyvale to Mountain View to SoMa has become the new epicenter of fashion retailing, as recession-savvy bargain hunters all over the world discover that the Internet is the most amazing outlet mall ever. Geek chic will never be the same.
The emergence of the Bay Area as a fashion e-mecca was probably inevitable. For all its style-challenged stereotypes, Silicon Valley is blessed with the brains of a web developer and the guts of an entrepreneur. While a few fashion sites are still based in Manhattan, many others—including ModCloth, which moved its headquarters to San Francisco this summer (from Pittsburgh, of all places), and Gleemaster, the luxury site that's staffing its financial district offices with talent from Paris—have concluded that being in a fashion capital is less important than being near the Valley's large pool of engineering, retailing, and marketing talent.
“The expansive mindset of the Bay Area gives us an edge of technological creativity that is far ahead of New York,” says Gina Pell, the online pioneer who founded Splendora in 1999. Case in point: Splendora's first-of-its-kind iPhone app, called SalesCast, which lets multitasking fashionistas track bargains on multiple sites. SalesCast became the top featured app on both iPhone and iTunes soon after its debut in June, and it remained on Apple's “What's Hot” list for weeks. This translates to about one download every 10 seconds. “We're usually ahead of the curve when it comes to online strategy,” Pell says. “I can't say the same for online fashion sites that are not based on the West Coast.”
Actually, it was New York-based Gilt and its innovative sales, filled with high-profile brands, that made online fashion sites a hot commodity with shoppers and venture capitalists alike. Three years later, the Bay Area sites have their own power-to-the-people, very social vibe that goes way beyond Facebook and Twitter. Gone are the days when you were forced to stand between your husband and the flatscreen to ask whether your bag matched your dress—now you can click on Sunnyvale-based Kaboodle (“Shopping for people, by people”) and ask the masses instead (they're more likely to tell you the truth, anyway). Whereas the New York sites are all about amazing deals, sites such as San Mateo-based Couturious and SoMa-based Chictopia encourage dress-up and fantasy role-playing as much as they do shopping. Imagine Project Runway with no critical Nina Garcia around to roll her eyes if the results aren't stunning.
One unexpected feature of the new fashion sites: a culture of nice that's decidedly different from the Devil Wears Prada cattiness of chic New York and Paris, not to mention the nastiness of the broader Bay Area blogosphere. Splendora has only a “love this” sign; there's no “hate this.” Chictopia (“The people's fashion destination”) takes aim at insecurity by declaring, “Everybody is ugly.” Negative judgments are merely inferred: If someone doesn't like your virtual outfit du jour, you won't score high. Even a feature with the tabloid-y edge of Splendora's “Fashion Violations” focuses on blunders made by celebrities like the Kardashians and Perez Hilton, not by the average Jo.
The supportive atmosphere is one of the things that 25-year-old Amy DeLong of San Francisco loves about Polyvore and its “global community of independent trendsetters.” She discovered the Mountain View-based site last year and wrote a grad-school paper about how its role-playing element helps middle-school girls develop writing skills. Now a teacher, DeLong creates two to three Polyvore sets (personalized collages that resemble a magazine layout) every week. The fact that she has no fashion training doesn't disqualify her from defining trends, she says: “It's a very democratic medium.” Nor does it seem to matter to anyone that she lacks a critical eye honed over a lifetime in the industry. “I have yet to receive one single negative comment,” she says. “It's not really the nature of Polyvore. It's about self-expression and not necessarily about controversy.”
This amicable vibe extends to how the sites treat each other. Palo Alto-based Moxsie, for example, has hosted a few contests with Polyvore and has worked with Sunnyvale-based Kaboodle. Chictopia allows users to share items with Polyvore. “There's a lot of back-and-forth,” says Moxsie's marketing director, Julia Kung. “We're this new fashion community in the Bay Area, so we cooperate and help each other out.”
Increasingly, the sites' partners include fashion magazines, which arguably stand to lose the most from their proliferation. Teen Vogue has teamed up with Chictopia, Vogue with Gilt Groupe, British Elle with ShopStyle. “Many of these iconic print publications are beginning to realize that the physical location of a pub is less important, since the immediacy of the web bridges the information gap,” Pell says.
Fashion sites aren't just changing the way people interact with fashion—they're also changing the way the Bay Area dresses. From Cupertino to Palo Alto, laid-back offices are being infiltrated by towering Louboutins, rugged Demeulemeester boots, and Yves Saint Laurent Muse bags.
Chictopia cofounder Helen Zhu, who trained as an engineer, remembers wearing shorts and flip-flops when she was consulting at eBay. Now she's just as likely to slip on a Jean Paul Gaultier top and Jeffrey Campbell booties. Her husband, Chictopia cofounder Richard Ho, once dressed almost exclusively in freebie corporate T-shirts. These days, he has a closet full of Zara, Original Penguin, and J. Crew.
After cofounding San Mateo-based Like.com, CEO Munjal Shah—a computer-science major—made his first trip to New York fashion week “and learned a ton about fashion in the process.” Shah says his company's holiday-party pictures illustrate the integration of style and technology in the Valley. And Like.com's Abigail Holtz organizes mixers called Fashion Meets Tech to bring programmers and stylish product managers together.
Carol Tran, a former Silicon Valley biotech patent attorney, combined her passions for fashion and philanthropy by founding Chic Meets Geek as a way to bring together tech and fashion workers while raising money for the community. A July event benefiting Glide Memorial Church featured Jay Nicolas Sario, from Project Runway, and Polyvore CEO Sukhinder Singh Cassidy.
On Fridays, Moxsie members who eat at the lunch carts parked outside the company's headquarters serve as a real-life illustration of Silicon Valley's heightened fashion sense. Moxsie employees tweet invitations and photograph the stylishly turned-out diners, then upload those images to the company's blog. “These sites have definitely upped the fashion quotient here in Palo Alto,” says Kung. “You see a lot more fashion, style, and personality on the streets. It's not just khakis anymore.”
It's also not just fashion anymore. As locals reevaluate their relationship with style, fashion sites such as Ideeli and Gilt have expanded into home design, where downtown San Francisco-based One Kings Lane has already carved out a profitable niche, and vintage-furniture site 1stdibs has moved into jewelry and clothing. Now that we have this new model for selling, it's easy to imagine all the other objets that can be hawked this way. Perhaps in 10 years, “dot-com decor” won't imply garishly bright lofts hung with Dale Chihuly glass, and “dot-com fashion” won't bring monogrammed fleece vests to mind. At the very least, our Second Life avatars won't touch that stuff.
Joanne Furio is a San Francisco contributing writer.
THE SOCIAL SITES
Like shopping with your friends, only without the complicated friendship stuff.
The crowd: Discerning and brainy.
Check out: Splendora.com
Home base: San Francisco
High concept: What's hot and what's not, served up with wit and plenty of deals.
The goods: Recent offerings ranged from a Pendleton Meets Opening Ceremony skirt (60 percent off) to a Hangover Helper candle ($22).
Best part: Founder Gina Pell defines fashion-forward—she launched the site in 1999 and added social media in 2005, years before Facebook and Twitter became ubiquitous. She also knows the addictive power of fluff: Dr. Seuss, Juergen Teller's Missoni ad campaign, and a quiz on world leaders all turned up in one blog post. Splendora is insider-y and sophisticated, yet friendly—a hard combination to pull off. No wonder her community has been so loyal for so long.
The crowd: Big, boisterous, and down-to-earth.
Check out: Kaboodle.com
Home base: Sunnyvale
High concept: “The web's best products, hand-selected by shoppers like you.”
The goods: Everything under the sun: handbags, cocktail rings, organic makeup, greeting cards, origami napkins, and—believe it or not—bacon salt. The new PopPicks feature lets you “heart” your fave items, with the most-hearted picks going on sale for a huge discount.
Best part: Poll the community to help you choose between shift dresses from See by Chloé, Alexander McQueen, and RVCA. Then add the winner to your “styleboard” and—if you're brave enough—upload a photo of yourself in it to your “blogazine,” with details about the party you wore it to and the cute guys who swooned.
The crowd: Marching to a different drummer—in wedge clogs.
Check out: Moxsie.com
Home base: Palo Alto
High concept: Affordable pieces that differentiate you from everyone else on the Google/Yahoo!/Facebook bus.
The goods: Deals from experimental designers such as Matt Bernson and Melie Bianco, some of whom are local and many of whom cater to men.
Best part: The site's 75,000 Twitter followers help decide what goes on sale. “We're not trying to be New York or Los Angeles,” says marketing director Julia Kung. “We want designers with a lot of personality, with stories to tell.”
The crowd: Edgy Lolitas with de rigueur sourpuss expressions.
Check out: ShopNastyGal.com
Home base: Emeryville
High concept: Look like you just stepped out of Nylon magazine.
The goods: Vintage finds that are more Gaga than garage sale, plus plenty of new pieces.
Best part: No geeky getups to scroll through, and your mom's not a member. The social-networking aspect happens offsite, as you and your friends share links to that vintage crocheted skirt you can't live without.
THE INVITATION-ONLY SALES
Instant gratification—and a stack of bills you won't believe.
All comers are welcome, registration is free, and you can start shopping immediately.
Headquarters: New York; CEO Paul Hurley launched three startups here before heading east.
The goods: Midprice labels and accessories.
Why membership has its privileges: Sales start every day at 8 a.m. PT for paying members ($6.99 a month), and at 9 a.m. PT for everyone else.
The fine print: Deals last 40 hours—or until items sell out.
So private-clubby, you can't even check out the site without a membership. To get one, you must register, then be contacted by the site. No worries if you have a rejection complex—the invite will arrive within a couple of hours.
Headquarters: New York; cofounder Alexis Maybank used to work at eBay.
The goods: Dolce & Gabbana, Marni, Vera Wang, Jil Sander, and any other blue-chip designer's line you'd like to click on. This month, Gilt Cities launches its San Francisco sales, offering everything from chef's tables at eateries to insider museum tours to impossible-to-book spa reservations.
Why membership has its privileges: Up to 70 percent off last season's merch.
The fine print: Seventeen sales start daily at 9 a.m. PT and last 48 hours, but the best stuff earns a black “sold out” sign in the first five minutes.
This new site, which features European designer labels, is out to give Gilt Groupe a run for its money.
Headquarters: San Francisco.
The goods: Luxury labels discounted up to 70 percent.
Why membership has its privileges: Gleeters must be invited by another member or request membership. Once you're in, you can network with fellow shoppers, post photos, and comment on members' looks.
The fine print: Flash sales start at 9 a.m. PT and last for 72 hours. Expect lots of baubles and watches; staffers have close ties to French jewelry houses.
THE AVATAR SITES
What's the point of a second life if it's just as boring as your real one?
You idolize: Vogue's creative director, Grace Coddington.
Check out: Polyvore.com
Home Base: Mountain View
High concept: Create your own magazine shopping spreads (aka “sets”), complete with headline, using Polyvore's Clipper tool to cut and paste images of anything on the web. If enough people like your set, you'll make it to the home page (and steal the show, just like Coddington stole The September Issue from her boss, Anna Wintour).
Best part: Ask the community a question—“How do I make a military jacket look more feminine?”—and they'll respond with sets of their own.
You idolize: Model-muse Kate Moss.
Check out: Weardrobe.com
Home base: San Mateo
High concept: You know how every single outfit Moss throws together seems to end up being photographed? Upload digital pix of yourself—with links to help others re-create your look—and wait for commenters to shower you with compliments.
Best part: Like someone's look? Add her as a friend and style-stalk her daily.
You idolize: Those everyone-is-beautiful Dove ads.
Check out: Chictopia.com
Home base: San Francisco
High concept: Browse for “people like me” by body type, style, and location.
Best part: You can accumulate “chic points” by voting, commenting, and posting on the site—then redeem them for clothes and accessories other members want to swap. How refreshing (and how S.F.) that not every fabulous bargain requires a credit card.
You idolize: Stylist Rachel Zoe.
Check out: Couturious.com
Home base: San Mateo.
High concept: “Discover your inner stylist!”
Best part: You dress a virtual mannequin in clothing and accessories—all for sale, natch—that mold realistically to their bodies, then share the results with the community. So far, the models have the supersvelte shape that all of Zoe's clients seem to share, but rounded tummy, athletic, and plus sizes are coming soon.
You idolize: Actress-singer Zooey Deschanel.
Check out: ModCloth.com
Home base: San Francisco.
High concept: One-off and vintage pieces that you'll never find anywhere else—assuming you can snag them before the site's 64,000-plus other Facebook fans beat you to it.
Best part: Indie-fashion fiends use the recently implemented “Be the Buyer” program to choose from designs suggested by founder Susan Gregg Koger. The items are produced if enough people click on them.
THE SEARCH ENGINE SITES:
When you're willing to track the perfect whatever to the ends of the Internet.
You: Hopelessly addicted to Allure's “Lust/Must” and Marie Claire's “Splurge vs. Steal”—columns that show you runway styles and real-world ways to replicate them.
Check out: San Mateo-based Like.com, which visually links similar products by color and style.
Best part: Discover variations on a design at retailers ranging from Kmart to Neiman Marcus.
You: A fanatic about reading every review and comparing every price before handing over your credit card and making a commitment.
Check out: Mountain View-based TheFind.com, which organizes some half million retailer websites and reviews, providing “everything you need to decide quickly what to buy and where to buy it.”
Best part: Helps you track down coupons from hundreds of thousands of stores and savings on green products, in partnership with GoodGuide.com.
You: A locavore by instinct and a dedicated staycationer who loves the idea of supporting homegrown shops, spas, and other businesses.
Check out: San Francisco-based FreshGuide.com, which offers a geographic and crowdsourcing twist on search-engine bargain shopping. Every day, the site offers 50 to 90 percent off at San Francisco stores, museums, and restaurants.
Best part: You can use the power of the crowd—your friends—to get great deals. But you need multiple signups to make the offer “tip.” If you don't, it ends, and no one's credit card is charged.
You: The indecisive procrastinator who always waits until the last minute to buy anything, then gets fixated on an item and can't find it anywhere.
Check out: San Francisco-based ShopStyle.com, which enables you to relentlessly hunt for that last pair of red patent-leather Lanvin pumps in size 8. The site pulls from an A-to-Z listing of fashion labels (American Apparel to Zac Posen), so if it's not here, it's sold out everywhere—leaving eBay as your only hope.
Best part: Create a stylebook of favorite items and wish lists, and receive alerts about special sales from relevant designers.