A Couture Revolution: Shopping the Runway with Moda Operandi

By Katie Kramer, CNBC.com

Models walk the runway at the Proenza Schouler's spring 2012 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York.Models walk the runway at the Proenza Schouler's spring 2012 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz … Shop today. And wear - if not tomorrow - then definitely before anyone else.

Instant shopping site Moda Operandi offers consumers the chance to preorder next season's clothes days or even hours after they've appeared on runways. That's long before the spring and summer looks that debuted over the past eight days of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York hit the stores. That is, if some of the more fantastic or theatrical pieces even make it there at all.

In its second go-round at New York's twice-yearly sartorial celebration, the e-commerce brand founded in 2010 has partnered with 100 designers, as well as Vogue, to bridge the gap between invitation-only trunk shows for fashion insiders and the higher-tech, competitive, successful cottage industry of members-only online shopping.

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"There was always the woman in the front row, who would actually be shopping," says Lauren Santo Domingo, Vogue contributing editor and Moda Operandi's creative director. "Now, the world is seeing runway shows on live streams. The audience is much broader."

Santo Domingo and Moda Operandi co-founder, CEO Aslaug Magnusdottir, think instant gratification is a sales pitch that wears well. "We turn Fashion Week into a shopping experience," says Santo Domingo.

"We feature designers' whole collections within a few days" of the runway show, said Magnusdottir. "And we're speeding up the process, offering a few pieces within hours. We've heard about people with iPads….in the fashion shows, making the selections."

Items from lines like Vera Wang and Derek Lam stay on the site for up to a week. Members place orders and make a 50 percent deposit; the clothes are manufactured and arrive in a few months' time, when the remaining balance is paid.

"It takes away the retailer edit," says Santo Domingo, "which may be more commercial." But, she describes Moda Operandi's "pre-tail" shopping as "extremely gratifying."

"If something speaks to you, you know you're going to have it."

By giving some luxury consumers direct access to "buy now," Moda Operandi may alter the fashion industry's traditional runway-to-retail model.

"Fashion has become another facet of popular culture and it's great," said Lazaro Hernandez, the co-designer of Proenza Schouler, a womenswear and accessories label available at retailers like Barney's New York, Saks, and Bergdorf Goodman.

Moda Operandi "makes these things accessible to the public immediately. It's just 'what's next' in a way," he says.

Hernandez concedes this can change the retailer's goals for a particular collection. Not all of the 30-odd looks marched down the runway actually make it into production. Often the theatricality of the ready-to-wear shows offer a brand's artistic vision and few of the higher-concept pieces are actually manufactured and put into store inventories. But if these more creative pieces having specific orders to fill, it may ensure the pieces are actually made and worn.

Proenza Schouler co-designer Jack McCollough points out "our shows are fantastical on a certain level. But, at the same time..they're all quite wearable pieces. Pieces we can imagine all our friends wearing."

Of the 38 looks from the brand's Spring/Summer 2012 collection, the items for sale on Moda Operandi range from a brown tiger-print jersey jacket, priced at nearly $3,000, to a fern-and-floral print embroidered tulle dress that sells for more than $22,000.

Lauren Santo Domingo at the J. Mendel spring 2012 show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. "Retail took a bit of a hit in 2007 and 2008," says Magnusdottir. Then, "there were a number of online retailers focused on the discount end of the market. Gilt Groupe opened up the world of designer fashion to a much larger audience."

Magnusdottir served as an executive at Gilt Groupe, the umbrella network of "flash sale" websites recently valued at more than $1 billion. Attention to that site as well as to other designer shopping portals like Net-a-Porter.com and Rue La La made e-commerce hot not just for fahion insiders, but the tech industry.

"But we felt there was a big customer base of individuals who appreciate fashion quality and were neglected online," says Magnusdottir. She and Santo Domingo went to fashion designers they consider friends - like Hernandez and McCollough - to gauge interest in making full collections available for sale.

"Designers were feeling like 'we need to focus on full price,'" says Magnusdottir. "It's the core of fashion to create new products that make people excited."

Since launching in February 2011, Moda Operandi has doubled the number of designers collaborating with the site and hopes to have 100,000 members by year's end.

Collections shown at fashion weeks in London, Milan and Paris are also included for sale, giving the site editorial content and commerce year-round. In June, Moda Operandi announced raising $10 million dollars in funding, and began Series B financing with venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates.

"It was surprisingly easy to get funding," Magnusdottir says with a laugh. "When we approached investors in early 2010, we were astonished by the reaction, thinking 'I can't believe these guys actually get this concept.'"

"Investors were taking notice of fashion designers in a bigger way than ever before and seeing opportunities. Suddenly, every retail [sector] investor wants to be involved in the latest idea."

Capitalizing on a trend - that's apparently something on which both investors and tastemakers agree.

As New York Fashion Week wrapped up and the cooler fall weather arrived, Ashlaug Magnusdottir shopped her own site, ordering a $498 Diane von Furstenberg dress in a tangerine color that will, presumably, bring a welcome warm breeze when she sees it in the middle of January.

"It will arrive in time for spring," says Magnusdottir.

Lauren Santo Domingo and Aslaug Magnusdottir will appear on "The Wall Street Journal Report with Maria Bartiromo" the weekend of Sept. 17 and 18.



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