I am the woman who for decades put a star on her calendar to mark the day when the sales officially began. I am the girl who was no bright light in math but was a whiz at “Take an Additional 33 Percent Off the Already Reduced Price.” As long as I can remember, I have loved beautiful, expensive things—and, in truth, the more beautiful and expensive, the more I usually loved them. But back in those bad old days, I, like every other compulsive shopper in the world, was at the mercy of brick-and-mortar stores, captive to their schedules, watching with my cute little tongue hanging out for January and July to arrive.
Then suddenly, everything changed. The endless days of tooling around department stores, begging a salesclerk to hide things until sale time arrived, were replaced by my new three favorite words: “Add to Cart.” With the arrival of the internet, you could search the globe for Comme des Garçons coats and Balenciaga boots—Matches in London! Vestiaire Collective in France! Not only were this season’s items available to all comers, but there were also sites like Yoox and the Outnet, where fashions from the recent past could be had at dramatically reduced prices.
But of course, as the poet William Butler Yeats epigraph goes, “In dreams begins responsibility.” If the internet opened up endless opportunities for the buyer, what did it mean for luxury companies themselves? How can you entice this stylish consumer into a store when she can spend the evening clicking in her nightie and wake up the next morning with a pile of treasures from UPS at her doorstep? Every day is Christmas! Can a brick- and-mortar store, no matter how swanky, compete? And does the existence of so many venues, so many online sites featuring fancy labels, erode some of the specialness of these brands?
Give her the right atmosphere, make it feel chic and elegant and delicious, and the reluctant consignment customer will melt.
Maybe the whole meaning of “luxury” is shifting—if you’re young and used to the fun of shopping online, the hushed corridors of a tony boutique can feel like a funeral parlor. When Gucci opened a store in Lower Manhattan this past spring, it offered comfy couches for lounging and tweeting, a screening room, and racks of clothes you could paw and gawk over, no questions asked. Not only is Gucci on to something, enticing shoppers back into a store by making it goofy and friendly, it has opened on a downtown street directly across from the RealReal shop.
Oh, the irony! The RealReal is first and foremost a consignment website, a place for thousands of people to stick their unwanted goods, some even new with tags (you know you have these debacles in your closet, too). So successful has the site been that there are now several physical outlets where you can peruse other people’s mistakes, and even bring in your own slightly used Célines, your marginally worn Marnis. (If you grew up thinking that there was nothing more depressing than buying used clothes, such squeamishness has vanished—maybe due to the rise of “vintage,” for what is vintage but a cheery euphemism for old?)
I decide to phone Julie Wainwright, the CEO and founder of the RealReal, to dissect the relation- ship between luxury and resale. She ought to know: The company she founded in 2011 is expected to reach $1 billion in gross merchandise value in the next few years. It has 9 million members worldwide and has sold more than 8 million items (not all of them to me).
“I have deep respect for the brands,” the effervescent Wainwright says. “We love the brands! These are the most beautiful products in the world— they should be resold. I try to sell everything with integrity.” She says the light bulb went off in her entrepreneurial head when she was shopping some years ago with a persnickety girlfriend at a shop that had a small, beautifully curated consignment department. To her amazement, this fussy friend bought a number of items, and that’s when it hit Wainwright—give her the right atmosphere, make it feel chic and elegant and delicious, and the reluctant consignment customer will melt.
Wainwright thinks that pretty soon—maybe not tomorrow, but soon—everyone will be shop- ping resale sites and, what’s more, since her site employs some kind of newfangled intelligence to gather information, the RealReal will know what you want before you want it. She insists that the big brands will love this development because, according to the company’s data, 80 percent of consigners take their RealReal checks and spend the money on new luxury items. She is a fierce proponent of this new shopping ecology: “If Gucci had no resale value, would you buy it at full retail? We are a little baby company, but we are not going away.”
No, it is not, despite whatever consternation luxury companies themselves may be experiencing. At this point, they are hell-bent on keeping any misgivings private. (No one in the primary market I contacted had the least desire to speak with me, on or off the record, though a few said they were just not prepared to comment—yet.) Still, François- Henri Pinault, the CEO of Kering, the conglomerate that owns Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, Balenciaga, and Alexander McQueen, has said that the company is exploring “subscriptions,” meaning the renting of luxury goods, and other nontraditional business models.
But if so many luxe behemoths are reluctant to acknowledge the resale boulder hurtling down the mountain behind them, the upstarts are thrilled to chat. Charles Gorra, founder and CEO of Rebag, a website that specializes in the burgeoning second- hand handbag market, is happy to share with me what he describes as the three pillars of the resale economy: 1) It’s sustainable. It’s about how we consume now—reduce, recycle, reuse! 2) It’s aspirational, providing access to high-end brands for those who might not have the full purchase price (not to mention a place for more prosperous clients to dump their old stuff ). 3) It’s all about the sharing economy because millennials view ownership differently—they see used handbags as a sartorial version of Uber or Airbnb.
Unlike the RealReal, where you are paid for your items when they sell, Rebag buys your sad sack outright. “We are a refinancing tool,” Gorra says. “We create liquidity. When you buy a car, you check Kelley Blue Book. We check the value of a Kelly bag.” He thinks that luxury brands are slowly taking steps toward this new reality, citing Richemont (the Swiss luxury-goods group that owns Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels) and its recent acquisition of Watchfinder, a major purveyor of pre-owned timepieces, as an example. “There was a lot of resistance,” he says, “but now things are starting to change.”
But plus ça change, and all that: I may spend an embarrassing amount of time adding to cart, but a flesh-and-blood store can still seduce with a power a mere computer screen cannot rival. Just before I started reporting this story, I made my way to the Rebag shop in SoHo, another store that, like the RealReal, exists at least partially as an advertisement for its website. Was I looking that day for a blue-and-yellow patchwork Chanel purse that I could not live without? Though the bag seemed pristine, I realized that it was from 2016 and some- one very careful who had used it maybe once had decided to sell it to Rebag.
What could I do but run home, look in the top of the closet, pull down a few candidates that, despite their glorious provenance, I had barely touched, and skedaddle back to Rebag? Dear reader, I suspect you can guess the rest.