- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

With the economy in the tank, the Gucci wallets are getting lighter - and the traffic at high-fashion onlineconsignment sites is growing heavier. “The Internet has democratized fashion,” says Rachel Cothran, who follows the fashion industry closely for the blog Project Beltway. “Those who live in rural areas have access to the same couture as women who live in urban areas. The condition of the economy makes it no surprise that more and more women are turning to pre-owned clothing.”

“We’ve been very busy,” says Raya Premji, manager of Rodeodrive resale.com, who says about 3,000 browsers a day are visiting her site. “We’re seeing very well-off women looking for better pricing for high-end designers and to make some extra cash off what they don’t need.”

Rodeodriveresale.com offers evening wear, suits, handbags, jewelry and shoes from only top-tier designers such as Chanel, Christian Dior and St. John for, in some instances, 80 percent to 90 percent off.

The prices are still steep, but for those used to perusing the racks of high-end apparel stores, bargains abound, including - among others - a Christian Dior red trench coat for $229, Manolo Blahnik pumps for $99 or an Escada couture evening dress for $898.99.

Buying used luxury merchandise online has become very fashionable among the rich and powerful, Ms. Premji says, “especially the many high-profile politicians in Washington” with whom she works.

“When the economy was good, they didn’t mind having all the clothes in their closets, but now they want to get rid of them,” she says, declining to name names.

Ms. Premji explains that most consignment sites, unlike their sidewalk counterparts and eBay, are more eagle-eyed when it comes to identifying fakes.

“We guarantee authenticity,” she says. “We hire people who have worked at Gucci and places like that who know what to look for. If we don’t know the seller, we ask to see a receipt. If the item does not look like you just got it from Neiman Marcus, we don’t take it.”

Christina Carathanassis, who started the online consignment boutique Christabelle’s Closet in 2004, says the online craze differs from traditional consignment because it offers efficiencies for the entrepreneur stifled by the sluggish retail market.

“Without the overhead that comes with a brick-and-mortar store, we can pass along the savings to the consumer and earn more for the consigner,” she explains. “People have become quite comfortable with shopping online and are able to understand sizing, know quality associated with the different labels and would rather save themselves multiple trips to a store.”

One fashion entrepreneur who recently cashed in on the Internet consignment trend is Krista Karo, an Upper East Side former pharmaceutical saleswoman. She spent close to $10,000 on high-end maternity clothes to keep up with her changing shape when she was expecting her daughter 1 1/2 years ago, she tells The Washington Times.

After giving birth, she took inventory. “I had these crazy expensive clothes sitting in my closet,” she recalls.

Assuming that other women probably find themselves in the same situation, she launched InStyleBelly.com, where customers can buy and sell “high-quality” designer clothes made for mothers-to-be.

“We launched InStyleBelly with a healthy inventory of just over 100 pieces and have been continuously adding new inventory from consigners almost daily,” Ms. Karo reports. “Consumers are looking for ways to really penny-pinch these days, and shopping consignment is a perfect solution. We are also finding that consigners are thrilled they have found a way to make some money back.”

Ms. Karo says that more than 4,500 people have visited the site since its debut three weeks ago.

“You may have to hunt for that perfect item,” says Kristen Saladino, fashion-market editor for Self magazine, “but there are some amazing finds out there.”

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