True couture addicts who attend the runway shows at New York’s Fashion Week—or at least watch them online—can’t help but compile a mental wish list: a BCBGMaxAzria silk dress, perhaps, or a pair of Alexander Wang’s metallic glitter pants. Tragically for them, these wants rarely translate into actual purchases. The clothes chosen by large department store buyers often get “edited” to make them more commercial—a fur collar is trimmed here, a leather belt is added there—so what’s finally available is a watered-down version of the designer’s original vision. This is precisely the crisis the 7-month-old Manhattan-based website Moda Operandi set out to address. The members-only online shopping portal allows fashion slaves to add exotic runway fare to their personal wardrobes weeks before the full lines enter stores.
“I myself experienced wanting pieces that came down the runway only to learn that they weren’t going to be made, and there was no way of getting them,” says Aslaug Magnusdottir, 43, Moda Operandi’s Icelandic-born chief executive officer, a former attorney who worked as a merchandiser for Gilt Noir, a sample sale site based in New York. In 2009, Magnusdottir heard clothing designers complain that major retailers weren’t buying their favorite creations. That fall was particularly rough: Luxury goods sales at department stores were down 25 percent to 30 percent on average from their peak in early 2008, according to Fitch Ratings. “[The stores] were buying the really commercial pieces, being really safe,” Magnusdottir says.
Soon after Fashion Week that year, Magnusdottir joined forces with Vogue contributing editor Lauren Santo Domingo. The two brainstormed about an online trunk show that might solve—and capitalize on—designers’ and consumers’ mutual frustration. Ten months later, in June 2010, Magnusdottir, who holds an MBA from Harvard, left Gilt, raised $1.4 million in capital, and set to work creating Moda Operandi. This spring the company raised an additional $10 million from investors, led by Silicon Valley venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates. “The luxury market is massive, and it’s still in its early stages as far as Internet penetration,” says NEA partner Tony Florence. “We think over the next 5 to 10 years consumers and designers will get more and more comfortable on these Internet platforms.”
Pieces from designer collections go on sale on modaoperandi.com for presale within 48 hours of a runway show, when the collection is still flashing across style blogs and being parsed by fashion editors. The site’s 50,000 members, frantically refreshing their Web browsers to see the collections online, place their orders by paying 50 percent upfront and the rest upon delivery. Magnusdottir would not offer specific sales numbers but said the reaction has been “positive.” This fall the site partnered with vogue.com so the magazine’s readers can click on runway show photos and pre-order from Moda Operandi. She says membership numbers doubled within two months this summer.
“There can be huge surprises,” Magnusdottir adds, sitting in her office in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, wearing a black tulle skirt and a blouse crossed with bustier-style straps. Her customers aren’t just looking for simple dresses, she says. They are advanced fashionistas who like the most daring designs, and the company is making those designs more accessible. “What we’re doing is kind of mad,” she says.
Moda Operandi rushes a team to the designers’ ateliers the day after their runway shows. The website’s producer sets up a makeshift studio, where hair and makeup stylists outfit two models in fresh couture. A photographer snaps photos and a merchandise assistant notes product descriptions and pricing.
Donata Minelli, CEO of Yigal Azrouel, which has sold sportswear and cocktail dresses on Moda Operandi’s site, says that reaching tomorrow’s fashion junkies is important to her company. “What’s most exciting about this approach is that it has this ‘it’s not your mother’s trunk show’ feeling,” she says. “This is a really exciting way in for the new generation. You can get anything and everything directly from a designer that might never end up in the store as the designer intended.”
Another advantage to shopping this way is that everyone from a pint-sized waif to a curvy beauty can be accommodated. “A Neiman Marcus or a Saks, they buy a certain dress and most often they’ll buy the most common sizes, a size 6 and an 8, and they don’t buy the larger ones,” Magnusdottir says. “Designers don’t really find out what the demand would have been for those larger sizes.” If there’s demand for those sizes on Moda Operandi, “then [designers] can use that as ammunition to get [stores] to order it.”
With prices ranging from $500 to $5,000, Moda Operandi isn’t going to solve the fashion challenges of most working women, but for Jane Cisneros, 29, who has an infant daughter, the site fills a gaping need. Even if she loves a particular designer, her busy schedule shuttling between her homes in Venezuela and New York doesn’t allow her to attend trunk shows or studio open houses to purchase runway styles—nor is she always pleased with the results when she tries to order directly. “It never comes how you first saw it,” she says. As for Moda Operandi, Cisneros is sold: “It’s like you’re shopping with a friend, even though there’s nobody there.”