Fashion Crowdsourcing Turns Us All Into Designers, Retailers

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Z-Day by Ronan Lynam
A T-shirt that puts a wacky and macabre spin on the iconic V-J Day photo from World World II is selling like hotcakes these days.

Z-Day by Ronan LynamWhile the famous Life magazine shot depicts a sailor kissing a nurse amid the celebration that erupted in Times Square when the war ended, the Z-Day tee features a zombie taking a passionate bite out of his lady love amid a shuffling horde of Night of The Living Dead-style creatures.

But the $20 T-shirt wasn't picked for distribution by some high-powered fashion buyer at a big retail chain. Already in reprint, the Z-Day tee is available on Threadless.com because the site's shoppers decided it should be in the product line up.

Step aside, fashion designers and retailers: Web sites devoted to selling user-generated -- or "crowd-sourced" -- clothing are proliferating, enabling shoppers to take product design and selection into their own hands.

Social-shopping sites, such as pioneer Threadless.com, and newer sites like ShopMyLabel, which lets users create and stock their own online boutiques, are giving everyone a chance to be both a retail buyer and an arbiter of style.

And we're not just dictating fashion: We're playing a role in designing everything from jewelry and home decor to toys on sites like Shapeways.com.

Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers are getting into the act too: National chains have begun tapping consumers to help them design their clothing collections via social-shopping games.

Power to the People

This trend should come as little surprise: The Internet has created both a platform and consumer appetite for ever-more targeted and specialized products and services.

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"Fashion crowd sourcing is the Internet-era combination of two venerable retail strategies: satisfying demand and building customer loyalty," Susan Scafidi, professor and academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School in New York City, tells DailyFinance.

"When 19th-century Chicago retail impresario Marshall Field adopted the mantra, 'Give the lady what she wants,' he couldn't have imagined the ladies in question emailing their own ideas and voting on each other's designs. But what better way to keep a finger on the pulse of consumer passion?"

Indeed, the crowd sourcing model, Scafidi says, is a new way to take some of the guesswork out of predicting consumer desires.

Greg Petro, CEO of First Insight, a technology company that provides social shopping games to retailers such as the Limited and Saks Fifth Avenue (SKS), agrees.

"Retailers are realizing the voice of the customer is essential in determining which new products will be successful," he says.

Don't expect the social-shopping trend to put fashion designers out of business anytime soon.

"Should designers like Marc Jacobs and Alexander Wang fear that their talents for reinterpreting street style as high fashion will be obsolesced by crowdsourcing? Absolutely not," Scafidi says.

"The social media generation may think of itself as a crowd of creators rather than a herd of consumers, but every crowd has its leaders -- and true talent tends to rise to the top."

But if big-name designers and retailers still largely determine what we buy, they certainly don't have the lock that they once did. Here are seven social-selling sites that are starting to put shoppers in the fashion driver's seat.

Fashion Crowdsourcing Turns Us All Into Designers, Retailers

Founded in 2000, this e-commerce site, with a community of artists, art lovers and everyday shoppers, was at the forefront of crowdsourcing.

Threadless users submit T-shirt designs, which are then voted on for a seven-day period by other users in the community. Designs receive a score from 0 to 5. The highest scoring design gets made into a tee.

The Chicago-based company is now bringing its populist shopping concept to big chain retailers such as Gap (GPS), and also expanding into home products with items like duvet covers and trash cans for Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY).

Blanklabel.com enables men to co-create their own custom-designed shirts, providing "the luxury of custom at department store prices," Danny Wong, co-founder of the site, which boasts about 20,000 customers, tells DailyFinance.

"Blank Label provides an experience that allows the consumer to decide to the finest detail what he'll have in his shirt -- from customizing the style to adding a monogram" to the lining of its collar and cuff, he says.

And BlankLabel's customers tend to know exactly what they want. "For example, if a customer works in an environment that requires a jacket and tie, he [might] design a shirt with a spread collar so he can neatly tie a Full Windsor knot." Wong says.

This month, Wong and co-founder Fan Bi were named among Inc. magazine's America's Coolest Young Entrepreneurs under 30.

On Shapeways.com, people can make, buy and sell anything they want -- from jewelry and wearable art to home decor and toys.

The user brings a product idea to the site, creates a design and chooses a material -- be it plastic, ceramic or stainless steel -- and uploads it to the site.

Shapeways then creates the order using 3D printing -- which transforms digital designs into physical objects -- and the newly-minted item is then shipped to the consumer/designer.

The rise of 3D printing technology -- widely hyped as "the next big thing" -- allows for the rapid, easy creation of customized products. It's the centerpiece of Shapeway's "creative commerce" vision, which aims to help everyday people make their own unique products at a cost on par with what they would pay in a traditional store.

This Australian based mass-customization site lets users design and buy their own upscale shoes, mining from among "four trillion possibilities" worth of options via its proprietary, web-based 3D design platform. Products are designed online on a computer or smart phone, then are handmade in high-end leather, and delivered to the customer in about two weeks.

The start up, which launched in 2009, secured $3 million in funding last month, which it will use to add new social shopping features, as well as expand its retail presence and product mix.

First Insight designs retail games that users can play online -- think Farmville for fashionistas. Games such as Be The Buyer have helped stores understand what kinds of apparel consumers might like, how much inventory to stock, the profit potential of an item, and even how it should be priced.

For example, David's Bridal uses First Insight's What Would They Pay game to gauge its wedding gowns' consumer appeal. Players are presented a number of yet-to-be-introduced dress styles, and offer their opinions on each new style and how it should be priced.

The results give the dress-seller real-time data on consumer preferences, which informs their buying decisions.

The online game is helping the company sell more gowns at their initial price versus the mark down price, accoding to a testimonial on First Insight's website. And, within about 72 hours, the chain can get a read on the dresses with the most sales potential, versus traditional in-store sample testing, which can take up to eight months to produce results.

Unlike sites that enable users to design their own products, ShopMyLabel.com, which debuted last fall, lets anyone run their own online store, stocked with fashion, jewelry and accessories they've personally curated from about 1,000 brands -- mostly from Saks Fifth Avenue, but also from others like Jones New York and Nine West.

ShopMyLabel promotes the shops on Twitter and Facebook, and digital shopkeepers earn commissions off the sales. These online fashionista boutique owners generally sell to people they know, putting them in a role similar to that of a personal shopper.

Sites like ShopMyLabel and similar site StyleOwner.com are catering to a new breed of social shopper who relies on the wisdom of the digital crowd to help them make purchasing decisions.

It's a sign of the times, as marketers are seeing the growing influence of peer opinions on social networks -- which can sometimes carry more weight than a store advertisement or promotion these days.

New site Clothia.com offers a twist on the crowdsourcing concept. Instead of consumers having a say in the design of clothing they'll ultimately buy, Clothia allows users to create an online closet out of threads they already own, as well as ones they lust after.

Users can snoop around friends' virtual closets for stuff they like, and summon fashion advice from stylish virtual friends on how to put together an outfit.

And in what sounds like a rather Pinterest-y twist, Chlothia users can also create a wish list of things they like from the Web.

The site also features augmented-reality technology that enables users to virtually try on items of clothing from about 100 different brands. -- digitally duplicating the experience of standing in front of a dressing room mirror with a hanger draped in front of you.

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