Tycoon of the Pre-Owned
Can Silicon Valley survivor Julie Wainwright’s luxury consignment company, the RealReal, save retail?
BRISBANE, Calif. — Here is where high-end Marie-Kondo’d clothes go now — not to die, but to enter their collective half-life, in a chilly 200,000-square-foot warehouse about eight miles south of San Francisco. Here is row upon row of garments made by Hermès and Prada and Versace: a few seen last season sailing down a runway, or yesterday on Net-a-Porter, contained in white shrouds or sealed inside transparent Tupperware, awaiting shipment around the world to a growing cohort of Secondhand Roses and Josés.
Here experts in lab coats squint at handbags and shoes, looking for errant stitching or the wrong color of brass hardware: anything that might signal sophisticated fakery. Here is a special atrium just for inspecting jewelry, brightly lit like a surgical theater, where stones and metals are weighed and laser-beamed to determine if their advertised composition is correct. “We zap ’em,” Julie Wainwright said.
Ms. Wainwright is the founder and C.E.O. of this operation, the RealReal, a.k.a TRR, which since 2011 has striven to make the consignment of luxury goods — once a furtive, grubby practice carried out in obscure second-floor shops — easy-peasy and seamless with free shipping labels, just one stop in something called “the circular economy.” Other oft-used terms at TRR are “scale,” as in up, up, up (it has leased almost half a million more square feet in Perth Amboy, N.J., adding to an existing smaller space in Secaucus); “authenticate” (the laborious process by which the company validates previously owned goods) and “velocity” (how fast inventory moves).
Currently the velocity of used Gucci approximates that of a NASA solar probe, thanks to the expensively Etsy-esque styling of that brand’s creative director, Alessandro Michele; even garments from before Mr. Michele’s tenure are selling well. “Isn’t that wild?” said Ms. Wainwright, who is 61 but has the pep and studiousness of a schoolgirl. “Everything ebbs and flows, but they’ve had more than a moment. People are compulsed by that brand. I keep thinking, when will it end?”
As legacy department stores continue to ebb at an alarming pace, and Amazon flows into Long Island City but not our hearts, TRR, which also sells furniture and art, is proposing a new model for how people of both means and conscience might shop IRL. With cafes and “community workshops” akin to those held by Apple, its sleek, spacious brick-and-mortar locations on Wooster Street in New York and on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles have been surprisingly successful.
“Remember there was that whole thing, ‘Millennials don’t love luxury’? They looove luxury!” Ms. Wainwright said. “They just couldn’t afford it. We’re a good entry point for them.” Another multilevel store is being plotted for Midtown Manhattan, with services including refurbishment, tailoring (“like an atelier,” said TRR’s chief merchant, Rati Sahi Levesque), personal shopping and a ticker-tape display of which designers are trending up or down.
Right now Giorgio Armani and Tory Burch would not welcome this information, but their status could change overnight. “We never picked up Coach until they reinvented themselves,” Ms. Wainwright said of the roster Ms. Levesque oversees, which they initially derived from Saks, Neiman Marcus and Barneys. “It’s not a static list.”
This is hardly consolation to Chanel, which in November sued the RealReal in federal court, charging that the consignment company has sold fakes and misleads consumers into believing it has an affiliation with the French fashion house. Only Chanel personnel can tell what is truly Chanel, says Chanel.
“They are trying to stop the circular economy,” responded TRR in a statement, adding a motion to dismiss the suit, still pending.
“Chanel is holding on to old ways,” Ms. Wainwright said. She has collaborated extensively with Stella McCartney, a label known for its ecological consciousness, and has cordial relationships with Kering, which owns Gucci, Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen, as well as the Parisian behemoth LVMH (Celine, Dior, Marc Jacobs etc.). “No other brand is so afraid to embrace us,” she said. “I don’t think they understand: The secondary market supports the retail market. When people sell things on our site, they go buy new. You wouldn’t buy a car if you couldn’t resell it!”
From Flops to Fops
Ms. Wainwright is herself a model of personal refurbishment.
For a long time she was best known in Silicon Valley as the C.E.O. of Pets.com, with its jabbering sock-puppet mascot the most mocked of e-commerce 1.0 failures. “It was as dark as it can get,” Ms. Wainwright said of that period, which included her then-husband asking her for a divorce. “People were horrible, just horrible.”
Realizing the internet wasn’t going away, she began a short-lived online magazine for women over 35 called SmartNow (“I’m not good at naming,” she said, “but I’m good at setting objectives.”) and mulled ventures related to cosmetics or health care. “It’s like, ‘Do I want to be in the natural-food business?’” she remembered thinking. “No.”
Then one day Ann Winblad of the venture capital firm Hummer Winblad, a mentor, took her along on a shopping trip to Head Over Heels, a consignment boutique in Menlo Park, Calif. With tasteful merchandising, the owner had managed not to “break the romance of the brand,” the way that other cut-rate outlets did, Ms. Wainwright observed. “Whenever I would give stuff to Goodwill it always made me sad,” she said. “You don’t want to see your beautiful things in a heap or wrapped up on a hanger.”
Back then, eBay was dominating the online resale market. Christopher Burch, Tory’s ex-husband, had taken a stake in another consignment start-up, Vaunte (which TRR has since essentially vanquished, along with Threadflip), and potential investors suggested Ms. Wainwright combine forces there. They were skeptical of her plan to hire experts for authentication, figuring user ratings were sufficient to flush out counterfeiters. “They’re like, ‘Oh no, the wisdom of the crowd,’” she said. “But you can’t use the wisdom of the crowd when it comes to gems or handbags!”
Still, Ms. Wainwright was not your obvious online-luxury slickster.
She grew up the eldest of four in South Bend, Ind.: the family putting on plays and making “bad” wine out of plums, apples and grapes that grew on their property, among other wholesome analog pursuits. Her father was a commercial artist and salvage enthusiast (“he loved going to the dump,” she said) whose accounts included the Shakespeare fishing-gear company and Flintstone vitamins. Her mother, who had intended to become a fashion illustrator, was struck with a debilitating illness, which proved to be multiple sclerosis, when Julie was 8.
“Here’s the good news about having tragedy as a kid,” Ms. Wainwright said. “Little stuff can really bug you, but big stuff can roll off your back.”
A homecoming queen, she matriculated at Purdue University, switching her major from organic chemistry and pharmacy to business after helping her older boyfriend with his marketing homework. They got engaged but she called off the wedding five weeks beforehand. “I felt I’d raised my brothers and sisters and I just wanted to be all that I could be,” she said.
Ms. Wainwright worked for Clorox, where she helped introduce Fresh Step cat litter (“with encapsulated perfume!”), moved to London for the Software Publishing Corporation and first entered the executive suite at Berkeley Systems, publishing the popular video game You Don’t Know Jack. She then took over at Reel.com, a defunct movie-review site that was sold to Hollywood Video, before being recruited by Pets.com. Clothes then were mostly armor. “You spent a lot of time hiding your body, especially at Clorox, because it was a tough environment,” she said, “and you never wanted to look too flashy.”
Ms. Wainwright still dislikes shopping. But “I like buying,” she said.
The Cap of Luxury
TRR’s most devoted clients, like Nicole Curran, wife of Joe Lacob, majority owner of the Golden State Warriors, now count on the company to help keep them aboard an ever-rotating carousel of flash.
“I take more risks in what I wear now,” said Ms. Curran, whose was wearing, among other striking garments, gold-sequined thigh-high boots for a morning visit to a hushed consignment office — one of eight around the country for those who don’t feel like putting their valuables in a postage box — at the company’s headquarters in Fisherman’s Wharf. “I find that I can be a little edgier and fun in the things that I wear,” Ms. Curran said as a miniskirted sales manager, Jenna Suhl — sales managers also pay in-home calls — cooed over piles of Fendi, Valentino and oui, Chanel.
Later that afternoon, inoffensive jazz played softly in the background as a new and nervous consignor, Lindley Hollender, a private-wealth analyst, watched as a strand of pearls were rejected on the basis of market saturation, along with a pair of Theory pants (accepted only with tags, or if they are suede or leather) and a floral Roberto Cavalli gown (excessive soil). A white Alice + Olivia wrap dress had promise, though. “If you are able to get the stains out,” Ms. Suhl said gently.
“You have a good eye,” Ms. Hollender said.
Two months later, though, she had not yet consigned with the company; after a dry cleaning bill, the 40 or 50 percent commission she would get on the sale of a “contemporary” piece would probably not be worth the trouble.
But Ms. Wainwright and her colleagues see infinite possibility in such customers, whom they hope to convince to renounced fast fashion, buy less frequently but better-quality, and maintain those purchases carefully before joining this sisterhood and brotherhood of the traveling pants and purses, shirts and shoes, coats and coffee tables.
Alexandra Jacobs is a longtime features writer, editor and cultural critic. She has worked at The Times since 2010. @AlexandraJacobs
Published at Wed, 23 Jan 2019 20:57:10 +0000