What's in Fashion? Bargain Buying

Trendy Shoppers -- and Marketers -- are Flocking to Sample Sales

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Once the domain of in-the-know New Yorkers, sample sales are spreading across the country selling far more than just size 4s as savvy "middle-women" look to turn designers' unwanted merchandise into soirees with cachet. And American Express, PepsiCo, Lancome, Ketel One and others are tagging along, turning sample sales into sampling events for their products to reach a hip, youthful demographic.

With names like Billion Dollar Babes, Sassy City Chicks and Hip Chick Chicago, these fashionista feeding frenzies are growing like wildfire from coast to coast, offering designers opportunities to unload unsold items without endangering high-end retail partnerships and giving brand-conscious consumers a chance to buy designer duds at wholesale prices.

More and more women-especially working women under age 35 who like the status that designer names convey-are searching for information on sample sales, said Kathryn Finney, author of "How to Be a Budget Fashionista" and the Budget Fashionista blog (budgetfashionista.com). The reality, she said, is that unlike the original sample sales of old where designers sold actual samples of current fashions displayed in showrooms and on runways, the term has now been expanded to what are really warehouse-overstock sales. "It's a way to imply that you're somehow getting exclusive access to something and getting the high-priced items you may have seen in magazines for less," Ms. Finney said.

The term brings people in and makes money but, "to be perfectly honest, they're no better than your local outlet mall," Ms. Finney said. Very often, she said, "they're offloading the stuff that even Marshall's doesn't want."

Whatever the reality, shoppers are eagerly standing in lines across the country to get Diane Von Furstenberg flair at a discount. NPD Group Chief Industry Analyst Marshal Cohen estimates that the resale-party business, a blip five years ago, has grown into a bona-fide billion-dollar juggernaut. Its success, he suggests, is due to the fact that these parties have "replaced the mall as the new social-shopping network" and the "shopping-frenzy environment" they create means that-unlike at the mall-no one would dare walk away empty-handed.

For manufacturers, of course, the often invitation-only events offer a way to dispose of their products under the radar so they don't have to deal with complaints from their regular retail partners that products are being sold at a discount at more mainstream liquidation outlets. And, of course, the cachet built around the parties means luxury marketers can avoid the brand-diluting dangers of club stores and other discount channels.

Kate Nobelius and Shelli-Anne Couch began their Billion Dollar Babes events in 2001 with a handful of friends and a few racks of designers' overstock at a room in the House of Blues in West Hollywood. Five years later, the two have built a database of more than 200,000 names of "young professional female tastemakers" who have registered for their 100-plus events at venues in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, London and now Dublin.

The database has helped them lure designers such as veteran Diane Von Furstenberg and up-and-comer Sass & Bide (designers from Ms. Nobelius' native Australia). Billion Dollar Babes has also signed on marketers-including American Express, PepsiCo and Lancome-to sponsor the events. According to Ms. Nobelius, co-president of Billion Dollar Babes, each event grosses between $250,000 and $500,000.

'a girls club'

"What we've really created is a girls club, real community events that take sample sales to new heights," Ms. Nobelius said. Events feature an open bar sponsored by Amstel Light, Ketel One vodka and Little Penguin wines, as well as makeovers sponsored by Lancome and Giorgio Armani cosmetics, Ms. Nobelius said.

Arts-and-entertainment organization Gen Art has created a similar social-shopping phenomenon with its twice-annual sales in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

According to Lee Trimble, senior fashion program manager at Gen Art, the events are billed as a "style oasis" where, in addition to purchasing designer fashions at up to 75% off, shoppers can get hairstyling from Wink Beauty; manicures from Buff Spa; minimassages from Bliss Spas; and free booze from Baileys, Ciroc Vodka, Johnnie Walker and Beck's Premier Light. You don't get that at the outlet mall.

A sample

Billion Dollar Babes hits the big time. Over the last five years:

* L.A. space has grown from two rooms to 40,000-square- foot rock venue

* Number of typical attendees per event is now 4,000

* Event staff now numbers 120
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