Making high fashion affordable and available to every woman who yearns and wants it has been the mantra for Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, founders of one of the most accessed sample sale websites, Gilt Groupe. Over a year has passed since Gilt Groupe’s launch and since then, thousands of men and women have discovered the secret to looking fab and chic while still keeping some cash in their pockets. I’ve been blissfully obsessed with Gilt’s daily sales since my first purchase of gold dipped leaf earrings and cuff bracelet by Sur Evolution a year ago and I am sure everyone who has discovered the site is as well.
In fact, a few of my friends have confessed to sitting impatiently in front of their laptops with a cup of Joe five minutes to noon just to get their hands on the designer duds. The invitation only site offers sales six days a week so that those who miss out during the work week can snag some bargains on Saturday afternoons. Since the launch of Gilt’s site, a handful of other “invite only” sites have popped up but have not reached the level of success Gilt has achieved in such a small period of time.
What is the secret to their success? Alexis and Alexandra, two college friends and fashion aficionados shed some insight into their business model and how it got started. With savvy shopping skills, a penchant for talking designers into selling their inventory directly to them instead of through wholesalers, and a knowledge of fashion and retail, the two ladies have made Gilt the ultimate source for fashion fanatics who want luxury brands at a bargain without waiting in long lines in New York City.
The fashion entrepreneurs took the time to answer a few of my burning questions about themselves, Gilt Groupe and what is in store for this next year. I couldn’t get them to commit to saying yes to a Chanel sale (that might have to be a private sale just for me) but I did get them dishing about our new President and why and how they maintain to keep us fashionistas looking chic in the city.
What is Gilt Groupe?
Alexis: Gilt Groupe (www.gilt.com) provides access, by invitation only, to Men’s, Women’s and Children’s coveted fashion and luxury brands at prices up to 70% off retail, NATIONWIDE. Each sale lasts 36 hours and features hand selected styles from a single designer. From Valentino to Catherine Malandrino to Judith Ripka, John Varvatos and Lucy Sykes, we offer a selection of merchandise at a range of prices.
2008 was a big year for Gilt Groupe. How has your subscriber base increased?
Alexis: It has been a wonderful year here at Gilt Groupe, membership has dramatically increased and we are so thrilled at the way things are going.
How did you come up with the concept of an online sample sale?
Alexis: Alexandra and I met 10yrs ago, during our time at Harvard University and soon became fast friends. From the start we knew that one day we would like to create a business together, we were just unsure what it would be at that time. A couple of years ago, we decided to brainstorm and think of ways to unite our experiences in order to start a business together. Alexandra had great knowledge of the luxury fashion world with retail experiences from the likes of Louis Vuitton and Bulgari, while I come strictly from the e-commerce world. I was one of the first employees at eBay and during my 4year run I witnessed it’s growth from 40 employees to about 5,000. As you can imagine, experiencing such a dramatic rise was more than inspiring and something I hoped to be part of again.
Alexandra and I would frequently meet in NYC and attend the city’s famous sample sales. We would receive numerous calls from family and friends instructing us on which designers they would like us to go and see, not to mention the exact items they would love us to bring back. So we started thinking that for this to work online nationwide would be really lucrative while also marrying our expertise and enabling us to form a revolutionary business. Gilt Groupe was launched on November 13th 2007.
What drove you to get into the fashion and online retail business?
Alexandra: I have always been interested in fashion, ever since I was a young girl, growing up in New York City. During graduate school I became focused on working in the fashion industry and met with many “creatives and suits” in the fashion industry to get a sense of the various opportunities. I then went on to work for Louis Vuitton and Bulgari which were both wonderful experiences and solid luxury training.
How do you get all these designers to put their clothes for sale at such incredible prices?
Alexandra: Many of the designers are actually my friends and friends of our buyers, so connecting with them has been relatively easy. My team of buyers and I work directly with designers to negotiate the best deals possible for the merchandise that we hand select. Much like any retailer or etailer, we apply a markup to our cost.
How do you determine which designers to carry?
Alexandra: On Gilt Groupe we carry a similar range of designers that you would see in a high-end department store like Barney’s or Neiman Marcus. The designers need to have enough merchandise for us and always in perfect condition, so that can sometimes limit which designers can work for us as brand partners.
What were your favorite sales in 2008?
Alexandra- I personally loved Kwiat, Valentino, Doo.Ri and Chloe.
Alexis: There has been so many! We launched with Zac Posen and he will always be a personal favorite of mine. He is a pioneer in fashion, I adore his silhouettes and I love his designs as a whole. Dolce & Gabbana is the perfect go to for an evening outfit, a little sparkle here and there with defining cuts. Last but not least it would have to be Chloe too, for the everyday/office wear. I would have to say that these were my favorite three.
What are some of the great designer sales we should look forward to in 2009?
Alexandra: There are so many! Of course we will continue to with our hundreds of existing brand partners. I am also thrilled that we will be featuring many new women’s and men’s ready to wear and accessories brands as well as some amazing designer sunglass sales and a few luxury beauty brands which will be a new area for us.
In this slowing economy, Gilt Groupe is doing its part to keep men, women and children looking their best. What role do you think you play in keeping confidence high?
Alexis: As we provide our members with luxury items that are affordable and therefore not out of reach, they are able to justify the want/need ratio which they may find hard to swallow when paying retail prices during this time. I believe it does bring a comfort to them and not just their credit cards.
Who is the target audience?
Alexis: Our target audience would be women and men, 25-45, interested in fashion/adding designer pieces to their collection.
Why did you decide to include men’s/children’s/houseware categories?
Alexis: After watching the Women’s grow so quickly and become such a success we knew, soon after launching in November 2007, that Gilt Groupe could become a multicategory site. We listen to our members and introduce new categories based on their interests.
Gilt Groupe does not really advertise. Why did you choose this model of by invite only and word of mouth?
Alexis: We launched Gilt Groupe with our friends initially and then encouraged them to invite others who might love shopping for fashion online…it grew from there.
You must have a big team of people who help choose sales. Who are the people that select such fabulous clothes?
Alexandra: I have a large, and continuously growing, team of seasoned buyers who have come to us mostly from the top buying programs at the high-end department stores in the country.
Will Gilt be hosting any events in the Washington, DC area to welcome the First Family into Washington?
Alexis: Our Marketing team is always brainstorming on ways to offer our members the best apparel and accessories, as well as unique experiences in their city (like bringing them a movie premier or access to a fashion show.)
Our first lady, Michelle Obama, is into contemporary designers. If you were to have a sale for her, what five designers would you pick? What five designers would you pick for Sasha and Malia? What five designers would you pick for Barack Obama?
Oscar De La Renta, Vera Wang Lavender Label, Zac Posen, Ports 1961, Costello Tagliapietra
Charlotte Ronson, Acne/Seven jeans, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Alice + Olivia, Twenty8Twelve
Lucy Sykes, Eliza Gran, Seven jeans kids, Imoga, Kico Kids
Hickey, John Varvatos, Bobby Jones (for when he’s on the green), Eli Tahari, Black Fleece by Thom Browne
Any tips of maintaining great style and updating our closets?
Alexandra: ‘Fashion fades, Style is eternal’. When purchasing items for your wardrobe you must be true to yourself. Fill your closet with designers and silhouettes that suit you and throw in some essential seasonal items from time to time. There is nothing with recycling any “oldies but goodies”, mixing them with updated looks.
What are the five essential things every Woman/Man must have in their closets?
A unforgettable LBD, Tailored black blazer, The pair of ‘perfect fit’ dark denim jeans, Black leather, carry-all, handbag,Christian Louboutin heels
Single Breasted, Flat Front, Navy wool suit , Cashmere overcoat , Brown wingtip shoes, APC Jeans, White Oxford shirt