The top destination for fashionistas worldwide Googling "retro clothes" or "mod clothes" -- and in fact, the fourth-highest hit if you simply search "clothes" -- is an Internet boutique based in Pittsburgh: www.modcloth.com.
The cyber store, based in a rambling old house in Friendship, showcases indie designers, one-of-a-kind finds and new but vintage-inspired fashions, tending toward the cute and girly. Wonderfully feminine dresses and shoes -- think Dr. Elsa Schneider from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, only with a touch more neon -- share space with funky housewares, books and throwback-y ironic prints on T-shirts and handbags. It's like raiding the apartment of the coolest girl you loved watching Jem and the Holograms with on Saturday mornings, all grown up with a major kitsch fetish.
The site began as a way for Susan Koger to justify scooping up incredible thrift-store finds that didn't fit her, but were too splendid to leave behind. Her techie then-boyfriend, husband Eric Koger, put up a Web site for her to resell some of them.
"I knew Susan was ... obsessed? ... really into vintage fashion," says Eric Koger. "We're from the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area. Back around 2000 was a great year for vintage fashion. Senior citizens would come down and shed their winter clothes."
"We started the site in 2002," says Susan Koger, in a chic grey shift and boots. "It was the summer between high school and college." She kept up with the site, part time while she attended Carnegie Mellon University and full time during the summers. A professor in a business class encouraged her to think about parlaying the already successful site into a full-time gig. "Everyone else was interviewing at, like, credit-card companies," she says.
The site has grown wildly. ModCloth now employs eight people, with plans to hire more by the next holiday rush. At any given time, it's carrying 300 to 600 products, and getting 60 to 100 orders daily. While thrift-store finds still comprise the one-of-a-kind section, and the store has its own small line, most items are new and come from smaller independent designers they find at trade shows or online. Dresses are mostly in the $50-100 range, with accessories ranging from $7 socks to $60 tote bags.
Traffic, says Eric Koger, comes from social-networking sites, links and bookmarks, and paid advertising on Web sites with a similar target audience: Big sources of clicks include www.PerezHilton.com and www.cuteoverload.com. Business comes from as near as a few blocks away in East Liberty to as far as Singapore and Korea. Most comes from U.S. population centers, like California and New York.
Traditional thinking says that clothing customers need to try on and "pet" clothes before they'll buy, but that's changing fast.
"We're very much aware of that, because we were online shoppers," says Shahrzad Samadzadeh, the third partner in the business, with a big bright scarf over her T-shirt. "We've turned the online disadvantages into advantages: We try to be the trusted-adviser voice to the customer. People need big images, closeups, a lot of description." The site features detailed write-ups, suggestions about fit and big images of each item, often from many different angles, shot in-house in the photography studio.
"Our product images are some of the best on the Web," says Susan Koger. "When you buy something from ModCloth, it's been tried on by four or five girls thinking about where we'd wear it."
"Their target audience may not be in Pittsburgh -- the Internet is a way to reach a million more folks that are looking for this type of niche," says Diane Mastromico, an instructor at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh specializing in global business.
Online sales are growing fast, and the clothing sector faster than most. According to a study for online retail association shop.org, in 2006 apparel, accessories and footwear surpassed computers as the top online category, with $18.3 billion in sales. About 10 percent of all clothing sales occur online, according to the study.
As companies become better attuned to shopping online, Mastromico says, they adjust to specific challenges: "Internet companies tend to pay for return shipping," she says. Eric Koger says ModCloth plans to move toward the "Zappos model" (pioneered by online shoe giant www.zappos.com), where return shipping is free. The company currently uses the U.S. Postal Service.
The clothes come from all over -- CP caught up with Susan Koger between buying trips to trade shows in Barcelona and New York City -- but ModCloth carries some custom-made pieces featuring designs by local artist Joe DeFerarri.
"Before we go to trade shows, we go to the mall and go in every store to see what's there," Susan Koger says. "We don't want to wind up with stuff that's at Forever 21 or Target or H&M."
"I hate what the mall has done to American fashion," says Samadzadeh. "It's so safe, it's stifling. Growing up in the Midwest, it upset me -- everyone was wearing the same stuff!"
"It's hard to be a community member when you're online," says Samadzadeh. But they're making inroads. A packed fashion show at Brillobox in December raised more than $450 for the Women's Center and Shelter of Pittsburgh.
Looking ahead, the ModCloth team says they hope to move into a bigger warehouse space, possibly to function as a store for local customers. "I'm really looking forward to moving into a warehouse: We can be in the community," Susan Koger says. For now, the site's mascot, Winston the pug dog, snorts greetings to visitors and keeps the collegial team company as they work. Says Susan Koger: "We try to keep things very magical here."