The following is a real story about the RealReal, a luxury consignment start-up that now has a brick-and-mortar store in SoHo. A few months ago, a friend walked into an intimate gathering wearing a daisy print Céline skirt. One of our mutual friends said to her, “I saw that on the RealReal.” Another said, “Oh, I’m so happy you were the one who got it.” This is perhaps how billionaires chat after a Sotheby’s auction, which is not the camaraderie and pride one would expect to hear about secondhand shopping.
The huge success (the RealReal has raised $173 million since its founding) of various consignment sites feels opposed to the foundering retail business. There is Grailed, which focuses on street wear, and Heroine, a women’s wear counterpart, along with Vestiaire Collective and First Dibs. They have consumed the middle market, taking customers for whom actual luxury pricing is too real … real.
Shopping consignment is also a beautiful distraction. It is fashion Candy Crush; finding and scoring certain pieces can feel like a personal victory. Women I know who are familiar with the RealReal said they’ve started looking at it daily; the rest of the world is just too real … real.
Founded in 2011 by Julie Wainwright, a dot-com boom-and-bust dynamo who began working in tech in the 1990s, most notably as chief executive of Pets.com (if you recall, its commercials featured a dog sock puppet whose personality was “bro Lambchop”), the RealReal offers consignment with the promise of authentication by one of the company’s expert staff members.
All items on display in the store are simultaneously available to shop online. Sales associates can scan items for customers in person, temporarily removing them from the site while they’re being considered on the floor. Even while shopping in the store, there is the same it-could-disappear-at-any-moment feeling you get online.
In the store which was designed by Courtney Applebaum, the interior designer for the Row (a label represented on almost every rack), you can wait on gorgeous textural couches while your pieces are appraised. There is a flower stall at the front where you can buy stems by Fox Fodder Farm, a coffee bar downstairs and weekly events and workshops, like Faux Fridays, which instruct attendees on how to spot fake Louis Vuitton, Chanel and designer sneakers.
In the middle of the floor is a collaborator-curated space, and this month the selection was chosen by Vanessa Traina and Allee Goldstein of the Line. Nearby, one can slide racks of clothing out from a large console of hidden cabinets. They swoosh out deliciously, packed with treasures. A friend described the sensation of unveiling these clothes as incredibly erotic.
Upon entering, the first two things I checked out were the same price: a Frank Stella copper lithograph and a Balenciaga leather jacket with a shearling collar ($2,500). A saleswoman approached and struck up a conversation that bopped its way to the question “So what do you do with your art history degree?”
In a charming scene in Greta Gerwig’s film “Lady Bird,” the titular character and her mother bicker at a rack in an expansive thrift store. Their combative parlance hits a wall when the mother pulls out a peachy vintage dress, cooing, “Do you love it?”
Lady Bird replies, “It’s perfect.” The two shift instantly to loving, fawning friends. It’s delightful.
My youthful experiences in thrift stores with my mother followed the opposite emotional structure. We would have some of our nicest conversations among the racks, until I found something I wanted; then the (low stakes) conflict would begin, almost always over the size of a garment I was holding.
My mother would see a women’s 3X or girls 14 tag and, probably exhausted because I was known to idle in the store’s fluorescent-lit dust for up to five hours a weekend, protest. “That’s not your size,” she would say.
I would argue, “Size doesn’t exist in this space!” And I still believe that to thrift or shop consignment, a little of this philosophy is required.
A size 8 on one tag in the RealReal may be the same measurements as a size zero on another. At the store, clothes are arranged on Extra-Small/Small racks and Medium/Large racks. But really, the size of the clothes depends on how you want them to fit, and it’s a game of eyeing and trying. Unlike the website, clothes here are arranged only by size, not by type or color or designer (apart from one Gucci rack, where there was a leather bag for $2,850 with “REAL” painted in yellow above the logo).
Size is abstract to me even in a store with a single brand, but a friend I was with said she didn’t like her position in the space to be about her size. Fair enough. On the other hand, it’s possible to encounter a lot of things you wouldn’t click on on the site.
Online, the pieces are photographed beautifully, masking (not in a deceptive way) wear in the fabric. When you can hold them, it’s a different experience. A Chanel tweed blazer with a loose button is $1,295. There were little threads, fabric that’s not worn out but was definitely sighing, and tiny snags on many items. Wool Proenza pants ($225), a cotton Tome dress ($295) and a suede Acne skirt ($245) are all worth it if one longed for them on the runway.
Many pieces seem to be under $300, or else above $1,200. I found a few exceptions, but when you see $1,395 consistently, a sudden $295 feels like a precious mistake to be grabbed immediately.
In other consignment shops in the city, I let my mind wonder if the clothes belong to someone recently deceased. Here it’s possible to mostly dissociate from their former lives and think only about the future.
The RealReal has established a new assurance of luxury fashion resale value beyond the doldrums of eBay, but building a brand on reselling what’s real leaves no room for user error. On Tuesday, CBS News reported on the filing of a complaint in California: A Michigan woman said she was sold a gemstone with a carat weight that was misrepresented on the site. The RealReal vehemently denies any wrongdoing.