The In Crowd: Sourcing (and Funding) Fashion's Future

When Helen Brown co-founded Dublin-based crowdfunding fashion site Catwalkgenius.com, she sought a means of making consumer experiences more interactive. This, she knew, was something then sorely lacking in the retail sector. Nearly three years into the site’s inception, some boldface designers still have yet to jump on the e-commerce bandwagon, but most companies—particularly the young and up-and-coming—have embraced online sales as an increasing necessity, a viable cornerstone of their businesses.

For its part, Catwalk Genius courts would-be Alexander Wangs and Prabal Gurungs by allowing them to sell sample wares online, bringing a discerning, virtual clientele directly to them. “You can invest in a designer and buy stock direct from them, getting perks in exchange for support,” Brown explains of Catwalk Genius’ business model, which enables users to invest in designers in £11 ($17) increments. Investors in turn receive a share of the sales revenues proportionate to their share of the funding once a designer hits their target goal (ranging anywhere from £5,000 to £50,000) and the collection goes on sale. And while Catwalk Genius’ designers are free to take investors’ suggestions, they’re also allowed to retain creative autonomy, which makes for an ideal financial and artistic balance.

Chicago-based crowdsourcing site and t-shirt retailer Cameesa.com, meanwhile, offers another variant, whereby supporters invest at least $20 in the designs they like best. Once a particular design garners $500 in support, Cameesa facilitates production and sells the shirt online, much like its equally tee-centric precursor, Threadless.com. Ryz.com similarly holds ongoing open calls for original footwear submissions. The site’s “Design of the Week” is awarded based upon comments, critiques and community ratings; winners with work deemed “production-worthy” may see their creation manufactured and sold online as well as in select brick-and-mortar retailers.

With established sites like Threadless reportedly earning millions of dollars a year, and others like Ryz projected to break even in 2010, the future of crowdsourcing seems bright. Still, questions remain as to whether the community model will work for more intricate, labor-intensive items beyond than tees and shoes. Fashionstake.com, for one, is hedging its bets on the prospect. The soon-to-be-launched site’s “democratize fashion” tagline is both succinct and refreshingly antithetical to the idea of select, high-end brands that dictate trends and desirability. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the OnSugar Network, of which Fashion Stake is part, also boasts an impressive community of “Fashion 2.0″ proponents—and consumers.

Catwalk Genius’ Brown retains an optimistic outlook, expecting the site to facilitate several fan-funded collection launches in the coming months, attracting customers who have grown tired of traditional retail’s perceived lack of opportunity. “When we discovered just how tough the wholesale channel can be for design brands, we knew that this was an opportunity just waiting to be filled,” she says. Brown’s community-oriented business model may well be a key part of future fashion conversations, but only time will tell whether opportunity ultimately leads to market viability.




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