December 9, 2011 10:04 pm

Manolos with your mojito?

Forget the internet: the new way to shop is at invitation-only cocktail parties

On a recent Friday night in New York, the partying in a trendy downtown hotel room started early. By 8.30pm, about 75 guests were packed into a bedroom and adjacent seating area, drinking Moët et Chandon, eating canapés, and talking loudly about designer fashion – which was all around them. Chanel bags dangled over a bathtub, a Rick Owens jacket was laid out on the bed, and a rack with Tom Ford-era Gucci leather and stretchy Helmut Lang dresses stood beside a window.

Welcome to a new way to shop – for Christmas presents or anything else. Call it consumption with friends or relaxed retail and think of it as a makeshift, invite-only pop-up shop with a cocktail feel. The key factors are: first, a party element; second, a non-traditional location such as a hotel room or private home; and finally, a hand-picked array of pieces from favourite luxury labels – some new, some barely used – offered at discounted prices.

The aforementioned “party” was hosted by Decades, a Los Angeles-based consignment store that specialises in nearly new items from Christian Louboutin, Manolo Blahnik, Hermès and other top-tier designers, with prices ranging from $100 for an Alexander Wang top to more than $5,200 for a Lagerfeld fur. Decades has held similar events over the past two years in Chicago, Dallas, Detroit and a handful of other US cities, with others planned in Singapore, Paris and the Middle East. It’s been an efficient way for the store to expand its customer base without having to sign a long-term lease for new locations during recessionary times.

“Retail is difficult and when you have another store there’s a lot more that goes into that than just having customers come in,” explains Christos Garkinos, the store’s co-owner. “At the moment this feels right. We do these in spaces where people feel like they can sit around and talk to us – it gives people that extra value that you don’t get in a typical pop-up store situation, where you’re literally having to elbow people all along the way to get something.”

Oona McSweeney, vice-president of retail and special markets for trend forecasters Stylesight, is also enthusiastic about the concept. “It goes back to the trunk show model, where designers would show in department stores, not so much for sales but for the marketing, to get on the ground, meet the customers and create a kind of goodwill,” she says. “In our age, when you can do anything on the internet, the idea that Decades is going from city to city to meet people generates a different kind of buzz.”

‘Contessa’ necklace £95

‘Contessa’ necklace £95

The sense of being a VIP at these parties – invited to a private event, shopping with like-minded guests, usually with a glass of complimentary champagne – is also part of their appeal. “For lack of a better word, it’s personal shopping,” says Louise Maniscalco, a partner in LL Studio NY, a discreet designer consignment “shop” located in an Upper East Side apartment, where rows of unused Hermès bags are lined up in a nook near the kitchen. In addition to one-on-one sales, she and partner Lindsay Burka – a former department store personal shopper and fashion publicist – host a monthly party under the name 9 Undisclosed, with a customised guest list. (“We really pay attention to what people want and select certain people around the stock,” Burka says.) After nearly a year of working together, the pair recently held their first non-clandestine pop-up: a selection of jewellery and other accessories offered in a small space at LA’s Fred Segal Couture store in Los Angeles.

Such events go beyond consignment product to first-run goods. Paper London, a new UK line of silk separates aimed at working women, recently invited shoppers into a suite at the Andaz Liverpool Street hotel in London, close to the City offices where its target audience works. Likewise, to launch Vbeauté, a new line of Swiss-made skincare products, the brand’s creator Julie Macklowe hosted friends for a shopping afternoon tea in New York. Out of the 100 invitees, 77 attended and 67 purchased an introductory “It Kit” product sampler for $165.

The bond between the host and their guests is a vital element of these parties. “We’re in a landscape where people want to connect,” says Kiran Rai, creative director of Sir Alistair Rai, a line of scarves that is sold at invitation-only private shopping events, dubbed “wrap parties”, as well as at retailers such as Nordstrom and Holt Renfrew. “What makes it really special is that there’s such personal interaction. You’re actually getting to know these people.” At her parties, for which hosts buy a sample selection of scarves and keep a percentage of profits, Rai or one of her core team attends, giving styling tips to guests. “I definitely engage with people and they love it,” she says.

Rai’s blueprint – a hybrid of a sample sale and a Tupperware party – is, of course, a modern take on the way companies like Avon have long built their businesses, and one that is not specific to her. Costume jeweller Stella & Dot sells its accessories via parties arranged by a part-time sales force, working with local hosts who invite their friends in exchange for free items. Last year the company generated more than $100m in retail sales, marking 700 per cent growth from the previous year. In October, the brand, which has about 10,000 stylists in North America, launched in the UK, where more than 300 reps – known as stylists – are already holding an average of 25 parties a day.

“Jewellery in a retail environment is locked up in a glass case,” says Jessica Herrin, the company’s chief executive and founder. “It’s not something you can easily pull out and get a lot of feedback from friends about when you’re trying it on. This is not really about our stylists coming in and selling – it’s rather girlfriends getting together to play with fashion and share their opinions with each other.”

“The fact that you can have an hors d’oeuvre and a cocktail while you shop, and catch up with people, is definitely convenient,” says John David Breen, who recently hosted one of Rai’s wrap parties. “The whole concept is very old school but it has a really fun vibe to it.”

www.decadestwo1.com

www.stelladot.com

www.siralistairrai.com

www.llstudiony.com

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