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THE CUTTING EDGE / PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY : An Online Boutique With Wear and Flair : Advertising & Marketing: Girlshop showcases up-and-coming fashion designers on a site with as much color and style as their creations.

September 23, 1999|DIANE SEO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To draw attention to his funky handbags and scented soaps, Greg Herman turned to Girlshop, an Internet retailer specializing in hip, up-and-coming designers.

The Studio City designer said his exposure on Girlshop's popular Web site not only boosted sales but also introduced his colorful accessories to shoppers and retailers, who otherwise might not have discovered his fruit- and floral-print purses or his chocolate truffle soap.

"Girlshop is a great way to put yourself out there," said the 27-year-old UCLA graduate, who bagged a possible medical career to make totes.

New York-based Girlshop doesn't claim to be the sole marketing answer for undiscovered designers. But as the Internet grows in popularity, Girlshop and other Net retailers could play an increasingly important role in helping fashion newcomers market their products on a broad scale.

"Designers have a hard time getting the play they want at department stores, so sites like Girlshop can really highlight their brand," said Seema Williams, an online consumer retail analyst at Massachusetts-based Forrester Research.

Aside from a few well-known names such as Max Studio and Cynthia Rowley, most of the 30 or so designers on Girlshop are just beginning to get their names out. For instance, Girlshop features designers such as Carrie Rosten, P.A.K., Jussara, Noir NYC, Amy Chan, Babouche and Lulu.

"What makes us different is that we'll take more chances," said Girlshop founder Laura Eisman. "We'll take underground designers."

But to get a spot on Girlshop, designers have to win approval from Eisman, who receives at least five pitches a day. "I have a good eye for recognizing potential," said Eisman, who runs the company with her boyfriend, Todd Richter, a database manager.

Although there are many other Web sites selling apparel and accessories, Eisman said no one has carved a similar niche of showcasing undiscovered designers in what could be called an online boutique. That makes Girlshop different from online department stores and other Web retailers selling designer merchandise.

Overall, online apparel sales are expected to explode from $1.6 billion this year to $27 billion in 2004, according to Forrester Research.

Meanwhile, Girlshop--in business just since July 1998--generates $150,000 a month in sales. And unlike most other Internet companies, it's been profitable from the beginning because of low start-up costs, Eisman said.

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Yet Girlshop's business model is not without flaws. The company sometimes has trouble getting clothes from designers in a timely fashion, which can translate into delays for customers. And to see the entire selection of merchandise, customers have to visit each designer "boutique," which can be time-consuming and aggravating. Also, as with all Web retailers, customers must rely on pictures and copy to judge the products.

"Customers prefer to try new things in stores," Williams said. "The problem with Girlshop is that customers don't know if what they're buying is really worth it, since they can't try things on. People are willing to buy clothes on the Internet, but they want to buy things they know."

Eisman said Girlshop explains in detail how each item will fit. Customers also have 10 days from receipt of merchandise to get a refund.

For their part, designers have only limited space in which to show their collections on Girlshop. Nevertheless, they say the exposure is invaluable, especially since advertising costs would be too hefty for most of their budgets.

Girlshop.com receives 4 million hits per month and has more than 10,000 registered members, the vast majority in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Plus, Eisman and her staff are in constant contact with fashion editors on the hunt for new things to feature in their magazines.

Los Angeles designer Joomi Lim said her presence on Girlshop has led to mentions in leading fashion publications. Lim's jeweled and beaded hair accessories that retail for $12 to $98 have appeared in Glamour, Mademoiselle and InStyle.

"Girlshop has definitely helped me get press," said Lim, a former makeup artist who started Joomi Joolz three years ago. "People see my designs on Girlshop, and that helps push my name out further. It's been huge exposure for me."

Part of Girlshop's popularity is linked to its punchy copy, colorful graphics and irreverent, girlfriend-to-girlfriend tone. For instance, instead of describing one of Herman's totes simply as a faux-fur-covered makeup case, Girlshop calls it a "super fuzzy puff-ball of pink plush . . . for us girly girls to carry an assortment of glittery eyeshadows." And Noir NYC's flip-flops are said to be "full-on flower-power fun."

"The way they write the copy is really stylized and has flair," said Elana Roston, a 32-year-old Los Angeles journalist and Girlshop customer. "It's coy and fun, and it makes buying the clothes more exciting."

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