About the "Baked In" series: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg likes to say that social dynamics are going to work their way into every industry, and the companies of the future will be the ones that bake them in from the beginning, rather than slapping them on as an afterthought. This series takes a look at companies that are discovering new opportunities by using social components in the foundations of their businesses.
A small coterie of designers and editors in New York, Paris, London, and Milan, have traditionally clutched the reins of power in the fashion world—they dream up what the rest of us should be wearing, and many of us abide. But the Internet has slowly pried free their grip, first with fashion bloggers who gained influence when they developed meaningful followings of their own, and now with sites like Polyvore, which shifts the power of taste-making from the runways to the masses—who in turn are starting to influence the runways.
Polyvore is one of a new generation of online businesses in a number of industries that is placing "social" at the center of their strategies. By building experiences that, from the get-go, enable regular folks to connect with each other, the businesses are creating entirely new types of value, often upending traditional industries in the process.
At its core, Polyvore is simply a place where anyone can mix and match existing fashion items to create and publish new looks or mood boards. Through a proprietary technology, visitors can drag-and-drop images of blouses, skirts, shoes, purses and jewelry onto a digital canvas to create those looks. The images are taken from an enormous catalog of items, most of which are already available in stores, and many of which can be bought online. (Occasionally, Polyvore users get to help design something entirely new). The end result, Polyvore's vice president of product Jess Lee tells Fast Company, is "an infinitely browse-able and shop-able fashion magazine."
But it's more than that. The site is also one giant fashion coffee klatch. Visitors can comment on and "Like" each other’s sets. They can ask for advice and get ideas of what to pair with items they already own. They can make friends and connect to each other, Facebook-style. They create groups of their favorite Polyvorians, and even subscribe to those whose tastes they want to follow.
Designers and brands have taken notice. Just as they have traditionally worked with fashion magazines to showcase their wares, some brands are getting involved in Polyvore. But not simply as one more place to toss up some ads. Instead, the savviest are beginning to work directly with the Polyvore community, to cull and curate, in much the same way they’ve worked with traditional fashion editors.
Michael Kors, for example, sponsored a contest in which Polyvore members could compete to design the best look using at least two items from his Holiday 2010 collection. Almost 3,000 people submitted entries, and the winner was featured in a Kors video showcasing the designer’s upcoming spring collection.
But the real win for Kors was engagement among fans. Individual Polyvorians created over 33,000 sets using items from Kors' collection, and Kors' clothes garnered almost 31,000 comments and over 300,000 "Likes."
Luxury handbag and accessory designer Rebecca Minkoff has taken the engagement piece a step further. Minkoff also sponsored a contest, but this one to design a new version of her iconic Morning After Clutch. The winning piece (pictured above)—which Minkoff selected herself—is now making its way into the real world. It will be featured in Minkoff's runway show at New York Fashion Week today, and Saks Fifth Avenue has signed up to carry it exclusively. "We're constantly exploring non-traditional media strategies to maximize our presence," Minkoff tells Fast Company. "Collaborating alongside Polyvore was a no brainer."
All of which points to how Polyvore is introducing new dynamics into the fashion industry. Lee says there will always be a place for the Harper's Bazaars and Vogues of the world. "The reason why the editors are at the top is that they have a great eye, and they really are experts. But the brands that excel in the fashion industry of the future will be the ones that engage in the new channels. If you want to participate in this new medium, you have to build a following of fans who do the talking for you," Lee says.
And as designers increasingly discover how fashion-savvy many Polyvorians actually are, Lee says she expects them to use the site—both its members and its analytics about what members are looking at and playing with—to make decisions on everything from what to produce, to how to merchandise their goods, and even to do inventory planning.
Not bad for a four-year-old company that has 2 million registered users and 6.5 million monthly visitors. And that wasn’t even started by a tech-savvy editor in New York or a fashionista in Phoenix. Just the opposite. Polyvore was the brainchild of a senior engineer at Yahoo, Pasha Sadri, who discovered the allure of mixing and matching while playing with a piece of software he'd built himself to explore different schemes for a house redesign.
"He would always get sucked into using the prototype," says Lee. "That’s when he knew he was on to something." Sadri quickly realized that a tool to help people remodel their homes—an activity people perform rarely—wasn’t as attractive a business opportunity as one aimed at something people do every day. Which is how he hit upon fashion.
And though the intention might simply have been to create a place for fashion enthusiasts to play, the end result has been a democratizing of the industry. "You don’t have to be in New York anymore," Lee says. "If you’re in Iowa or Idaho, you can still have a voice."
Follow Fast Company on Twitter.
E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Email.