Late last summer, subscribers to Harper’s Bazaar received slimmer than usual September issues with the androgynous British model Agyness Deyn on the cover. She was dressed in expensive designer homage to Michael Jackson, who had died in June: Balmain tuxedo pants with a matching sequinned jacket; special-order Repetto oxfords—just the thing for a moonwalk; and a four-hundred-dollar black fedora by Albertus Swanepoel. Her right hand, gloved in glittering Givenchy, appeared to have knocked the first “A” in Bazaar jauntily askew. Within a few days, the image was copied from the Internet by a sixteen-year-old in Zagreb, Croatia, named Antonia, who stored it on the fashion Web site Polyvore.com, where she is known as tonka1. Antonia pasted the photo of Deyn into an online collage—or “set,” as Polyvore calls it—she was making, layering on pictures of cheaper clothing, including a studded blazer ($140 at Topshop), a purple leopard-print skirt from a store in Japan, and a Vanessa Bruno tank top. She finished by adding the vaguely Michael Jackson-inflected caption “Tomorrow can wait. Dance all through the night.” Over in Indonesia, meanwhile, a student calling herself Fabz_Reen had found the Bazaar cover similarly inspiring. Her Polyvore set included pictures of a Vivienne Westwood skull-print dress, an Alexander McQueen cuff bracelet, an Alexis Bittar bubble ring, strap-strangled Christian Louboutin Nitoinimoi ankle boots, a Victoria’s Secret mascara wand, and a second image of Deyn taken from Brazilian Vogue, all under the headline “Think Black.”
The Louboutin boots also caught the fancy of Gail Helmer, a forty-three-year-old marketing consultant and Polyvore user in Calgary, who put them in two different sets that season. For more than two years, since she discovered the site via Facebook, Helmer has visited Polyvore daily, and she has become one of the site’s most popular creators, with thousands of followers. Before walking her collie each morning, she sits with her husband at their kitchen table over coffee, oatmeal, and laptops (he’s a Web designer who owns a gaming site that does military simulations with jets and tanks), signing on as MyChanel. “He’s been in awe of what I can do on Polyvore,” she said.
Every set begins with an electronic scissor called the Clipper, saved to a browser’s toolbar, which allows you to collect pictures of merchandise and other visuals from all over the Web. Helmer’s preferred destinations are Farfetch.com, an Internet mall of forty boutiques; Collete.fr, the site of a Parisian department store famous for its high-end eclecticism; and Brownsfashion.com, the online outpost of the London luxury mini-chain, which is where she found the boots. Her choices are stored in her virtual closet, which is open to inspection by any of the 6.6 million people who visit Polyvore each month. Helmer’s closet currently contains more than five thousand items, including accessories, jewelry, and cosmetics. Although she buys plenty of clothes after first spotting them on Polyvore, she told me, “making sets really feeds that shopping urge in me, without having to go and spend all that money. Because, seriously, I can’t afford a thousand pairs of YSL shoes.”
Polyvore is a lot like playing paper dolls with pictures of real clothes. Some people spend an hour on each set, glomming from scores of Web sites. It’s the rare Internet pastime that feels productive—even if the product is just an online collage that you e-mail to a friend, with the message “Look, I made this outfit for you!” After dragging and dropping enough images to create an ensemble, a user might paste in a background pattern and then garnish the set with a lipstick or a bottle of perfume. A set can also be given a soundtrack, although Helmer doesn’t go in for these sorts of bells and whistles. “I’m just so visual,” she said. She calls herself a “fashion whisperer.” “I’ll find an item and it kind of tells me what it goes with. What shoes, what bags.” Polyvore permits a maximum of fifty items in each set (“There has to be a limit,” one of the company’s software engineers told me. “If you put, like, a million items in there, that would basically kill the server”), but Helmer usually limits herself to a dozen, which she enlarges, shrinks, or rotates at her pleasure, adding perhaps a pithy phrase in a decorative typeface. Helmer says that she gave up print fashion magazines “when they stopped putting models on the cover” (“I don’t care about celebrities”), and she likes to paste in a picture of a model, usually a blond one, like Lily Donaldson, Gemma Ward, or Kate Moss, as her set’s final fillip—“the cherry on top,” as she put it. (Polyvore creators generally avoid using pictures of themselves, preferring more glamorous avatars; the clothes tend to float, disembodied, next to the models rather than on them, as with paper dolls.) “I don’t use anyone who doesn’t look like me,” she said.
“Think Black,” the title of the set made by Fabz_Reen, in Indonesia, is a reference to “Think Pink,” the exuberant opening number from “Funny Face,” the 1957 movie about the fashion world. The cadences of the film clearly still echo through the popular fantasy of what constitutes a fashion magazine: a dictatorial matron sweeping through skyscraper offices, as Meryl Streep did in “The Devil Wears Prada,” fifty years after Kay Thompson played a caricature of the legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, fretting about failing the “American woman who stands out there naked waiting for me to tell her what to wear.” In reality, the American woman has not waited to be told what to wear in some time. Vogue and Bazaar now compete with the more populist shopping magazines, like InStyle and Lucky, whose low-key editors have replaced lush, fantastical spreads with practical shopping advice and catalogue-style layouts. Polyvore’s user-generated model abandons the queenly paradigm altogether. The site has 1.4 million registered users, two hundred thousand of whom are, like Helmer, dedicated “creators”: amateur stylists who put together thirty thousand sets a day and post them on Facebook, Twitter, and their personal blogs. Kerry Diamond, an executive at Lancôme who has done business with Polyvore, describes sets as “the cyber equivalent of the inside of a school locker door.”
“Our mission is to democratize fashion,” Jess Lee, Polyvore’s twenty-seven-year-old vice-president of product management, told me recently, as she picked at a huge Caesar salad at Fred’s, the restaurant on the ninth floor of Barneys on Madison Avenue. “To empower people on the street to think about their sense of style and share it with the world.” She believes that the “Funny Face” days are history. “Newspapers and magazines are, like, these things outside that get wet,” she said. “They’re like roadkill.” Polyvore had collaborated with Barneys this winter, on a contest called “Barneys Obsession” (users put merchandise from the store’s Web site into sets that were then judged by Barneys’ fashion director, Julie Gilhart), but Lee had never visited the store, and she had seemed entranced by the array of bleached jeans and strapless mini-dresses on its eighth floor. “I like exposed zippers,” she said, stroking one.
Lee, who is of average height and slim, with sideswept dark bangs, was wearing a long black cardigan and jeans. “I never wear skirts,” she said. She majored in computer science at Stanford and previously worked at Google, where she was a protégée of Marissa Mayer, the company’s unofficial style czar, internalizing Google’s philosophy of “Do what the user loves and the money will follow.” When someone clicks on an item in a set, a small window pops open with a link to where she might buy it, or “flow to a transaction,” in Lee’s gentler phrasing. Polyvore is not yet profitable, but about a third of the company’s revenue comes from commissions arranged with online retailers. The other two-thirds comes from a combination of traditional ads; contests like the Barneys event; and sponsored sets, like the one posted four months ago by Calvin Klein, titled “Soft+Flirty,” whose elements (all sold at CalvinKlein.com) were quickly assimilated by users into their own sets. Each item in the “Soft+Flirty” set had been invisibly tagged so that Polyvore could track how often it was “touched” by online hands—marketing data that were included in the cost of the ad. A Polyvore staffer later priced a similar campaign at forty dollars per thousand “impressions,” or page views.
Polyvore’s most valuable asset is the intelligence that it gathers about its users’ preferences. Every day, in a section called Zeitgeist, the site presents top-twenty lists of users’ favorite brands, trends, and celebrities. Sometimes these rankings are easily explicable—after the February 11th suicide of Alexander McQueen, his brand hovered around No. 1 for weeks, as distraught creators rushed to make tribute sets—but they are sometimes just a reflection of fashion’s eternal riddle: Why boyfriend shorts? Why now? Part of the company’s business plan involves selling the statistics it’s tabulating (which Lee called “a gold mine of analytics”), to designers and to store buyers, in order to manage inventory more effectively.
“We have so much data about what is being matched with what,” said Lee, a dedicated setmaker who, like other regulars, calls herself a Polywhore. “If I click on Calvin Klein, do I also click on Helmut Lang? Are gladiator sandals going in or out? Are skinny jeans about to die?”
Polyvore’s co-founders, Pasha Sadri, Guangwei Yuan, and Jianing Hu, are software engineers for whom the width of a jean leg is not an emotional issue. They started the company in 2007, after working together at Yahoo, where Sadri had invented a technology called Pipes, which allows Internet users to “mash up” different forms of data, like so many root vegetables, in one place, and not unlike the Clipper technology. Sadri, who is thirty-five and projects an air of serenity that belies all the frenetic data-crunching around him, was born in Iran. “I grew up playing Legos,” he said. “I think that was an important factor in shaping the person that I am.” When you put on clothes, he said, “you are making that sort of assembly from pieces that you have—this is the Lego analogy—and it’s highly integrated with your identity.” (When we met, he was dressed in baggy pants, a white shirt, and a blue V-necked sweater.) Asked what inspired him to invent the site, he replied, “I felt that it would be great to work on something that has a visual component. If you look at all the different types of visual media, images are the ones your brain processes the fastest.”
Last month, Sadri announced that the former president of Google’s Asia-Pacific and Latin-American operations, Sukhinder Singh Cassidy—known on Polyvore as Sukkie2008, the creator of a “work looks” set involving a Lanvin dress and an amethyst statement necklace—would replace him as C.E.O. It was the beginning of a hiring binge intended to double the size of the company, which is backed by Matrix Partners, Harrison Metal, and Benchmark Capital and currently employs fourteen people in Mountain View, California, with one advertising saleswoman, Katherine McClymonds, working from her Upper East Side apartment in New York. Singh Cassidy, an assertive, high-cheekboned woman who sat on the board of J. Crew and once appeared on the cover of Fortune, seems determined to raise Polyvore’s profile. “I love style,” she said briskly over the phone in her car on her first day of work, just back from a trip to Paris to celebrate her fortieth birthday. “I love décor, I love design, I love fashion—and, most importantly, I love the idea of finding women beautiful things.”
Singh Cassidy insisted, however, that she had no plans to be “a voice on high that says, ‘Here’s what we think fashion is.’ ” She sees her task as solving “the problem of curation and discovery”—as if the Internet user, wandering through a vast house of many rooms, merely needed a gentle hand at her elbow, rather than the pointed directives of print magazines. She ventured that Polyvore might start to participate more directly in e-commerce. (“People write to us a lot and are, like, ‘Do you have this in a size 8?’ ” Lee had noted.) Singh Cassidy said, “We’re a platform that helps the user aspire, inspire, and ultimately, I hope, fulfill.”
Several weeks before Singh Cassidy’s appointment was announced, I travelled to Mountain View to visit Polyvore’s headquarters. I met Lee in the company’s small and cheaply furnished offices, on the second floor of a building shared by the dotcoms Bubble Motion, a voice-messaging service, and Plastic Jungle, a firm that sells unused gift cards at a discount. She was looking at her computer, affectionately regarding a set dedicated to her by a user named MonChanel (not to be confused with MyChanel; despite, or perhaps because, Chanel is difficult to buy online, it is the ne plus ultra to many Polywhores). The set was subtitled “You Are Always So Nice.”
Fashion magazines are widely perceived to be snake pits, but the Polyvore community values kindliness, mutual affirmation, and tact. Most of the comments that users make about other people’s sets are full of smiley faces and exclamation points; flamers are quickly ostracized. “It’s a very positive environment to be in,” Lee said. If MonChanel’s namesake once declared, “Elegance is refusal,” the site’s ethos is more like “Elegance is inclusion.” Here the pimply teen-ager floats blissfully free from test-marketed cover lines promising a hotter body in ten days. “I really wish I’d had Polyvore when I was little, because when I was reading the magazines I would look at the models and be, like, ‘Oh, these people are so thin’—sometimes I’d just feel so horrible,” Lee said. “To have some place where you can express yourself and get compliments and feedback—I think that’s really important.”
Among MonChanel’s most recent sets was one filled with products from Nike, another company that has sponsored a contest, or “community challenge,” on Polyvore. Back in the “Funny Face” era, Mademoiselle brought Sylvia Plath to New York and put her up at the Barbizon when she won the magazine’s College Board contest. Polyvore prizes are more modest: a gift card or an autographed CD. “They do it for the love,” Lee said of the contestants. “Imagine you’re in Idaho. To have Julie from Barneys look at your stuff, or Ann Shoket from Seventeen, or Daria Werbowy from Lancôme—it’s a big deal!” Other recent judges include the pop stars Katy Perry and Lady Gaga; the designers Vivienne Tam and Tory Burch; and, less obviously, Procter & Gamble, which sponsored a contest to raise awareness of a new line of Secret deodorants, Scent Expressions. “We were all a little nervous about it—this was an experiment for us,” Lee said of the deodorant challenge. “We’d never do, like, tampons.” But Polyvore’s users were unfazed; one, from Turkey, who called herself lizardqueen, gamely mixed and matched a stick of peach-scented Secret with a peach-colored dress from Marchesa by Georgina Chapman, listed at $3,750.
Lee and her colleagues like to keep tabs on exactly how people are using Polyvore. They know that the average user spends ten or eleven minutes per session and clicks on twelve Polyvore pages per visit; they know that users “import” 1.2 million products per month. But they are boundlessly curious about the Polyvore setmaker’s process. And so Lee invited Gail Helmer, the user from Calgary who goes by the handle MyChanel, to come to Mountain View and let the engineers observe her at work on a set. Lee called it “usability testing,” as if Helmer—chosen because of the quality, consistency, and popularity of her sets—were a lab rat. “She’s very fashion-savvy,” Lee told me. “She’s one of the top members.”
Helmer arrived at the offices straight from the airport, wearing jeans from Zara tucked into black boots, a gray sweater she’d bought for ten dollars, and a white ruffled shirt. “Banana,” she said, pinching a ruffle. “The Republic of.” Tall and blond, with an impeccable maroon manicure, she was greeted like a visiting dignitary.
“You’re, like, the Anna Wintour of Polyvore!” Lee said.
Overwhelmed by the compliment, Helmer stammered, “That’s, um—thank you very much.”
The next morning, Helmer was directed to a small conference room where Polyvore’s home page was projected onto a wall. She sat down at a computer and signed in to the site, while Lee and Liz Xu Wilson, a software engineer, hovered nearby.
“Don’t worry,” Lee said. “We’re just here to make the product better. The more that you tell us about what you like and don’t like, the better.”
Helmer began by checking messages from some of her 9,356 international contacts, akin to Facebook friends, on Polyvore. “This is work, by the way,” she said. “Seriously, I didn’t sign up for a job of answering these.”
Next, she examined the fifty-six comments on her previous set, which had featured a rose-patterned Fendi canvas bag ($655). “I love that bag—it’s the new ‘it’ bag,” she said wistfully. “I think I want that bag.”
“Awesome :d,” a user named CzeskaVanilla had written.
“Toooooooooooo cute!” agreed another, signed sourcat.
“MWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH! BACIO GRANDE!!!!” Lilli, from Italy, wrote.
Helmer enjoys the camaraderie of Polyvore, and she loves having an anonymous “pretend identity.” She said, “The amazing thing is you can tell the quality of who a person is by their sets. You can tell a good soul when you meet them.”
“Do you look at nasty comments?” asked Wilson, who was holding a pen poised above a notepad.
“Some are, like, ‘Oh, that’s really great, but the shoes are really ugly,’ ” Helmer said. “And I’m, like, ‘I didn’t know I made this for you!’ ”
She began to make a set. First she went to net-a-porter, a retailer popular with Polywhores because its wares are pictured on a white background and are easy to cut and paste. (At barneys.com, one must navigate the Clipper around a cone-headed mannequin.) There she found a pink D. & G. blouse with a trompe-l’oeil pearl-necklace pattern and a Miu Miu sandal-bootie hybrid with five-inch heels and a zipper up the back; it looked like something one might find in a torture chamber. “Great boots,” she said, and clicked over to a catalogue of products freshly uploaded by Polyvore from Colette.
“So you like being the first to use an item?” Lee asked, scribbling.
“Oh, I totally like being the first,” Helmer said. “Even if it’s a year old and no one’s used it—score! It’s fun.”
Helmer’s sets are more sophisticated than the usual scrapbook-style assemblages. Some Polywhores use advanced techniques, such as the “mosaic,” in which the objects are arranged like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, with no items overlapping (“That’s a tough one”); or “text and pics,” with Lilliputian products arranged before a wall of text (“Some girls from Italy started that”). Helmer’s current favorite is “magazine layout.” “They always have an article and then an outfit, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” she said. The articles in Polyvore sets are not written by users, however, but blithely Clippered from the Internet, without regard for their content, to be used as design elements. Once, Helmer realized that she was about to clip an article about a murder trial. “I looked at the text and I was, like, ‘Oh, I can’t use that . . . not at all fashion-related,’ ” Helmer said. “But no one really reads it.”
After a few moments, she happened, with a gasp, upon a Valentino black leather-and-lace skirt, selling for $6,745. “O.K., stop the presses—oh, man, that’s gorgeous,” she said. “I’m starting to see something come together.” She dragged over an Oscar de la Renta patent-leather belt that had been gathering dust in her virtual closet. “But it could be a Topshop belt,” she said. “I don’t think particularly about the label. It’s the ‘wow’ that’s the first priority to me.”
She squinted up at the screen. “Now, this is looking really girly-girl, so I have to give it some edge.” She added a fuzzy wool jacket by Martin Margiela that conjured Oscar the Grouch in the throes of a goth episode. “I need a handbag.” In came the inevitable Chanel clutch (“I always put in something Chanel”). “And I’m going to need some makeup. I’m into Nars right now.”
“We’re running a campaign with them,” Lee said, with a pleased giggle.
Helmer added a Nars blush in the hue Deep Throat. “I’m not going to say what it’s called, because I think that’s embarrassing,” she said. “Now, who’s wearing this outfit?” She clicked on models.com and imported a photo of Claudia Schiffer. Then, without apparent irony, she added the phrase “Under the Influence,” snipped from the cover of an independent fashion magazine.
Lee made a note and asked, “How should we fix our text tool?”
Helmer didn’t have an answer. “Some girls want everything given to them, and I tell them, ‘Be creative,’ ” she said disdainfully. “This isn’t Paint by Numbers.”
Lee smiled, and told her, “You’re, like, the Polymom!”
With a decisive click, Helmer published her set. Within twelve minutes, it had accumulated sixty “likes” (users who show approval by clicking on a heart) and fifteen comments (“Love it!!”; “Fierce!”). A few weeks later, I asked Lee if Polyvore had been able to track whether “Under the Influence” had resulted in any actual sales. She said that the site did not have data on such a “granular” level but that, since MyChanel had published her set, the Valentino skirt had been used in 1,156 outfits and viewed more than thirty-three thousand times on Polyvore.
After the observation session, Helmer put on a pink trenchcoat and went for a walk. Milee Yu, the marketing manager, arrived for a scheduled sales call over speakerphone with McClymonds, Polyvore’s ad woman in New York, and Morpheus Media, a marketing agency that represents L.V.M.H., the luxury conglomerate. The goal was to persuade L.V.M.H. to buy ads on Polyvore and to sponsor contests involving the company’s brands. Fortuitously, Morpheus’s media-strategy director, Jessica Coghan, turned out to be a Polyvore user. “It’s like crack,” she said.
McClymonds began a practiced pitch: Thirty-five and a half per cent of Polyvore users are aged eighteen to thirty-four, and another quarter are thirty-five to fifty-four, with an average household income of eighty thousand dollars. Seventy-two per cent say they’ve bought something they saw on Polyvore, and almost seventy per cent have posted a product on another social-networking site. “It’s an insane level of peer-to-peer advocacy that you really can’t get anywhere else,” she said.
“Got it,” Coghan said.
“So the question for you is, how to get L.V.M.H. products into a set,” McClymonds said.
Coghan brought up one label that, she said, had “very serious brand-guardianship parameters”; the label’s executives were worried about the possibility of their merchandise being combined with less desirable labels in Polyvore sets. “It’s a Catch-22,” Coghan said. “You guys are becoming more popular, which is great, but while Coach is a wonderful brand, Dior doesn’t think Coach is a wonderful brand.”
McClymonds brought up the idea of a Polyvore “luxury month,” during which Morpheus Media clients would monopolize all of the site’s contests.
Coghan was interested. She said, “We could do a watch brand, a liquor brand—”
“We don’t do liquor,” McClymonds interrupted.
“Really?” Coghan said. (Polyvore users regularly paste “lifestyle items,” like Starbucks lattes, iPhones, and cars, into their sets.) McClymonds changed the subject, and Coghan asked whether Polyvore had any way of policing the site. “Now, if somebody does something really horrible and totally inappropriate with our products, can you filter it out?” she asked. “Say it’s just hideous and junky-looking?”
McClymonds was sympathetic. “Everybody’s so used to fashion magazines, because with them you get to choose your adjacencies, and everything’s so controlled,” she said. But she held to the democratic Polyvore line, pointing out that real people wear a lot of different brands at once.
Coghan had concerns about another client, Neiman Marcus, which the anti-fur movement has dubbed Neiman Carcass. What if Polyvore users made sets that attacked the store for selling fur? Yu reassured her that, since sets are organized on the site according to popularity, the user group quickly flushes out anything unappealing or controversial. Mollified, Coghan ended the call on a positive note: she suggested a philanthropic-themed Polyvore community challenge to promote the Armani scent Acqua di Giò.
Until now, Polyvore hasn’t done much to promote its own brand, but Singh Cassidy, the new C.E.O., seems eager to be the site’s public face—at fashion shows, for example. “I hope to be invited to them,” she said. “And, if I am, I would certainly come.” At last month’s New York Fashion Week, however, Polyvore’s only official appearance was at the Chictopia10 Social Influence Summit, a convocation of bloggers and marketers held in a gallery on the Lower East Side.
The day before the conference, Lee and Yu, having flown to New York on a JetBlue red-eye, met McClymonds in Chelsea for an offline shopping expedition. Each had on a version of the current urban woman’s casual uniform: jeans tucked into boots; loose, long tops; chunky pendants; and large designer handbags. McClymonds, who is blond, twenty-nine, and a former Texan, was in the midst of planning her wedding. She had ordered a sequin-trimmed Oscar de la Renta dress from theoutnet.com, net-a-porter’s discount sister site, having found it through Polyvore the previous week. “I don’t know if it’s going to work out,” she said.
Mountain View is not known for its designer boutiques, and Lee and Yu oohed and ahed like teen-agers as they ambled through the Commes des Garçons and Balenciaga stores, ending up at Jeffrey, the avant-garde department store on Fourteenth Street. McClymonds went right to an asymmetrical ivory dress by Roland Mouret—half naughty nurse, half ethereal goddess—that plunged her into doubt about the mail-order de la Renta.
“Try it on! Try it on!” Lee and Yu cried, fingering the crêpe fabric.
The dress was a little tight in the hips, and McClymonds paced back and forth in the capacious carpeted dressing room and sat on a bench to test the seams.
“Oh, it’s so pretty!” Yu said.
A kindly, broad-bosomed saleswoman of the old school, after dispatching a minion to bring over a selection of high-heeled pumps in white and nude, offered to order the next size up, from Jeffrey’s mother ship, in Atlanta.
“It looks so good on you,” Yu said. “And you can wear it again with, like, a little tiny belt.”
“I don’t want a wedding dress—I just want a very special dress,” McClymonds said, unzipping and shimmying into a Versace silk cocktail frock with teardrop cutouts at the neckline.
“Ooh, this is really modern,” she said. Yu and Lee tilted their heads critically.
The three left the store empty-handed. The following week, McClymonds bought the Roland Mouret dress—not from Jeffrey, or from a Web site, but from the grand old bricks-and-mortar department store Bergdorf Goodman, on Fifty-seventh Street.
“Closer to home,” she said. ♦
Great article about the online fashion space and Polyvore. Highly recommended.