E-Commerce Startup Material Wrld Opens up Fashionistas’ Closets

4/23/12Follow @xconomy

For Jie Zheng and Rie Yano, the options for selling used clothing were just not cutting it. Consignment stores were picky, thrift shops paid virtually nothing for their wares, and eBay was complicated. Both were working as marketers for big fashion brands, buying a lot of clothes for office days and work events, and trying to cram them into small New York apartments and tight budgets.

While on a trip to Montauk last year, the two (who met in Harvard Business School) started brainstorming. Zheng had the idea for a peer-to-peer marketplace for offloading used clothing, while Yano was interested in creating a platform to share outfits and express personal fashion tastes.

“The ideas were perfect compliments,” says Zheng, so the two started working a business model and website for their startup Material Wrld last fall.

Both of the ideas are being pursued by a slew of other fashion tech startups right now. Applications like Fashism, Pose, Go Try It on, and even Instagram allow users to post outfit photos and get feedback. Meanwhile, a social secondhand online clothing marketplace called ThreadFlip launched its alpha version last week, and one of the hot startups in this year’s Y Combinator class was 99Dresses, a platform where users can buy and sell used clothing using a virtual currency.

“We really support responsible consumption,” says Zheng. “We’re really excited we and others can get these fashion recycling parties started.”

But what’s so different about her startup?

Material Wrld, which has some angel funding and is working on raising a full seed round, is focused on layering social and editorial content over its shopping marketplace. Ultimately, shoppers won’t just look for items, but will be able to virtually shop through the closets of tastemakers like fashion bloggers. As part of that, Material Wrld is very carefully targeting who it wants to sell on its platform initially, in order to start with “quality sellers and quality merchandise,” Zheng says.

For now, Zheng sees Material Wrld as a faster, more efficient shopping destination for those who don’t have time to hunt brick-and-mortar secondhand stores.

“You can get a glimpse into the closets of really cool people who have great taste,” Zheng says. “I love vintage, but you really have to search hard before finding that one treasure, that one consignment piece.”

Those looking to lighten up their closet, meanwhile, will be able to sell in a marketplace that’s designed to be more lucrative than the thrift and consignment stores, simpler to use and prettier than eBay, and more fun than both methods, Zheng says.

The startup is testing out the concept with small popup shops online, Zheng says. “Even though the grand vision has been this peer-to-peer marketplace, we always knew that it was hard to launch a marketplace overnight,” says Zheng. The first edition, held earlier this month, featured 10 sellers—including fashion bloggers, designers, even a prominent DJ—and also offered “fun interview content along the lines of a fashion blog,” she says. “We want to get it right with a small group before taking it to the next level.”

Material Wrld’s next online pop-up shop will be in early May. The startup will launch its iPhone app later this spring, featuring 100 handpicked sellers. The company will be testing out different models for selling, by offering a full service where it holds and lists inventory and ships it out once purchased, or where sellers ship items themselves with a Netflix-esque prepaid package, Zheng says.

Material Wrld joins a slew of other HBS entrepreneurs starting companies at the intersection of fashion and tech. Zheng says this energy from hers and Yano’s alma mater helped her jump into the startup world. Zheng left her job leading international marketing at J.Crew in mid-February and previously worked for Polo Ralph Lauren, while Yano is still wrapping up her job in digital marketing at Coach.

“I definitely think the fellow entrepreneurs in our class—Birchbox and BaubleBar—played a big role in my interest in entrepreneurship, and my comfort in being able to leave a very sexy, glamorous, solid corporate job,” Zheng says.

That experience working for fashion brands could ultimately be a big boost for Material Wrld. “We believe there’s a huge opportunity to partner with fashion brands on creative marketing opportunities once we’ve built our Material Wrld community,” says Zheng. “Rie and I have good connections to many brands.”

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  • http://twitter.com/jamescropcho James Cropcho

    This startup is not the same as Fashism, Pose, and Go Try It on, and it doesn’t have to be, either. It’s a peer-to-peer clothing marketplace, not a platform for people to get and give fashion advice to each other. It may have Pose-esque features baked in, but it largely seems to be doing its own thing.

    Not sure why the founders/reporter want to position this like an also-ran when they can accurately convey it as something new and more unique than that.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/ekutz/ Erin Kutz

    Thanks for reading James! I fully agree with you that Material Wrld is not the same as these other apps, and the founders didn’t position it as so. I mentioned them to point out that social shopping apps and features are plentiful. I think the rest of the story goes on to show how Material Wrld differentiates by mixing an actual commerce site with some of these social outfit sharing elements. In any event, fashion tech startups are cropping up everywhere, so I wanted to show some of the broader playing field.

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  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri, CEO Daily Grommet

    Thanks for the story Erin. I was judging the HBS Alumni New Ventures competition yesterday. The alums and students of that school are going at fashion/tech startups with a vengeance. The vintage and stilettos look was decidedly declasse when I was an HBS student…this is refreshing to see. Also, just want to tip in a more advanced offering in the competitive set for MaterialWrld: Style.ly out of San Francisco is a close comp. It’s an Accel/Harrison Metal investment headed by an ex eBay-er. Polyvore and Etsy (with its own emphasis on vintage) are portfolio companies to Style.ly.

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