Fashion: Virtual Vintage Style

Vintage couture has never been hotter. Actresses like Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger and Julia Roberts regularly sport vintage evening dresses on the red carpet, and modern designers are reaching back in time for inspiration. For the rest of the us, secondhand shops all over the world have been enjoying a renaissance as fashionistas pour through racks of high-end castoffs in search of the perfect Ossie Clark blouse or Pucci jumper. More and more Web sites are hawking vintage over the Internet, too. Megasites like eBay, which has long done a brisk business in apparel, have launched special sections for vintage couture. Companies like Yoox (yoox.com) have special sections devoted to themed vintage sales. At Enokiworld (enokiworld.com), browsers can find everything from 1970s tapestry coats to retro Mexican jewelry to black lace corsets from the '50s. Auction houses are even allowing buyers to bid for top pieces online. (For example, Doyle, the famed New York auction house, posts its Internet catalog at doylenewyork.com a few weeks before most of its sales.) And around the world, followers of fashion are launching their own boutique sites where women can buy and sell pieces directly with each other. One such boutique is Piece Unique (pieceunique.com), whose current listings feature some well-priced classics by Pucci, Chanel and Courreges.

Lily Shen, a senior manager for apparel at eBay, says that vintage sales have grown 53 percent year on year, making vintage one of the fastest growing portions of eBay's clothing business. Holly Brubach, a former style editor for The New York Times who now curates vintage couture for Yoox's site, says, "Vintage is a niche market, and the Net is a fantastic medium for niche markets, especially when the customer may be anywhere around the world." Jupiter Research analyst Jared Black predicts that the vintage-clothing category will continue to grow quickly online, "particularly as trust in the various sites is built up."

Trust is key, because if buying regular clothes via catalog or Internet can be a risky business, buying vintage couture is doubly so. For starters, low-resolution photos often make it tough to see exactly what you're getting. Items that look OK online may be badly worn, or have stains. Estimating your size can also be tough, --as vintage pieces tend to have different proportions than modern clothing--shoulders may be narrower, waists more nipped. Experts advise buying a size larger if in doubt--you can always take something in. Or, look for designers like Pucci that specialize in stretch. Shipping and return policies may vary, as many sites allow sellers to set their own terms. And remember that merchants can bill items however they like--stories of fake Chanel jackets being sold as the real thing are not unheard of.

Still, for many women (and a few men), the quest for originality outweighs the downsides. "Fashion today is so ubiquitous," says Brubach. "We are saturated with images, and even the most distinctive pieces can seem familiar. For people who don't want to look like anyone else, vintage is often the way to go."