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Virtual Closets Help Take Guesswork out of Shopping

Finally, there’s hope for those who return from shopping for black sandals only to find six pairs hiding behind the shoe rack.

A number of fashionable new websites are providing consumers with “virtual closets” that let them track, mix, and match their clothes. By helping people get organized, the sites also can help shoppers visualize whether new purchases will fit with their existing wardrobes.

Daniel Nakhla, Founder of Closetbank, wanted to help his older sister find a simple way to keep track of her clothes and shoes. So, he came up with a virtual closet and closet inventory system that allows members to upload images of their own clothing and virtually put pieces together to create outfits.

Nakhla described Closetbank’s diverse user base as “girls in their early teens, to professional women in their 30s and 40s, to designers who like to inventory their work.”

Another virtual closet site called Closet Couture is a fashion social network and virtual closet combined, enabling members to have access to each other’s closets and create outfits for friends and other women who need an extra eye.

Chris Elia, Founder and CEO of Closet Couture, says that the site allows members to “mix and match what they have already and try on pieces from stores virtually, before they buy to see how it looks together. And people can go into other member's closets and make outfits for them.”

The website can help consumers make smarter choices, Elia believes. “I don't have as many returns or close calls where something sort of looks okay but I am too lazy or tired to return it,” she points out.

Melissa Manuel, Fashion & Retail Management Instructor at The Art Institute of Atlanta, agrees that virtual closets can help shoppers get organized. Having all clothing items catalogued in one place can help people see what they must purchase to create specific ensembles.

“We only wear 20% of the clothing that we own, 80% of the time. Virtual closets can be beneficial in helping people to wear a larger percentage of the clothing they already own, by demonstrating creative ways to mix and match garments,” says Manuel. “This is both economical and a great way to save time.”

Another type of virtual closet site called Polyvore partners with vendors and designers. The website allows members to import images of products from any online store, or images of their own clothing from blogs. It “works partly as a social networking site and partly as an e-commerce site,” says Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, the company’s chief executive officer.

Images of clothing and accessories chosen from Polyvore’s contributing designers, vendors, and stores are provided for members to create sets. The site offers vendors and designers “another way for their brand to be noticed by our community members” says Singh Cassidy. “If and when a member desires a product, we connect them to an e-commerce site for purchase.”

Virtual closets are not an error proof method of closet organization, cautions Vanessa Valiente, a personal stylist and fashion writer.

“It can be difficult when items may look like they could go together well, but it turns out that the pairing is off because the shirt length is an inch too short for this kind of pant, etc. Also, colors may not translate well in photos,” says Valiente. “Try photographing indigo.”

And when assembling the virtual closet, users should review whether all catalogued pieces are actually in their at-home closet, so that outfits are easily accessible. And when assembling the virtual closet, users should review whether all catalogued pieces actually belong in the closet, Manuel advises.

“You should be sure that the clothing you have uploaded to the virtual closet actually fits properly, is complementary to the skin tone, and has easy wear and care,” she says. “If you have a weight gain or loss of ten pounds or more it is a good rule of thumb to have garments altered or purchase garments that accentuate your new size.”

In order to get the most out of a virtual closet, consumers need to utilize all the tools and resources that the site has to offer, Manuel says.

So, when shopping for a virtual closet, users should take the time to determine which features they find most helpful and select a site that is a good match for their technical abilities. Some closet interfaces are more user-friendly than others, Manuel points out, adding that companies create virtual closets for different reasons.

“Some are created specifically for shopping from retail affiliates,” Manuel notes. “Some are for image consulting and personal shopping. Still others are created for the average consumer who wants to discover the alternatives for clothing in their own closets and stay on top of the latest trends.”

Whatever the motive for companies to offer virtual closets, the websites are here to stay, experts say.

“These sites are great for inspiration and a great way to share ideas and creativity with other users,” says Manuel.

Virtual closets are “like fantasy baseball for guys, but this is our fantasy closets mixed in with our real possessions,” Elia adds. “And it's a way for women to have some fun online.”

Manuel suggests that men and children could also find virtual closets to be helpful. “Many of the virtual closet interfaces are not only for women,” says Manuel.

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