I have never understood the appeal of used apparel, with the exception of my grandfather's sailor hat and sailor shirt, which I wore every chance I could as a child. Those pieces had been to France and stood on the rail of a battleship and witnessed war, plus I knew who wore them. But a stranger's cast-offs, who would be interested? Susan Koger, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate, is more than interested. She is obsessed with cool, old clothes.
"I have always loved shopping and vintage clothing. My grandmother and my mom got me into it when I was younger," says the 24-year-old Friendship resident. With her husband, Eric, Mrs. Koger has turned her passion into her profession. The couple own ModCloth.com, an online company based in the Strip that sells vintage-inspired clothing, accessories and housewares.
Faced with time to kill once they got acceptance letters to CMU, the couple, who were living in Florida, shopped. "We didn't have too much going on and we were like thrift store shopping all the time," she recalls. Mr. Koger, who was then her boyfriend, noticed she was buying way more than she needed and a lot that didn't even fit. "I would be like, well maybe I'll give it to a girlfriend or I'll take the buttons off of it and use it for something else," she confesses. Mr. Koger told her he could help, and he wasn't thinking of a 12-step program.
"He's always been an entrepreneur and was running a Web consulting business when we met in high school," Mrs. Koger says. He suggested a Web site to sell the excess. It was a way to satisfy his girlfriend's shopping habits and create income. That was the summer of 2002, and ModCloth.com was born.
Once at CMU, Mrs. Koger majored in business and German studies, but her interest in vintage fashion remained. It didn't occur to her to couple her business degree with her passion until one of her professors suggested she and Mr. Koger sit down look at what they had.
"We had a lot of traffic, but we were only selling vintage. Once it's gone, it's gone."
After polling their customers and asking if vintage-inspired clothing would work as well, 95 percent responded yes. Things took off from there and ModCloth.com was officially moved to Pittsburgh.
"Our 2008 revenues were 6,000 percent higher then 2007. 2009 has been great so far," Mrs. Koger notes.
What has made them so successful is understanding their customer base, which is women between the ages of 18 and 24. "Fashion is part of how she presents herself to the world and we have a great price point," explains Mrs. Koger. "Anyone can look unique if you have enough money. At ModCloth we use the vintage aesthetic and indie designers to create new fashion, and I think our lower price point has really helped us in this economy."
The Kogers have found that their customers are cutting other things out of the discretionary budget before they cut out clothes and accessories. "We are also at this great point in the company where we are growing so quickly and haven't even hit market saturation. We aren't even close. New customers are finding us all the time," says Mrs. Koger.
The couple spends much of their time now the way they did that summer before college -- shopping.
"We go to trade shows all over the world and we walk the entire floor, looking for the little cool designers. Shopping comes naturally to me. It doesn't feel like work. Literally after shopping all day at the trade show if we are in a place like New York, Las Vegas or LA, we will go shopping at the end of the day," she laughs.
But they don't operate the business alone anymore. The Kogers have a buying team and employ about 30 people. ModCloth has developed into a lifestyle site with accessories for the home, which means they also shop the gift shows looking for the unusual and the unique.
ModCloth's little mushroom motif was a result of collecting vintage housewares from the 1960s and '70s. "One day we came across a canister with mushrooms and we were like, wow this is so weird, I can't believe people put this sort of stuff in their house." Now their kitchen is decorated with it. And they are hoping yours will be, too.