By  on March 8, 2011

NEW YORK — Last week, on a cold yet brilliantly sunny morning in the spare, white company offices in SoHo, Derek Lam chief executive officer Jan-Hendrik Schlottmann was explaining the details of a giant experiment the designer is undertaking by crowdsourcing his collection for eBay.

“Will she buy what she voted for?” he asked, referring to the public, and gesturing energetically as he sat at a big white conference table. “No one knows.”

After Lam presented the collection at New York Fashion Week in February, the 16 dresses were displayed on eBay, where anyone could vote on which ones they liked best. The five winners were revealed last week. The public selected a black evening gown, a shift with a peplum back detail, a denim sundress and two dresses in floral chiffon. “I want this to be fun and interactive and do something out of the box,” said Lam at fashion week.

Always an early adopter of new technology, the voting was Lam’s idea, although eBay approached him first about creating an exclusive collection for the site. The timing was fortuitous, said Schlottmann, since the designer is launching a diffusion line in the second half of the year. Sample making is under way for that line, and the beauty of the eBay project is that it has already given the company more than 20,000 e-mail addresses of people who follow Lam’s work but may not be able to afford the collection.

As of Feb. 28, when the voting closed, the collection had received more than 100,000 votes.

Lam was surprised and pleased his three favorite dresses were chosen: the Black Tie Dress, the denim Sun Dress and the long floral Boho Dress. Schlottmann was excited about the number of people who voted and gave their e-mails.

“If we do it again, we will know what is the conversion of people going online who are voting versus buying, and how does price influence the purchase choice,” he said.

He laughed at the idea that anyone in the office might take bets on which dresses would win. He has his own theory, though, which is that the dress that received the most votes — the Black Tie Dress — will not necessarily sell the most units.

“The only thing we influenced a little bit was the order in which we [arranged] the dresses [online],” said Schlottmann. “But it didn’t work. The last one came in first,” he said, referring to the black gown.

“My personal opinion is that the Black Tie Dress did well because women love to dress up, but it won’t sell so much,” he said. “They will go for the shift or the floral print” because those dresses can be worn on a wider variety of occasions, he said. “This is my personal opinion,” he continued. “I might be totally wrong. That’s the fun part of this project. We’re testing a new model of selling — who knows what we will learn. Maybe everyone will vote and nobody will buy it. But I hope that will not happen because at the last minute everyone gave a lot of e-mail addresses,” he said, indicating they wished to be notified when the dresses are available to order.

The company has already started production based on the votes. The plan is to take preorders starting April 11, to start delivering to the warehouse in early May, and to start selling on May 10. If the preorders reach 50 percent of capacity, eBay will stop taking them, so customers can still order on May 11 and not be disappointed.

Because there is no time to develop a relationship with a factory in China or to ship the clothes by sea, the clothes are being produced in New York in the same factory that makes some of the Derek Lam and Michael Kors collections (no coincidence; Lam worked for Kors for 15 years).

To have fabrics available in time for the line, the company invested in greige goods that can be dyed as needed. Nonetheless, because the winning dresses didn’t use every type of fabric they bought, “now we have a lot of fabric we can’t use,” admitted Schlottmann. “We took a little bit of a position according to what we thought would happen,” he said.

The idea of the eBay line is iconic summer dresses every woman should have in her wardrobe. The Black Tie Dress and the peplum are Lam signatures that have appeared in his other collections. Prices range from $175 to $295, versus about $800 to $2,000 for the main collection, 80 percent of which is made in Italy.

The company has been approached numerous times about doing a fast-fashion collaboration, but was never interested because it wanted to handle the pattern making and fit, said Schlottmann.

Nor is eBay Lam’s only high-tech tie-up — he also is working with startup Moda Operandi, which will let customers order anything directly from the runway and receive it four months later.

“The thing that appeals to us is that it is a different way of selling product,” said Schlottmann of the eBay collaboration. “It doesn’t go into the magazines, the store, or even our Web site without any feedback from the customer herself first. What does she like? It’s an experiment. Lots of things might work and lots of things might not work, because no one has done this before.”

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