Clothes Make the Mail

Skim.com Wants a Net ID on Your Shirt

Identification numbers aren't just for prison fashions anymore. The folks at skim.com are betting that their coded couture will become the next must-have item for New York's savviest club kids and, soon enough, an instantly recognizable point of entry to Skim's virtual community.

According to the site's intro, "skim.com starts with a simple idea: your t-shirt is your e-mail address." Every piece of their pricey, heavy-on-the-microfibers merchandise is emblazoned with a unique six-digit number that doubles as an Internet ID (for example, 123456@skim.com). When you buy the clothes you get a password to your new mailbox. Your choice of communications portal isn't limited to a snug-fitting wife-beater, either. Skim's diverse offerings include a reversible skirt ("for intuitive dressers"), a minimalist white wristband "designed" by Charles Jourdan (hospital gown not included), and, for the budding superhero, their deeply odd "cape." Visitors to Skim's webshop mulling this last option are reminded, in a Skimmy burst of cheerful non sequitur, that "should you ever need to move (to shake a hand or hug Harrison Ford), just open the hidden zippers."

Something (or someone—Princess Leia? Tommy Lee Jones?) goes missing in the translation there, but the fledgling Swiss-based company amounts to a virtual lingua franca itself, with one foot planted in cyberspace and the other on the street. Sporting a Skim wristband at Centro-Fly won't just buy you general inquiries about your health and horny e-mails from anonymous admirers. It also flags your membership in a pseudosecret society: Skim's site comprises virtual shopping, chat rooms, Web art, and an ongoing sitcom called A Skim Deep World, a hard-to-follow, fashion-focused romp with moody DJs and role-playing enthusiasts prone to violent scrapes both online and off: "Then Kajsa had crafted the 'preppy slut' outfit—a kelly-green bolero top with a pink miniskirt. Heiko asked her to add a black thong that was only visible when a player in the outfit stepped over a dead opponent. The panty's front read: 'DIE, LOSER!' "

Not nearly as forthright as Kajsa's skivvies is the larger meaning behind Skim apparel. Spokesman Steffen Gaschik says people shouldn't be taken aback by his company's concept because "we give numbers to a product, not people. To wear skim.com fashion is more a statement of community than a label."

The clothing line hits New York stores this month, including a host of superhip downtown microshops. Some question whether fashion mavens will clamor for their very own bar codes. Skim lists TG 170, on Ludlow Street, as an outlet, but the merch won't be arriving anytime soon. "We're just not into that sort of thing," a saleswoman there says, wrinkling her nose.

So are Skim's cryptic labels just another index of status in a loosely defined club, like the Louis Vuitton hieroglyph or Versace's Medusa head? Or are they akin to the mysterious symbol on a restroom door in The Crying of Lot 49that launches the discovery of the worldwide conspiracy of Fox Mulder's wet dreams? Will a Skimmed city look like SimCity?

"Whatever brand you wear, that communicates something about you," explains Johne Eisenhut, one of Skim's founders. "Here's a brand that communicates back. You're advertising the site and the fashion, but you're also advertising a platform that you're part of. So you're essentially advertising yourself."

As part of Skim's experiment in maximum synergy, their eponymous art magazine tags every article and image with its own Skim number, so readers can communicate with the artist. And their pilot shop in Switzerland is rigged with digicams that send live feed to the site, so you can go online and ask a salesperson in the Swiss Alps to hold up a crew pullover.

"We put the store in the mountains to prove a point—you can do this anywhere," Eisenhut says, though Skim will soon move the shop to Zurich. "The current store was not a very good financial decision, but it was fun." Staying solvent isn't keeping the Skim brain trust up at night. They've secured venture-capitalist backing, and what started a year ago as 11 people working in their spare time has grown into a permanent staff of 25, with another 25 freelancers. Gaschik reports Skim raked in half a million Swiss francs in its first few months, almost all from its unfinished site.

"We want to integrate the virtual and physical world, but we also want to integrate culture and commerce," says Eisenhut. "The whole dilemma of 'This is commercial and this is noncommercial, this is art and this is pop'—screw all that. It's all mixed up." Time will tell if this kind of hybrid vigor can withstand Gotham's fashion police. They might want to continue blurring those lines by Skim's calculations, or they might just do some indifferent number-crunching.

 
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