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Fashion Shopping Online

Word that Proenza Schouler, arguably the hottest designer pairing since Dolce cruised Gabbana, will be auctioning off their latest runway creations on eBay is strange but happy news to stylish midnight clickers. Now you can buy Proenza even if you live in that vast Barneys-less wasteland that stretches from the Hudson to Fred Segal, which is not to say that out-of-towners have been all that style-deprived: This latest eBay foray is merely another example of high-end markdowns invading the Web, a development that can greatly enhance your wardrobe even as it threatens to sink you with non-returnable clunkers.

Christine Muhlke, executive editor of the Daily, the house organ of this week's Seventh on Sixth fashion shows, has experienced firsthand the agony and the occasional ecstasy of online shopping. Asked about her affection for yoox.com, an intensely glamorous site offering pristine designer clothes that are a year or so old (but so what? How old do you think most sample-sale stuff is?), Muhlke says her biggest triumph was finding the McQueen skirt she wanted desperately last year for one-third the price on Yoox: "It gave me that Christmas morning feeling!" But not everything she buys has such a lofty provenance: She also confesses to an affection for the footwear on the ultra-cheap newport-news.com, where she recently got three pairs of fake Prada sandals.

Like all seasoned clickers, Muhlke has words of warning about that old seducer, eBay: "I've been burned. You get so excited, you want those Helmut Lang pants so much that you overlook the fine print and don't realize they're from 1992." So frequent are these disasters that she admits the "sample-sale section" of her closet—that black hole of hopeless turkeys—has expanded to accommodate "eBay whoopsies."

Ebay whoopsies can't be returned—that's the fun of an auction!—but most other sites will take things back, as long as you're willing to schlep a cardboard box to the post office. For a higher level of customer service, you may be better off at sites run by actual stores. Places like neimanmarcus.com run sales too, and they offer highly solicitous service, plus you usually have the option of returning to the store itself. Still, a friend who bought a Marc Jacobs Stella bag online and was hysterical when the strap broke after one week (thanks, Marc) was at first given a hard time when she returned the purse to her local Neiman's; she was forced to rely on the magic words "Get me the manager."

Of course, marked down or not, there are online pitfalls that go beyond the problems attending traditional catalog shopping. According to the Stella bag-returner (an anonymous PR exec too embarrassed by her online addiction to give her name), a lot of websites, including the popular victoriassecret.com, are not only nearly impossible to navigate, but the colors are frequently a little off: "You're always slightly surprised by what shows up on your doorstep."

For our part, the magic of buying fashion online isn't just the impressive variety of stock (though we're the first to admit that those landsend.com bathing suits have revolutionized the horror of swimwear buying) or convenience (what? We're not too busy to go shopping.). It's the idea that the one that got away can be gotten back again.

Or can it? In Paris recently, we stopped by the Martin Margiela store searching for a cardigan that is a staple of this quirky designer. "Oh that?" said the ultra-mean saleswoman. "The one with the big buttons?" Yes! Yes! "Finished!"

Not so fast, sweetheart. When we get home, we go first to Yoox, where a number of delectable Margielas turn up, including an odd if jaunty twinset in a funny print—but alas, not the saggy card we crave. So we try eBay, which is likewise cardigan-less, though it boasts a ton of other Margielas, including his adorable if zany goat-hoof shoes. (Oh, if one could only see the future, like that famous Twilight Zone episode, and know in advance if those goat shoes will end up in the whoopsie part of the closet.)

Being in the end a tad old-fashioned ourselves, we seek solace at an actual, physical store—Century 21, which is sort of like Yoox (the stuff is old) except you can touch things, and even, if you're willing to put up with the horse-stall dressing rooms, try them on. And there it is: Saggy. Baggy. Big buttons. And, as far as Century 21 is concerned, far from finished.

 
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