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Tycoon of the pre-owned

Julie Wainwright, founder and CEO of the luxury consignment company The RealReal, offers people an entry point for branded goods they love but could not afford, until now

Ms Wainwright inspects an inventory warehouse in San Francisco.

Aisles of computer-organised inventory at the San Francisco warehouse.

Brisbane, California

HERE is where high-end Marie-Kondo'd clothes go now - not to die, but to enter their collective half-life, in a chilly 200,000-square-foot warehouse about 12.8km south of San Francisco.

Here is row upon row of garments made by Hermès and Prada and Versace: a few seen last season sailing down a runway, or yesterday on Net-a-Porter, contained in white shrouds or sealed inside transparent Tupperware, awaiting shipment around the world to a growing cohort of Secondhand Roses and Josés.

Here, experts in lab coats squint at handbags and shoes, looking for errant stitching or the wrong colour of brass hardware: anything that might signal sophisticated fakery. Here is a special atrium just for inspecting jewellery, brightly lit like a surgical theater, where stones and metals are weighed and laser-beamed to determine if their advertised composition is correct. "We zap 'em," Julie Wainwright said.

Ms Wainwright is the founder and CEO of this operation, The RealReal, aka TRR, which since 2011 has striven to make the consignment of luxury goods - once a furtive, grubby practice carried out in obscure second-floor shops - easy-peasy and seamless with free shipping labels, just one stop in "the circular economy".

Other oft-used terms at TRR are "scale", as in up, up, up (it has leased almost half a million more square feet in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, adding to an existing smaller space in Secaucus); "authenticate" (the laborious process by which the company validates previously owned goods) and "velocity" (how fast inventory moves).

Currently, the velocity of used Gucci approximates that of a Nasa solar probe, thanks to the expensively Etsy-esque styling of that brand's creative director, Alessandro Michele; even garments from before his tenure are selling well.

"Isn't that wild?" said Ms Wainwright, who is 61 but has the pep and studiousness of a schoolgirl. "Everything ebbs and flows, but they've had more than a moment. People are compulsed by that brand. I keep thinking, when will it end?"

As legacy department stores continue to ebb at an alarming pace, and Amazon flows into Long Island City but not our hearts, TRR, which also sells furniture and art, is proposing a new model for how people of both means and conscience might shop in real life. With cafes and "community workshops" akin to those held by Apple, its sleek, spacious brick-and-mortar locations on Wooster Street in New York and on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles have been surprisingly successful.

"Remember there was that whole thing, 'Millennials don't love luxury'? They looove luxury!" Ms Wainwright said. "They just couldn't afford it. We're a good entry point for them."

Another multilevel store is being plotted for Midtown Manhattan, with services including refurbishment, tailoring ("like an atelier," said TRR's chief merchant, Rati Sahi Levesque), personal shopping and a ticker-tape display of which designers are trending up or down.

Right now Giorgio Armani and Tory Burch would not welcome this information, but their status could change overnight. "We never picked up Coach until they reinvented themselves," Ms Wainwright said of the roster Ms Levesque oversees, which they initially derived from Saks, Neiman Marcus and Barneys. "It's not a static list."

This is hardly consolation to Chanel, which in November sued TRR in federal court, charging that the consignment company has sold fakes and misleads consumers into believing it has an affiliation with the French fashion house. Only Chanel personnel can tell what is truly Chanel, says the brand.

"They are trying to stop the circular economy," responded TRR in a statement, adding a motion to dismiss the suit, still pending.

"Chanel is holding on to old ways," Ms Wainwright said. She has collaborated extensively with Stella McCartney, a label known for its ecological consciousness, and has cordial relationships with Kering, which owns Gucci, Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen, as well as the Parisian behemoth LVMH (Celine, Dior, Marc Jacobs etc).

She said. "I don't think they understand: The secondary market supports the retail market. When people sell things on our site, they go buy new. You wouldn't buy a car if you couldn't resell it!"

From flops to fops

Ms Wainwright is herself a model of personal refurbishment. For a long time, she was best known in Silicon Valley as the CEO of, with its jabbering sock-puppet mascot the most mocked of e-commerce 1.0 failures. "It was as dark as it can get," Ms Wainwright said of that period, which included her then-husband asking her for a divorce.

Realising the Internet wasn't going away, she began a short-lived online magazine for women over 35 called SmartNow and mulled ventures related to cosmetics or healthcare. "It's like, 'Do I want to be in the natural-food business?'" she remembered thinking. "No."

Then one day, Ann Winblad of the venture capital firm Hummer Winblad, a mentor, took her along on a shopping trip to Head Over Heels, a consignment boutique in Menlo Park, California. With tasteful merchandising, the owner had managed not to "break the romance of the brand," the way that other cut-rate outlets did, Ms Wainwright observed.

"Whenever I would give stuff to Goodwill, it always made me sad," she said. "You don't want to see your beautiful things in a heap or wrapped up on a hanger."

Back then, eBay was dominating the online resale market. Christopher Burch, Tory's ex-husband, had taken a stake in another consignment startup, Vaunte (which TRR has since essentially vanquished, along with Threadflip), and potential investors suggested Ms Wainwright combine forces there. They were sceptical of her plan to hire experts for authentication, figuring user ratings were sufficient to flush out counterfeiters.

"They're like, 'Oh no, the wisdom of the crowd,'" she said. "But you can't use the wisdom of the crowd when it comes to gems or handbags!"

Still, Ms Wainwright was not your obvious online-luxury slickster.

She grew up the eldest of four in South Bend, Indiana: the family putting on plays and making "bad" wine out of plums, apples and grapes that grew on their property, among other wholesome analog pursuits. Her father was a commercial artist and salvage enthusiast ("he loved going to the dump," she said) whose accounts included the Shakespeare fishing-gear company and Flintstone vitamins. Her mother, who had intended to become a fashion illustrator, was struck with a debilitating illness, which proved to be multiple sclerosis, when Julie was eight.

The cap of luxury

TRR's most devoted clients, like Nicole Curran, wife of Joe Lacob, majority owner of the Golden State Warriors, now count on the company to help keep them aboard an ever-rotating carousel of flash.

"I take more risks in what I wear now," said Ms Curran, who was wearing, among other striking garments, gold-sequined thigh-high boots for a morning visit to a hushed consignment office - one of eight around the country for those who don't feel like putting their valuables in a postage box - at the company's headquarters in Fisherman's Wharf. "I find that I can be a little edgier and fun in the things that I wear," she said as a miniskirted sales manager, Jenna Suhl - sales managers also pay in-home calls - cooed over piles of Fendi, Valentino and, oui, Chanel.

Later that afternoon, inoffensive jazz played softly in the background as a new and nervous consignor, Lindley Hollender, a private-wealth analyst, watched as a strand of pearls were rejected on the basis of market saturation, along with a pair of Theory pants (accepted only with tags, or if they are suede or leather) and a floral Roberto Cavalli gown (excessive soil). A white Alice + Olivia wrap dress had promise, though. "If you are able to get the stains out," Ms Suhl said gently.

"You have a good eye," Ms Hollender said. Two months later, though, she had not yet consigned with the company; after a dry cleaning bill, the 40 or 50 per cent commission she would get on the sale of a "contemporary" piece would probably not be worth the trouble.

But Ms Wainwright and her colleagues see infinite possibilities in such customers, whom they hope to convince to renounce fast fashion, buy less frequently but better-quality, and maintain those purchases carefully before joining this sisterhood and brotherhood of the travelling pants and purses, shirts and shoes, coats and coffee tables. NYTIMES