The rise of sample sales and how to navigate them

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We’re known for noticing trends around here at Selectism, so it’s no surprise that we’ve noticed one major trend – the rise of the sample sale. We investigate the in’s and out’s of the sample sale, why they’re happening so often and offer some tips on how to navigate them.


For the most part, scenes in fashion rarely, if ever, look like how they’re portrayed in film or TV. If every fashion internship worked like they did in “The Hills” or “Made in Chelsea” then we’d all be doing them as full time jobs. And if sample sales were as vicious as they’re portrayed in film and TV then we’d all look like we’d been in Ali-Frazier 3 after going to one.

The actual scene at a sample sale is somewhere between something from the god awful “confessions of a shopaholic” and something Tyra Banks probably wrote in Modelland*. Take one sample we attended: while in the queue, we spotted more street style celebrities than we could shake a stick at, fashion editors being whisked to the front while an inexplicably Akeem-mopping-the-floors happy assistant whispers “I’ve saved a few things for you”.

Us? We queued. For hours.

Eventually we got in. Inside, like most sample sales, it was more Primark than luxury boutique. If you don’t know what Primark stores look like, think of your favorite department store. Then remove everything that looks like it might’ve been put in with any thought or care. Then put too many storage units in it, so people are constantly bumping into them. Then stack clothes as high as they can go. That’s Primark and it’s not a pretty sight, but that’s not what people come to samples sales for. On that day, this writer left with a handful of supposedly rare trainers, a Patrik Ervell shirt that didn’t button all the way up, a Junya Watanabe mac with overly slim arms and a bunch of pretty/ugly CDG shirt tops that turned out to be ugly/ugly tops. But despite this disappointing haul, sample sales still continue to enthral us and many others. Why?

The first, blunt, reason is that people in fashion, especially at the start of their careers, don’t make much money. And when we say don’t make much money, we don’t mean that everyone’s one step away from being on the breadline, but that the huge majority of people are a long way away from being able to afford the clothes they write about at full retail prices. So a sample sale, despite not being able to pick out exactly what they want, like in a private orders evening, is often the best way to get decked out in the right clothes. Richard Gray of The Sunday Times’s says “I’ve done private orders before now. Craig Green is on my list for next spring. If only Visvim did the same. We can but dream.” And even if you do make a decent amount of money, who turns down a sale? And one where the items are usually marked down by 70% at that? While there are other reasons, the two laid out above are the ones that led to hour long queues.

As has been laid out above, sample sales are common sense for the consumer, but what’s in it for the designer? Two words: excess stock. Designers often make too much stock, which leads to a bunch of stock that needs to be shifted. And as it’s old season stock, there’s usually no buyers who want to take it on board. So the next best thing is to get rid of it in a sample sale. It’s a win win: the designers get rid of stuff that was never going to make them money and the attendees get to buy part of a brand they love for a bargain basement price.

We say everyone wins, but do they? There’s one factor we left out of that holy matrimony and that’s retail stores. To use a Bush-ism**, it’s a known known that stores are no fans of sample sales, for the obvious reason that it’s harder to sell the product at full price when it, or something similar, is available at 70% off elsewhere.

This tension has led to several stores setting up their own sample sales including Opening Ceremony, which also functions as a showroom as well as an own brand label. And that’s not including a shop that, dare we say it, might not sell everything they have in stock every season, leading to deadstock. Dover Street Market also has sample sales and, more recently, Superdenim’s Lewis Hull launched Marrkt, a flash sale website. “We initially started working with Nigel Cabourn to clear their dead stock by holding sales within Superdenim,” says Hull. “However I felt the concept was strong enough to stand on its own. Thus Marrkt was launched with a view to hold sporadic flash sales of the best quality products.”

Taking inspiration from sample sales is nothing new, as Gilt would attest to. Gilt Groupe, valued at a billion dollars in 2012 and billed as part of the new web boom, have made their living from it. By avoiding the more bunfight-esque elements of sales, Gilt’s created a strong niche for itself. There’s also the lesser spoken element of their payment scheme, which is a big reason young brands are clamouring to work with them. Contrary to the situation described in Business of Fashion‘s piece about payment, we’ve been told by designers that Gilt pay for their entire shipment upfront. In many cases, this is usually what’s used by younger companies to get their entire range produced without waiting for payment from department stores. This, added in with their international sale system that was launched in 2011, makes Gilt an attractive proposition.

As attractive as Gilt is, nothing can beat a sample sale from one of your favorite brands. So how can you take advantage of them? Here’s a short guide to help you through the labyrinth:

Follow your favourite brands

On Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, wherever. Unless they’re a too cool for school brand, they’ve usually got at least one of these and that’d be the place where they advertise their sample sales. And just so you know now, no brand would advertise their sample sale on their actual website. It’s just uncouth.

Live in (we hate ourselves for saying this) a major fashion city

Yeah, yeah, we know. Global village and all that. And most of the time that phrase is true. When it comes to a sample sales, it’s not. So either live near the brand you love or find someone prepared to trawl through the sample sale for you and send the stuff over. Failing that, you can hope Gilt start selling them (and then hope they won’t sell out before you manage to buy them).

Be Ja Rule, always on time

As Richard Gray says, “Get there earlier than early.” This is a sentiment that stylist Jeremy Kirkland agrees and even goes one step further on, “bring donuts so people love you in the line and look out for you”.

Prior planning prevents poor performance

Gray points out that “some of these sample addicts are professionals; some are buying to sell on eBay or similar so know what they’re doing. Do your research beforehand: what exactly is on sale? Also, do you really need another pair of sneakers, cardigan, pullover, shorts?…” Kirkland suggests that you go to stores and try on items so you know what size you are in different brands. He writes them down but you might want to do a rainman.

Stop, look and listen to what your head is telling you

You’ve made it to the sample sale and, despite the scene we set above, most menswear sample sales (for emerging designers) are relaxed affairs. This can be worse than a manically busy one because you’ll feel like walking out with nothing would be a personal insult. So apply some of that regular sales logic and think ‘When will I wear this?’ If the answer registers anywhere from ‘I might wear it one day’ to a ‘never’, put it back.

Sample sales have sample sizes

Gray says “I don’t really bother as much as I used to – samples come in sample sizes; something I’m not.” So, that’s a medium for tops and 32 waist trousers. While they will have other sizes, the likelihood is that the huge majority of clothes will be in the aforementioned sizes. Keep that in mind before you trek to a sample sale. As a famous lawyer once didn’t say, if the clothes don’t fit, you must acquit.

Prepare for the inevitable regret purchases

Despite all the highway code rules that you’ll subject yourself to, you will make buying mistakes. Remember that haul we described earlier? We thought they were all amazing purchases at the time. We were wrong. You will be too.

Think Shaq in the post and prepare to throw some ‘bows

Sample sales can be rough affairs. You will encounter people who’ll think nothing of ‘accidentally’ shoving you to get their hands on a rare sample piece. “This is a sample sale not a polite dinner and dance; it’s eyes down and elbows at right angles. If you want to make a friend, pat a dog.” Wise words from Richard Gray. And the number one rule to remember from Jeremy Kirkland? “Grab your sizes and get the hell out of there”

*We don’t know what she actually wrote because life is too short to read a book by a woman who thinks “smize” is an acceptable word.

**We know Donald Rumsfeld said this but we use Bush-ism to refer to anything that happened under Bush’s watch. Don’t worry right winger’s reading this, we’ll bring up Obama when we want to make a NSA or drone joke.