Sample Sales Are Back In A Big Way — Here’s How The Landscape Has Changed

$35 Manolo Blahnik pumps? TBT.

Written by Kelsey Stewart
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Tamara Tunie of As The World Turns and Law and Order (Photo by Robin Platzer/FilmMagic)

Let’s set the stage: It was the late ’90s, and Lila Delilah was on a date in downtown Manhattan. The NYU student caught wind of the Hermès sample sale happening at a nearby hotel and asked if they could make a quick pit stop. “I can’t believe I dragged a guy there,” the savvy shopper behind blog Madison Avenue Spy says with a chuckle on our call. She wasn’t the only one keeping close tabs on deals during the decade. Sample sales — where brands sell leftover products from several seasons past as well as one-off, never-produced designs at deeply discounted prices — were becoming a *thing* in New York City.

According to a ’96 article from the New York Times, people spent their lunch hours darting to basements in Midtown’s Garment District to score too-good-to-pass-up buys, like a $10 Liz Claiborne dress and $30 Kenneth Cole shoes (steals akin to finding that Reformation skirt you’ve been coveting for 90% off). And while, these days, New Yorkers aren’t rushing to Seventh Avenue on a random afternoon to shop, the latest evolution of NYC sample sales proves that there’s palpable excitement for shopping IRL bargains right now. (Khaite’s markdowns in September caused congestion on the sidewalks of midtown Manhattan, while there was a whooping five-hour wait for entry into the Row’s October event. It’s a total scene.)

Nowadays, of course, designer discount seekers are getting their intel from Instagram and TikTok. But before social media, they navigated the sample sale arena with help from flyers found in lobbies of fashion buildings, message boards, and blogs. Kickstarting her site in ’07, Delilah was among a group of dedicated style aficionados who brought insider news to the masses. “I wanted to share information I couldn’t find anywhere else on the Internet,” she recalls when asked what prompted her to launch the site. “The Internet just was taking off; social media didn’t happen yet, and you couldn’t Google ‘How to find Gucci on sale.’”

Fast forward to the 2010s, and sample sales were quickly evolving. What was once primarily shared through word-of-mouth and early aughts blog culture became a full-fledged industry thanks to the rise of Racked, a former outlet that pioneered online sample sale reporting. Like Delilah, Racked’s former deputy managing editor Laura Gurfein dipped her toes in sales when she started as an intern in 2013, covering the news before anyone else. “Blogging was still a relatively new thing. ... It was still getting better and shinier at that point from where it had originated in the mid-2000s,” she relays to me during a recent conversation. Gurfein believes the industry-favorite site had a great reputation for its distinct point of view, catering to people who were both well-versed with the scene and those who were just learning about it. She adds that this readily available information that Racked provided opened up a world of shopping previously closed off to many.

Over the phone with TZR, Laura DiGiovanna, head of marketing and creative at 260 Sample Sale, echoes Gurfein. “People didn’t necessarily know what a sample sale was.” She continues, “Those true fashion insiders did but not necessarily the general public, and that has changed. [Now,] people are a lot more familiar with the sample sale concept than I saw 10 years ago [in this role].”

While sample sales, understandably, took a left turn during the pandemic, Delilah — still covering sales 15 years after her blog was conceived — is pleased with the recent trajectory. “It feels like, this year, we’re getting back into the fun of things. Even last year, it wasn’t the same. [But now,] people are excited to go out and shop.”

Bella Gerard, a fashion editor and sample sale wiz behind TikTok @bellagerard, agrees with Delilah. “I definitely think sample sales were back in full swing this season,” she tells me over email. “COVID made waiting on long lines or shopping in smaller settings impossible, and I personally don’t think digital sample sales (although a smart pivot at the time) are as exciting. It’s not quite the same as digging for a good deal in person — and, because most sample sale buys are final sale, it’s way riskier when you can’t assess the items in real life.”

Read on to find out how else the sample sales industry has developed over the past 30-plus years.

The History Of Sample Sales

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Sample sales started around the ’70s as a way for brands to sell sample garments made for factories or styles worn at runway shows and editorial shoots. But you couldn’t just stroll in, as the ’96 article from New York Times explains: “Just a decade ago, you had to bribe the elevator operator to get in. It was all word-of-mouth, an underground venue for designers to recoup a small amount of money by selling design samples to industry insiders.” The story also discloses that these shopping events took off at lightning speed: “In 1987, there were 247 [sample sales] in Manhattan, with 80% of the transactions by cash only; by 1995, the [number of sales] grew to 1,593.”

Though “real” samples (aka what brands sold in the ’70s, as mentioned above) were still easy to come by, Fawnia Soo Hoo, a freelance writer and contributing editor at Fashionista who began covering sample sales for Racked in 2009, believes designers began selling overstock during sample sales as a result of the Great Recession. “It was maybe the best time to go to sample sales because the economy was so bad,” she tells me over the phone. “All these designers had so much overstock because they couldn’t sell it, or they would produce a lot and couldn’t sell it at wholesale.”

Who was granted access to these rarified sales? Well, it boiled down to who the designer was. “The Louis Vuitton one was really hard to get into,” Soo Hoo says, adding, “and Hermès was invitation only, but I don't think it was that hard; if you emailed the right person, you could get on the list.” Some brands, such as Christian Louboutin, allowed editors only on the first day and then opened to the public (well, sort of — an RSVP address and speedy response were required).

And contrary to popular belief, the sample sale environment in the early ’00s wasn’t quite as chaotic as the famed scene in Confessions of a Shopaholic (“Give me the boots, and no one gets hurt”). Sure, you might witness your occasional fashion brawl, but for the most part, Soo Hoo says, they only got heated at worst (read: no injuries). “People would hoard, and there would be a lot of hovering,” she recalls. “And people would just end up changing in the middle of the aisle.”

Because the lines wrapped around blocks (and blocks), Soo Hoo recalls a system she and her editor followed, which they began to call “lineblog” (i.e., liveblogging the line). “I would text my editor in line and update her what was going on, anything funny I was observing, and she would update the post.” Once she entered the venue, Soo Hoo sent pictures and prices for her editor to include in the story.

It turns out Soo Hoo and her team were on to something back in the day. Gerard suggests using a line-sitter if you can’t commit to waiting hours in line all day. “For the aforementioned luxury sale I attended this summer, I used The SaF App, and it was the most incredible experience,” she shares. “My line-sitters were sweet and communicative, and it was so easy to just stroll up and take their place when I arrived. I wouldn’t do this for sales with less than a two-hour wait, but if you’ve got a busy day and can’t wait yourself, this is a great solution.”

The Movement To Online

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The internet was instrumental in changing how people shopped and discovered sample sales. In ’07, “flash sale” sites like Gilt Groupe, RueLaLa, and HauteLook were born, allowing customers to score luxury designers deals for a limited time only (hence the term flash). Shortly after their conception, the sites began gaining major traction. A 2011 story by the New York Times said: “Flash sale sites, only a few years old, are tremendously popular. American visits to them increased 68% in September compared with the same period a year ago, according to Experian Hitwise, an Internet tracking firm, and 314% from two years ago.”

Part of the allure? These sites allowed consumers to hunt down bargains from their homes, no longer having to comb through jam-packed racks bumping into fellow shoppers. But there was a caveat: To snag a piece, you had to be one of the first to add it to their cart and purchase it minutes later before it disappeared, making it tricky to compare sales elsewhere.

By the late-2010s, the “flash sale” concept started fading away when consumers realized that the products often weren’t cheaper than the retail price and, therefore, didn’t feel the need to purchase. Forbes reported in 2018 that “Gilt Groupe was eventually sold to Hudson’s Bay Company for $250 million, well below the valuation that some investors had paid to invest in the company in the first place.” Fortunately for sample sale enthusiasts, other online retailers swooped in to replace these once-popular sites, such as London-based company Chimci, a treasure trove for discounted Versace, Bottega Veneta, and other leading luxury labels.

What’s more, 260 Sample Sale began offering online sales in 2020 due to the pandemic. “We were always brick-and-mortar retail and running events, but when COVID happened, that was no longer a reality,” DiGiovanna explains. However, there’s a small catch to the company’s latest venture: “Just because we have a brand in stores doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll see it online. Many of our online sales are direct-to-consumer e-commerce brands, very suitable for online.”

On that note, there are some pros to shopping IRL versus online. For one, it’s easier to nab “true” samples in person. Delilah recounts DVF’s event in 2012, hosted by 260 Sample Sale. “They’d have a rack of real samples, and they were $50 a piece,” she says, adding: “You’d find one-offs, which I felt were the most interesting pieces.” DiGiovanna ensures it’s still possible to snag actual samples in 2022, but chances are, they are trickier to find (if not impossible) online.

As for online reporting? Though Racked is no longer around today, sites like Fashionista and Time Out are filling the void, rounding up sample sales weekly. And with the rise of social media and e-commerce, Delilah points to TikTok as the current go-to destination for learning about sale events — a few mega-popular handles being Gerard’s account, steffieinthecity, littlefashionstylist, and of course, Delilah herself. Case in point: During The Row’s recent sale extravaganza, the New Yorker (aka madisonavenuespy) took to the app and shared her experience with her loyal followers, noting the now-deleted video “was gaining 10,000 [views] an hour.”

The Resale Market

Brace yourself: This might sting a little. According to Delilah, in 2010 luxury labels like Thakoon would have $10 and $20 bins at its sample sales, while Manolo Blahnik sold its beloved pumps for — drumroll, please — $35. (Ahh, if only time machines were real.) The blogger also relished Prada’s New York sample sales during ’08 and ’09, when prices for a coat ranged from $175 to $275. Perhaps most impressive, she says, is that the steep discounts were a remarkable bargain when further considering they were iconic collections.

Why were the prices so shockingly low? With resale sites like The Real Real non-existent, there was nowhere for products to go — aside from a few select deep discount stores like Daffy’s and Barney’s New York Warehouse. “They just wanted to get it out [of their hands] at that point,” Delilah says.

Today, she believes “sales are a lot like outlets, where [the labels] are trying to get as much money as they can for the merchandise rather than just getting rid of it.” Not to mention people know what the products are worth. “If they’re putting them out there, they aren't going to put them out for $35. Everyone is more self-aware of the value of everything, and through the resale markets, you can look things up.”

In addition to the rise in retail sites like The Real Real and Depop, Delilah says there’s a surge of resellers. “People are live shopping, and side hustles that didn’t used to exist do now.” At the Jimmy Choo sample sale, she snapped photos of fellow shoppers browsing while carrying 20 to 30 bags filled with shoes that they’d undoubtedly flip for an inflated price. “It’s obvious what they’re doing,” she observes. Gerard is noticing the change, too. “There are also a lot of resellers buying in bulk and hoping to turn a profit later, which is a shame for those of us just hoping to snag a few great pieces,” the fashion editor explains.

The Future Of Sample Sales

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As a reflection of the increased awareness of overproduction in the industry, Soo Hoo predicts the sample sale industry will primarily be bigger corporate brands in the next few years. “The more up-and-coming designers are more mindful of their production and [want to] minimize overstock for sustainability reasons,” she explains. Gerard echoes her, explaining, “Hopefully, brands prioritizing ethical and sustainable practices will find ways to have less overproduction in the future.” And while this might limit shoppers’ access to sample sales, she adds, “but I’d argue it’s worth the loss of a few pairs of discounted heels!”

And finally, be sure to heed these words of wisdom from Delilah before making a purchase: “Buy the things you would buy at full price; if you wouldn’t buy it at full price, it’s not worth any discounted price.”