Long ago, some greedy bastard invented credit cards to make shopping deceptively painless. Then another hotshot with dollar signs for pupils came up with e-commerce. Now all you have to do is point and click (and wait five to 10 business days), and almost anything will arrive at your door.
But virtual shopping remains far from perfect. If part of the thrill of buying is the tactile experience, when you're purchasing a shirt or a pair of pants, the in-person method is irreplaceable: Something that looks great in a JPEG may not be quite the same once you slide it over your hips. And computer monitors being what they are, you've got to keep your fingers crossed that the color you see onscreen is at least tangentially related to the color of the actual garment.
That said, if you live in a city like Seattle, where the Gap outlets far outnumber the indie stores, the Web can be extremely useful. If you've searched in vain for just the right dress, or you found a great pair of shoes but not in your size, try the Internet. It's also pretty good if you're looking for a bargain without the frantic bargain-basement experience.
In addition, if you don't have the leisure and dollars to visit New York every time brown becomes the new black, you can now take a close look at designer collection, thanks to sites like First View (www.firstview.com). For $5.95 you can spend an hour browsing photos from the latest runway shows; last season's collections are viewable at no charge.
So skip www.rei.com—there's no climbing wall—and other mega-store limbs like www.jcrew.com. Instead, check out the following sites and cultivate the cyber-fashionista within.
www.apc.fr—Oh, so cool. Oh, so French. The A.P.C. store in Soho specializes in classics with punch, and their jeans have become modern wardrobe staples. Aside from men's and women's clothing, they sell CDs, beach towels, olive oil, adhesive tape (really). On their Web site, they duplicate their mail-order catalog page for page, and it's all very tempting. Typical item: cotton gabardine worker's pants in white or beige (men's and women's), $110.
www.blissworld.com—The spa of the moment offers up its products to anybody who wants a little home pampering. Aside from Bliss' own line of products, there are treats like J.F. Lazartigue shampoo, Diptique candles, Guinot eye-mask cream, and makeup from Bobbi Brown, Stila, and Trish McEvoy, among others. Bliss World also stocks cosmetic tools, sensi sandals (those rubber numbers that massage with every step), and its own line of T-shirts. Typical item: Peter Thomas Roth Daily Defense Moisture Cream, $35.
www.bluefly.com—A discount sensation for men, women, and kids. A recent trip to the Bluefly cyber-showroom yielded bargains from the likes of Daryl K., Donna Karan, Dolce & Gabbana. They also have a fairly large selection of Prada and Gucci leather goods. All this, and home accessories too. To save time, you can customize a cyber-catalog to show only the designers and sizes of your choice. The discount factor limits the size and color range, but there's a 90-day, money-back guarantee in case the item doesn't match its online image. Typical item: Helmut Lang cream wool sweater, $99.
www.boo.com—For now, this much ballyhooed site is only a gleam in the eyes of the office-bound fashion editor. You can register with them, and they'll let you know when they go online. They promise to offer hard-to-find gear from Fred Perry, Puma, and other street-smart brands. Stay tuned!
www.buycurious.com—Cool clothing and housewares for club kids past, present, and future. This site is actually fun to browse; if you're feeling kind of blah, try an e-makeover. There's a selection of great accessories, too: Army-surplus wristbands, hair dye, feather boas, and more. Based in Seattle, buycurious.com went online in mid-February, and it's currently offering free shipping until September 15. After that, there's a shipping charge only if you order three items or less. Typical item: red muscle-T with shimmery tiger design, $22
www.cookiescloset.com—Like shopping at an expensive vintage store: Courreges, Hermes, and Lilly Pulitzer galore, plus Pucci and Gucci (sorry, no Fiorucci). You can even find goodies like a set of Schiaparelli playing cards in their original case for $75. Typical item: 1950s green cheongsam, $65.
www.cosmeticmall.com—A broad selection of beauty supplies, including Tweezerman nail and grooming tools. Typical item: Clarins after-sun moisturizer, 5.3 oz., $21.
www.cyberretail.com—This discount site has a dodgy selection, but if you're willing to wade through some hideous leather bomber jackets, you can find stuff by Dollhouse and Fiorucci on sale. Typical item: Sugar saddle-shoes, $45.
www.enokiworld.com—A sassy little e-zine/vintage-clothing catalog that's not only fun to shop, but fun to read as well. There's even an advice column. Typical item: Pringle brown cashmere sweater, $95.
www.fabric8.com—Cool stuff from San Francisco indie designers, each with his or her own online boutique. Some of the pieces are custom-made, including the fashion-forward suits (for men or women) from Sui Generis. Typical item: Paul Gallo zip-front vest in turquoise lam鬠white Polartec fleece, or a variety of other fabrics, $85.
www.fashion-icon.com—Sponsored by textile manufacturers the Hamil Group, this Web zine takes a realistic and fun approach to the fashion game. It also has a few things for sale, including dog tags by Lugnuts and Built By Wendy guitar straps. You don't actually order online—instead you print out the order form and mail it, or call an 800 number. Typical item: Piggly Wiggly T-shirt by Pixie Yates, $18.
www.gbspot.com—A small but divine selection of headgear, from sequined cowboy hats to striped beanies. Typical item: reversible corduroy bucket hat, $17.
www.girlshop.com—Another site divided into boutiques, featuring great mid-price lines like Cynthia Rowley, Kos-tum, and Frou by Paige Novick. Very good for ultra-femme stuff like silk mules, rhinestone barrettes, and even '60s-style paper dresses with bold prints. Descriptions include how-to-wear suggestions. Typical item: ruffled cotton/lycra capris by Ankh, $130.
www.hiphopcloset.com—This utilitarian site offers clothes and hats from Triple 5 Soul, Phat Farm, Wu Wear, FuBu, and others, plus mix tapes. Typical item: Iceberg jeans, $110.
www.lip-service.com—Lip Service pioneered fetish-based fashions for punks, goths, and others who go bump in the night. Now they're going to hook computer geeks as well. Typical item: metallic purple button-fly vinyl jeans, $66.
www.londonwide.co.uk—A small selection of inexpensive, ultra-trendy numbers for men and women from small Brit design firms. As close to the Camden Flea Market as you're going to get without plunking down money for a ticket to Heathrow. Typical item: synthetic fleece crewneck with zippers on shoulders and chest, 32 pounds (UK).
www.mxgonline.com—The online version of teen mag MXG has a retail section with carefree sportswear and accessories, plus skateboards and other athletic gear. Typical item: Camp Hurley hoodie sweatshirt, $42.
www.pieceunique.com—What happens to the clothes worn in photo shoots and movies? The ones that don't get nabbed by models and actresses might make their way to this classified-ad-style site, which features barely-worn designer pieces at tasty discounts. Typical item: Roberta di Camarina full-length dress from the estate of Ginger Rogers, $825.
www.smashbox.com—The LA photog studio owned by Davis and Dean Factor (great-grandsons of makeup king Max) recently diversified into makeup, hair products, and styling tools. Visit this site to buy—or just to read the voluminous amount of press clippings about the Factors. Typical item: anti-shine lipstick, $14.
www.vintagevixen.com—Like any good vintage store, this site stocks one-of-a-kind items that won't break the bank. Judging from the loving, detailed descriptions, the creator of Vintage Vixen is a proud fashion addict. Wondering how to store that '50s cocktail dress? Consult the page on clothing care. You'll definitely want to read the informative history of 20th-century fashion. Typical item: sleeveless silk print dress, never worn, $30.