Online shopping has come a long way from the early days of Amazon and eBay. Those sites continue to revamp themselves, adding specialty markets and hiring seasoned stylists and fashion executives to assemble exclusive collections. Luxury brands have also radically evolved, opening online boutiques that are now inclined to sell more than just the trifle accessory, and flash-sales sites like Gilt Groupe and One Kings Lane are creating a virtual—and actual—frenzy. But even those new outlets often lack the conversation-piece items that make shopping an adventure, be it at a local cult boutique or a souk in Marrakech. Among the hundreds of thousands of sites online today, where can one discover the vintage Yves Saint Laurent dresses, the Kenyan beaded necklaces and the handmade slippers one might see while strolling Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar? Buying a book online has become second nature, but what about a $41,000 René Boivin ring? We combed the web and asked some of the savviest insiders to find six sites that specialize in the artisanal, the collectible and the truly rare.
One of a Kind: AHAlife.com
Every time Shauna Mei, an expat living in Sweden, flew to Manhattan, her friends gave her a list of things to bring back, be it a cult beauty cream or a necklace from a Brooklyn jeweler. She quickly turned the task into a company: AHAlife, an invitation-only site that features one carefully selected item every 24 hours (posts go up at 11 a.m. EST; anyone who misses the one- to four-week purchase window can join a Birkin bag–like wait list). The items are curated by a cadre of boldfaced names, including Diane von Furstenburg, Iris Apfel and Wendi Murdoch, and offerings include exclusive collaborations, such as a Rachel Roy custom trench ($695) and products not available in the U.S. market, like Le Labo perfumes (from $260). There is also early access to items before they even hit stores, like a seven-day advance on a new Marchesa clutch ($2,795).
Best Find: A WeWood organic wood watch (one tree is planted for every watch sold), $120.
Vintage Couture: 1stdibs.com
1stdibs is best known for its endless supply of exquisite art and antiques like Richard Avedon prints and Louis XVI chairs. But with the launch of its Vintage Couture and Designer Fashion category, visitors might also search for a 1958 Yves Saint Laurent for Christian Dior cocktail dress ($4,800) or a Pierre Sterlé gold clutch ($18,500). Curated by Clair Watson, a former creative consultant for the New York City Opera, the site works with 43 approved dealers who supply their own items, which range from $70,000 collector Hermès bags and Art Deco minaudières to ’70s Halston gowns and the requisite Chanel tweed jackets.
Best Find: A brand-new alligator-skin Hermès Birkin (pictured) from Penny Couture in Beverly Hills, $72,750.
Serious Jewels: FaubourgSaintGermain.com
Vintage pieces from esteemed French jewelers are often sold at a live auction or behind closed doors, but estate jeweler Karine Zacharias’s clients have learned the joy of acquiring those treasures online. Zacharias, a Paris-based gemologist and former head of international public relations for Van Cleef & Arpels, stocks her website with only French estate fine jewelry, including colorful Boivin clips and Boucheron diamond brooches. If the prices (from $2,050 for gold Mellerio cuff links to $50,000 for a Cartier sapphire and diamond brooch) leave customers mouse-shy, Zacharias is available to answer questions by e-mail or phone—or to hop on a flight for a private viewing.
Featured Item: A 25-carat aquamarine Boivin ring, $41,000.
Global Finds: Shoplatitude.com and Boticca.com
Sometimes the best part of traveling is nabbing those special pieces you can only find overseas—and the bragging rights that come with them. (“Oh, this silk kameez? I found it on my last trip to Mumbai.”) Two companies, L-atitude and Boticca, have tapped into the concept of sourcing artisanal, hard-to-find items from around the world to sell online. Each season the three-month-old L-atitude will showcase items from a handful of destinations: Felt slippers ($35) and evil-eye bracelets ($45) are sourced from Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, while beaded purses ($1,200) and chunky gold cuffs (from $210) come from Bogotá. (Stockholm and Bali are next.) The five-month-old Boticca, meanwhile, focuses on emerging artists with unique designs, such as Arata Fuchi’s gold Jellyfish ring ($605) and Jerome Olivet’s architectural leather bags (from $170).
Cult Menswear: MrPorter.com
Online shopping—like the real thing—has long been considered a women’s pastime, but online luxury retailer Net-a-Porter thinks otherwise. Last month the company launched its menswear-only site, MrPorter, which stocks the marquee brands its sister site carries (Bottega Veneta, Burberry, Ralph Lauren) in addition to niche British wares like Margaret Howell shirts ($415), Lock & Co. Panama hats ($380) and a collection of shoes from Jimmy Choo’s new men’s line (from $625), which will debut early this summer.
Featured Item: Persol Steve McQueen folding sunglasses, $360.
—Additional reporting by Mark Ellwood