Is there anything more satisfying than peeking into another person’s closet?
Well yes. Getting to wear that fantastic designer piece that your friend owns and you covet. Lucky for us, Christina Carathanassis ’96 has brought one of the best parts of female bonding into the digital age.
As owner and president of Christabelle’s Closet (ChristabellesCloset.com), Carathanassis has created a Web-based consignment business that provides top designer clothing for a fraction of the regular retail cost. Because the business is a designer resale boutique, Carathanassis makes sure that every item is authentic, immaculate, and affordable. She uses her many contacts as well as a bevy of fashionista friends to scour the country for finds.
Browsing her Web site can be addictive. After an hour, my legitimate “research” expedition had become an all-out shopping extravaganza. As I poked through dresses, shoes, bags, and jeans, my shopping basket started to fill. Betsey Johnson for $60? Is that really a Louis Vuitton bag? Maybe I could pull off those Sergio Rossi stilettos.
Carathanassis is a 5’2” dynamo. Even on a hot and humid New York City day, she looked fresh and stylish. But underneath the fashionista exterior beats the heart of a true businesswoman. She has parlayed a career in the fashion and beauty industry into a forward-looking digital venture with franchise possibilities and a philanthropic twist.
“I got my flair for fashion and designer clothes from my mother,” she explained. “When I was growing up, there were seven closets just for my mom.” At URI Carathanassis became known for her own closet. “I was the president of Alpha Xi Delta sorority, and girls were always borrowing my clothes from my walk-in closet. It got to the point where I had to create a sign-out system just to keep track,” she laughed.
After graduating with a communication major and English minor, Carathanassis found herself in New York City working in public relations for the beauty industry. She worked for Lancôme followed by a stint at Victoria’s Secret. The catalyst for creating Christabelle’s Closet came after her mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2000. “I wanted to do something to help. I wanted to help find a cure for Parkinson’s,” she said. And so ChristabellesCloset.com was born.
This business venture is very much a tribute to Carathanassis’ parents. It melds the entrepreneurial spirit she inherited from her father with her mother’s love of fashion and her own shopping expertise. But it also raises money and awareness for Parkinson’s research. The home page directs you to the Clearance Closet where 50 percent of all proceeds are donated to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. Even her sister gets into the act. “My sister lives further away, but she’s a teacher and gets the summer off so I get her to help out. I tell her that I pay in love,” Carathanassis said teasingly.
Carathanassis lit on the idea for ChristabellesCloset.com as a way to create a business with low start-up costs that capitalized on her expertise. She taught herself to do Web design and created the site herself. “I wanted a Web site with a cute concept, girly-look, lots of editorial content, and a budget way of shopping,” she said.
The Web site feels like hanging out in the pink and white bedroom of a good friend. There are cartoon drawings of Carathanassis and her fashionista friends as well as of each of the closet categories. Every new page offers a fashion tip that coordinates with the product: Are your zippers giving you a hard time? Try some chap stick on them. Handy tips from your friend.
When she started Christabelle’s Closet, Carathanassis was still working at Lancôme. She spent her nights and weekends on her new business and her days working her regular job. Eventually she was able to grow her own business to the point that she didn’t need her day job. “I can work until 4 a.m. and not even notice,” she enthused. “I just love what I do.”
The merchandise is kept in a warehouse in New Jersey not far from her parents’ home. “It’s great because I can go home and see my parents and get work done,” she said. Her mom is able to use her creative fashion sense to help out. Of course, there can be problems: “I left a pair of white Chanel pants, and when I went back to the house to look for them, they were gone. My mom had them.”
Christabelle’s Closet is getting noticed. Carathanassis has appeared on several TV shows, including the CBS Early Show and Fox and Friends, to give fashion advice. The Web site has been featured in numerous magazines, including Shape magazine and Oprah magazine, which voted Chistabelle’s Closet one of the top seven best net bets. “One of my friends was in Miami and she overheard two women talking about this great Web site. It was my business they were chatting about! I knew then I had moved to the next level,” she related. And there has been another unexpected benefit. Carathanassis has received inspirational emails from all over the country telling her that she has given women the courage to start something new.
Her secret to success? Carathanassis credits it to attention to detail and a personal touch, something her mother instilled in her. “Every item that is sent out from Christabelle’s Closet is beautifully packaged,” she explained. “Items are wrapped in tissue paper, and a scented sachet is enclosed. Customers really appreciate that.”
The evidence supports her. A large percentage of Web-based companies fail within the first year. Now entering its fifth year, Christabelle’s Closet is still going strong. “When I started, my customers were all women,” said Carathanassis. “Now we’re about 80 percent women.” In addition to a men’s section, she has also added Tweens and Teens, Classy Kids, and even Pampered Pooches.
And Carathanassis isn’t easing up. She has lots of plans for the future and the vision to carry them out—not to mention the clothes.
By Jennifer Sherwood ’89