In 2012, on the first Monday in May, Jeff Bezos stepped onto the red carpet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for the annual Costume Institute gala — the fashion world’s biggest, best, most exclusive event — wearing a black Tom Ford tuxedo with a white pocket square and patent leather shoes.
The Amazon founder was dressed to impress. His company had sponsored the blockbuster evening, along with that year’s accompanying exhibit, “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations.” As honorary chairman of the gala, Bezos was stationed at the top of the museum’s stairs, greeting industry celebrities and actual celebrities alike alongside Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, designer Miuccia Prada, and actress Carey Mulligan.
Bezos was dogged about allying his e-commerce juggernaut with the fashion community, and his efforts didn’t just pertain to philanthropy. Leading up to the Met Gala, the tight-lipped CEO told the New York Times that Amazon was making a “significant” investment in fashion. Though Amazon had previously acquired a few fashion e-commerce companies, Bezos was now keen on building a dedicated fashion hub on its own flagship site. The hub, to be known as Amazon Fashion, would have a special landing page to direct shoppers to clothing and accessories and promote Amazon partnerships with fashion brands; it would also have its own merchandising and editorial teams.
In anticipation, Bezos hired Cathy Beaudoin, a Gap executive who started the now-defunct shoe site Piperlime, to head up the project known as Amazon Fashion; Julie Gilhart, a former fashion director at Barneys, was brought on as a consultant. Amazon convinced designers like Michael Kors, Vivienne Westwood, and Tracy Reese to sell their products on Amazon Fashion, and the company was in the process of building a40,000-square-foot photo studio in Brooklyn where it could shoot original photography for the site.
But even with all these efforts — and the Tom Ford tux — Bezos was decidedly out of his element at the Met. While he told model Elettra Wiedemann, who hosted the event’s very first (and last) livestream, that Amazon “really wanted to participate in this gala as a way of showing our commitment to this industry,” he had also admitted to Bloomberg earlier that morning that “before we got involved, this event wasn’t on my radar at all.”
A photo of Bezos looking bored, with his bowtie slightly askew, surfaced on Vogue and eventually hit tech blogs, where he wasteased for not being able to fake his interest in fashion for very long, even if he was dining next to Scarlett Johansson and Mick Jagger.
Five years later, Bezos and Amazon have not backed off their aggressive pursuit of fashion. Since 2015, the company has sponsored New York Fashion Week: Men’s. Last year, it premiered a 30-minute HSN-style shopping show called Style Code Live that airs live every weeknight on Amazon.com and picked up The Fashion Fund, the documentary-style show about the process behind the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund competition that previously ran on Ovation TV, and Hulu before that. These days it’s also sponsoring international fashion weeks, notably in India and Japan.
Plenty of brands have entered into official partnerships with Amazon since the Met Gala, too. There are now dozens of premium fashion labels selling their wares directly on the site, includingStuart Weitzman, Kate Spade, Rebecca Taylor, Milly, Frye, Marc Jacobs, Gucci, and Ferragamo.(Hundreds more brands are sold by third-party sellers via Amazon’s massive free-for-all marketplace.) Even Gap CEO Art Peck told investors he was open to wholesaling to Amazon — an unusual move for the once-dominant company.
With its newly robust list of brands, Amazon seems to be making good on what Beaudoin told the Seattle Times back in 2013: “We want to be a great department store, like Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, and Saks.” It’s worth noting that while Amazon is on the upswing, those great department stores are in serious trouble.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, department store sales shrunk from $67.56 billion in 2011 to $60.65 billion in 2015; meanwhile, Amazon’s clothing and accessories sales nearly quadrupled from $4.3 billion to $16.4 billion during that same period. Macy’s is currently the largest fashion retailer in the country, but according to finance firm Cowen & Co., Amazon will soon replace it, with a projected $28 billion in apparel sales this year.
So yes, when it comes to Amazon’s fashion ambitions, this is just the beginning.