December 7, 2004

Fashionistas meet penguinistas

Author: Tina Gasperson

Fashion and Linux -- it's not a familiar combination. You get a mental picture of an open source hacker in an extra large T-shirt and long fuzzy beard on a runway on Seventh Avenue. It's as unlikely as the fashion industry, which is slow, technologically speaking, moving away from tried and true methods of doing business (read: even if it's broke, don't fix it, because at least we're used to it, and what's wrong with AS/400 anyway?). But Ed Foy of Brick, N.J., has made it his business to break all the rules. He's helping celebrities sell clothes -- a lot of clothes -- using only Linux, Apache, MySQL, and Perl.Foy and his wife Jennifer run eFashion Solutions, a company that manages online operations for several branded fashion lines, including JLO by Jennifer Lopez, BabyPhat, and XOXO, out of a 71,000 sq. ft. fulfillment center in New Jersey. They started the business in 2000, after Ed got a degree in finance, headed to Wall Street, and ended up taking a detour to the Fashion District and working for Calvin Klein Jeanswear.

Even though he was a salesman, Foy says his tech-sense came in handy, even back then. "Being that it was always my hobby, I became the liaison between sales and the tech crew at Calvin, and helped make their selling tools a little more user-friendly."

Foy left Calvin and started CyberRetail.com to service the fashion industry. That company didn't last through the dot com bust. Yet, even back then, he noticed that the Microsoft products he was using in the business weren't cutting it. "It was just a resource hog," Foy says. When Foy and his wife started eFashion Solutions, they decided to take advantage of some different options. "When our CTO joined us, he really believed in open source software and talked me into bringing in a programmer to give it a shot," he says.

The goal was to create a system that would handle everything needed for selling fashions online, from the Web site hosting and design, to digital imagery, databases, and order fulfillment and tracking -- a package deal that Foy could sell to potential clients with a guarantee: "If your Web site does not produce sales, we do not get paid." For the fashion industry, this was a novel idea. Online retailing has always been a patchwork of disparate systems that slow down business and, according to Foy, has kept the niche from being everything it could be, until now.

"This was five years ago when people thought you were crazy to use open source software," Foy says. "We had to become profitable -- everyone else was losing money like it was going out of style. But the tech budget that would have been required if we'd used proprietary software was ludicrous. Using open source software was the best thing we ever did."

But selling it to potential clients before they had the sales data to back up their claims wasn't easy. "We used to go in with a 20-page PowerPoint: here's our server load, here's our database management system, etc. We had to show that we had a system in place, to prove our platform could handle the business."

No one in the industry could have predicted the success that Foy would have with a system that is fairly commonplace in the online space but revolutionary in the fashion world. With 26 Red Hat Enterprise servers and a handful of Gentoo workstations, according to Foy, even the open source community was surprised that PHP could handle the load that came with six million users each month.

Now, Foy says, "there's nothing to prove." Today, eFashion Solutions employs more than 100 people, handles the clothing lines of 15 clients (that number is expected to grow significantly over the next 12 months), and will bring in more than $25 million this year, with a 50-60% increase in earnings predicted for 2005. "We are passionate about it," Foy says. "And we believe in open source."

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