In the fashion world, countless looks have taken shape on the inspiration boards of designers and stylists: collages that put strappy Louboutins, say, next to a boho Talitha Getty in the '60s, Pucci print tops from the runways, a Marc Jacobs ring and a tangle of wool.
It's the game of "what if" that keeps people recombining the DNA of style. And while it's still played with pages torn from magazines and swatches of fabric, it's taken a particularly addictive form on Polyvore, a 2-year-old website that enables users to create collages by pulling from an ever-growing library of product images, most grabbed from around the Internet.
Users start with a blank template and drag images of clothing (or anything else -- celebrities, nature scenes, themselves) onto the space. Everything can be easily silhouetted, resized and moved, and a tool called the Clipper makes it simple to pull in images from outside the site.
The resulting collages, which Polyvore calls "sets," often look as though they have been pulled from the pages of Vogue or InStyle -- no art director, stylist or editor required. (Though they quite frequently incorporate fashion shoots from magazines.)
It's possible to use the site for practical purposes, such as mixing and matching online finds with your wardrobe staples or coordinating bridesmaid dresses or home interiors.
Just as often, though, fashion, fantasy and celebrity overlap here, as in the glossies. "Someone will grab a photo of Rihanna and what she was wearing at a red carpet event," says Jess Lee, Polyvore's product manager. Then the user might design a set that includes pieces of the actual outfit, or a cheaper version.
There are countless variations on the "stuff I love" theme, and Lee says the site is a great place to see trends evolve -- lately, she's seen a lot of harem pants and gladiator sandals.
And should playing with a photo of a pink Donna Karan pleated bandeau dress leave a user lusting for the $2,995 real thing, there's generally an embedded tag that makes buying as simple as clicking the object to reveal a link to a source. (Polyvore has relationships with some of the retailers that make images available to the site, and it takes a percentage of sales it drives to them.)
Polyvore's use as a marketing tool hasn't escaped notice. We Love Colors, which sells neon dance wear, leggings and other hosiery, enlisted a Polyvore regular to get the message out by creating sets based around its products.
All sets are tagged with various categories and published for the Polyvore community to see. They can also be embedded on personal blogs or shared via other social networking platforms. The website averages 3 million unique visitors and 118 million page views a month.
Lee says the site believes that its community is almost entirely female and that "we think our average age is somewhere in the 20s."
The site's had a few problems because of the ease with which the Clipper enables users to import images -- sometimes without regard to who owns them. In January, a seller on Etsy, the handmade goods marketplace, started a drive on GoPetition.com to have Polyvore shut down after sellers found their images in Polyvore users' sets without permission or, in some cases, links to the sellers' Etsy stores.
Lee says Polyvore will take down any image that appears on the site within 24 hours of getting word from the copyright holder, and adds that it hasn't heard many complaints besides those from Etsy members and a few artists and photographers -- perhaps because Polyvore generally links back to the site from which an image is clipped, potentially joining product and audience.
As far as bigger fish go, HBO (big shock -- there are a lot of "Sex and the City" sets) is keeping tabs on the site, just as it does with all fan sites. Conde Nast says it's also looking into the use of its material.
So is Starbucks -- which can be only so upset when Polyvore runs a contest encouraging people to make sets that "show everyone how your cup o' joe compliments [sic] your fashion sense."
For now, an exuberant mix of stuff rules on the site. And thousands of "inspiration boards" have bloomed, propelled in part by another driving force in fashion: It's much more fun to shop when it's free.