This week’s briefing takes an in-depth look at where fashion’s brand founders are putting their money. Plus:
- Express reports its 2021 earnings
- Alice + Olivia is the latest fashion brand to launch an NFT
- Knitwear is on the rise
- Brands are rewriting the influencer playbook, for men
A DTC brand founder’s recent investment sheds light on fashion’s direction
It’s a rocky retail environment, to say the least. The investments of brand leaders outside of their own companies can be telling, in terms of how they see their respective industries shaking out.
For Ashley Merrill, founder and CEO of DTC sleepwear brand Lunya and principal at venture capital firm NaHCo3, an investment in jewelry brand Dorsey mid-pandemic was driven by the founder’s proven ability to get her hands dirty and “just figure it out.” From her vantage point, constantly adapting to unexpected challenges is the new norm.
“The digitally native environment is moving under our feet,” Merrill said. “There’s no silver bullet for how to make these businesses work. You have to be adaptable and you have to be iterating all the time, and that’s because social media is changing. And humans are changing. We just went through a massive life event that shifted how we live and operate.”
Before launching Dorsey in November 2019, founder Meg Strachan had 15 years of experience in e-commerce, working for brands including Bandier, Anine Bing and Girlfriend Collective. Three months into working as Girlfriend Collective’s acting vp of growth, she kicked off her company as a side hustle of sorts. At the same time, she was also managing life as a new mom, not to mention all the personal stressors of the pandemic. But she saw an opportunity in beautiful, durable jewelry incorporating the craftsmanship and style of vintage pieces and selling at a price point she herself could afford.
Just shy of two years in, Strachan had grown Dorsey to become a seven-figure business. Three days after her first fundraise, with Merrill as the lone financier, she finally left her day job to work on it full time. She also began to build out a team, after managing everything from design to brand emails as a team of one.
Strachan said she was confident she had continued to do good work for Girlfriend Collective, particularly because the company saw 350% year-over-year growth during her tenure. What’s more, when Girlfriend Collective’s founder and CEO, Quang Dinh, found out about Dorsey shortly after Strachan exited his company, he attempted to invest in it. The valuation was shy of what Strachan was seeking, but executives from Stripes39, parent company of Girlfriend Collective, are now among the brand’s formal advisors.
“The pandemic helped me [pull off both jobs] because I was at home,” Strachan said. “I was in my garage doing one set of work, and then I would break for lunch, go to the corner and pack orders. And at night, I would put my daughter down and pack more orders. Those moments during the day when you’re usually driving to get lunch, I was [building] the business.”
Out of the gate, Dorsey largely relied on wholesale partners, having linked with “all the majors,” including Goop and Revolve, Strachan said. But when the management of accounts payable threatened the company’s future – “Frankly, people weren’t paying,” she said – she decided to move to a 100% direct-to-consumer business.
She launched Dorsey’s website on Squarespace, before moving it to Shopify. She also went heavy on digital advertising, namely Facebook and Instagram, but she’s now in the process of reallocating much of that budget to influencers.
“I’m not sure anyone really knows what they’re paying [to acquire] customers, at this point, because the [available tracking] data is so bad,” she said, regarding digital ads. “It’s become the Wild West.”
A newer brand ambassador program has quickly grown to account for 20% of the business, and Strachan’s plan is for influencers to eventually drive 30-40% of sales. Gifting products and hosting exclusive events will be central to that strategy, as will the original ambassador program that provides compensation to people driving sales via their posts.
The company also invests in search, email and text marketing, and it’s getting set to roll out direct mail. In addition, Strachan said, she’s in the middle of hiring “a TikTok person,” after seeing success via engagement when posting raw videos on Dorsey’s social channels.
“The old [marketing] playbook doesn’t work anymore,” she said. “You’re not hiring the people and agencies you used to. Everything’s shifting so fast that we’re all learning in real-time.”
By the third quarter of this year, after launching a try-before-you-buy program for online shoppers, Strachan plans to open Dorsey stores in New York and Los Angeles. “We’re focused on the end-to-end consumer experience,” she said.
Thus far, Dorsey – which uses lab-grown gemstones and sells necklaces for around $350 – has seen 500% sales growth every year. It’s now launching new products every two weeks, with plans to roll out 300 new products in the next 90 days.
Amid all the growth, Strachan is leaning into her love of brand marketing, after years of being restricted to growth marketing roles. Her ability to do both was one of the draws to Dorsey for Merrill, who first met Strachan when the founder reached out with fundraising questions via Instagram DM.
“She showed up with a lot of the [right] tools, a clear vision and an open-mindedness and willingness to learn,” Merrill said, noting that the timeless nature of Dorsey’s styles was also a selling point. “When you have that strong foundation and you’re a sponge, there’s no stopping you.”
Today, Merrill said she serves as a mentor to Strachan, talking to her nearly every day, as well as to the team at Outdoor Voices – after investing in the company, she ran it for a year while it was between CEOs, she said.
“[The relationship’s] been useful both ways,” Merrill said, regarding her work with Strachan. “She’s been a great sounding board, as we both attempt to figure things out,” including increased competition, increased acquisition costs, increased costs of goods, the list goes on.
Inside Express’s 2021 earnings
On Wednesday, Express – which is currently hellbent on scrapping its “mall brand” image – reported its fourth-quarter and full-year earnings for 2021. Among highlights: Sales for the quarter were up 53% year-over-year, and e-commerce demand for the year saw a 33% boost over 2020 – the latter was fueled by improvements to the brand’s app and increased incorporation of user-generated content. And finally, it reported its highest number of active loyalty members in its history, with 2.7 million new members signing on since January of 2021.
Following the earnings call, CMO Sara Tervo shed further light on the strategies employed last year and the resulting numbers.
On the new video-focused campaign strategy, which drove 110 million video views across TikTok, Instagram and livestreams in Q4:
“Each quarter, our campaigns have gotten bigger, in terms of impressions. We launched our holiday campaign [called ‘RSVP Yes!’] with a segment on ‘The Kelly Clarkson Show’ and a spot on Adele’s ‘One Night Only’ [television] special. We also launched it across all of our social platforms, where we had different influencers playing into this idea of: ‘Tell me without telling me you have holiday plans.’ They showed off all their holiday looks, which was a trend that we leaned into and also helped people to solve fashion problems during the holiday season. The idea was: How can we leverage our styling community to help inspire and provide some good ideas to our customers?”
What’s driving the success of the loyalty program:
“It started with a [loyalty program] rebrand and relaunch in March of last year. We wanted to enhance the user experience and the branding of the program. Before, it felt a bit like a bank or a transaction-based program. We wanted to evolve its hard benefits based on what’s compelling customers and bring more soft benefits to the program. Through that, we were able to improve the online experience and drive acquisition, as well as [improve] the in-store experience, because we were able to more successfully articulate the value proposition of the program and get people engaged. And we all know the value of loyal customers and what they can drive for long-term brand health and sales. We’ve activated the program in many different ways: We’ve done shopping parties in-store, and had exclusive offers and sweepstakes. And we’re continuing to look for ways to make that group feel special and to drive further engagement with the brand.”
A new and improved product assortment:
“We completely reimagined our product in 2021. Our merchant leader got the team very collectively focused on what she calls the Express edit philosophy. The idea is that everybody’s working to the same edit point, so that — across tops, bottoms, dresses — we can create a modern, versatile assortment. [Pieces] can be mixed and matched to create the look, from dressing up to dressing down and everything in between, and [customers] can get greater value from the products they’re buying from us. The [team] also has worked very hard to improve fit and quality in our merchandise, and that’s showing up in customer response. Within denim, we definitely focused on a variety of fits. We all know what happened last year, with the younger generation making fun of skinny denim. We diversified our fits and fabrications to appeal to a broader audience.”
The state of stores:
“Stores are a very important part of how customers experience our brand and our product. We saw real progress in the performance of our retail channel this year. We’re now looking at our existing stores and how we can give refreshes in some markets. We’re looking to provide better fitting rooms and a more comfortable place to sit – just elevate the aesthetic, which also elevates the appeal of our product. And with [curated] Express Edit stores, we’ve seen great results. They’re outperforming our [traditional store] fleet, in terms of acquiring more new customers and reactivating lapsed customers, because they’re in high-traffic, easy to access locations. And our real estate team is working very hard to find locations [for new Edit stores].”
‘Web3 is where fashion is going’
In late January, during a Parsons Entrepreneur virtual event, Alice + Olivia founder Stacey Bendet told me the brand was working to hire a metaverse director. At the time, she was scouting talent on Creatively, the job platform for creatives she started in 2020.
Today, Alice + Olivia is releasing its first NFT, a limited-edition offering featuring its infamous “Stace Face” motif based on Bendet’s signature look. Buyers will also gain priority access to a live Creatively course taught by Facebook alum Randi Zuckerberg on how to participate in the world of NFTs.
“I’ve always believed that fashion is art, and this new digital world presents a new way for brands and designers to present work in a collectible realm,” Bendet told Glossy this week.
She added, “Web3 is where fashion is going, and I want our team to be leading that race. In the future, we will all have avatars that wear couture, we will shop virtually in every city around the globe, our stores will be experiences that merge the virtual and the real. To stay competitive, we must be as digitally enabled as our consumer, so every company needs to be strategizing around that vision now.”
Comfortable, sustainable, on-demand knitwear is on the rise
Apparel brands and manufacturers, including Serino and Evolution St. Louis, have recently hyped knitwear’s perfect placement within fashion’s direction. Its comfort level and waste-free production are just the start of it.
Four-year-old technology platform CreateMe is among companies fueling its rise. Most recently, it produced designer Marrisa Wilson’s fall 2022 collection, which debuted at New York Fashion Week in February. And it teamed with Tom Brady’s Brady technical apparel brand, launched in January, to make a 3D knit bomber jacket that’s on sale now. On Friday, it will debut its technology, via an activation spotlighting its customization capabilities, at SXSW.
Brady co-founder and designer Dao-Yi Chow called producing the bomber in CreateMe’s Brooklyn-based facility “a dream scenario,” considering the easy, eco-friendly access to samples it facilitated. It also provided speed, he said, cutting production time by more than half.
“Knitwear is at the pulse of what is relevant now and with a more forward-looking gaze,” said Cam Myers, founder of CreateMe. “It sits at the heart of on-demand manufacturing, and it’s poised to continue an upward trajectory of demand.”
The best menswear influencers aren’t influencers
Speaking of Brady… Frame, the contemporary brand co-backed by Brady co-founder Jens Grede, has enlisted influencers without a style focus since it relaunched its men’s line in fall of 2021 – among them are NFL and NBA players. The same is common of many menswear brands, according to recent conversations with execs in the space. Here’s who influences their shopper, in their own words:
“[Compared to women] there’s a smaller niche of guys that are posting all the time. A lot of them have a different day job, and they grow their following through that — and they’re able to do stuff for us. We mostly [work with] athletes that [happen to] play golf or tennis, and musicians and celebrities that people may not know play the sport. [Right now] we’re talking to [Pearl Jam frontman] Eddie Vedder about doing a video of him on the court. People know he’s cool, but nobody knows he’s a huge tennis guy.” –Andrew Redvanly, founder of golf and tennis apparel brand Redvanly
“Men look up to other men for style advice, but they’re not professional full-time influencers; they look to people living great lives that are admired and have influence: musicians, athletes, public business figures. We can reach and talk to all those people, and bring them into our world.” –Michael Mente, co-founder and co-CEO, Revolve
“Having launched our men’s [category] in 2004, I’ve seen the evolution of men’s jewelry and marketing to the male audience. We selected [actor] Henry [Golding] as our brand ambassador because he embodies passion and grit, and possesses our company’s values of creativity and altruism. It was important to find a brand ambassador whose individual style and character aligned with our brand, and who is at the top of their craft.” –Evan Yurman, president of David Yurman
“We pride ourselves on working with a wide variety of influencers, all of whom offer something different, from style to look to identity to audience. This keeps them connected with our consumer. [For example, Boo Johnson] has a loyal following and sits within a sector we had yet to explore until last year: skate. And last year we collaborated with a number of people ranging from musicians Tyla Yaweh and Lil Skies to sportsmen including Shaqir O’Neal and Simeon Panda.” –Cleveland Campbell, head of creative at BoohooMan
What we’re reading and hearting
Fashion meets streetwear, again and again: The high-fashion and sneaker-streetwear worlds coming together through a brand partnership is nothing new — but that doesn’t make new iterations any less buzzworthy or covetable. After the rumored collab was confirmed on Tuesday, Supreme x Burberry dropped in sales channels of both brands today. Meanwhile, Veja x Marni will hit select stores tomorrow, and Loewe x On launched on Wednesday – two of the six sneaker styles have sold out in all sizes.
In other category-crossover news: According to the brand’s Instagram, “a reimagination of the Rebecca Minkoff collection in the metaverse” will be released during Crypto Fashion Week, on March 16. The teasers suggest we can expect to see more Rebecca Minkoff NFTs being sold via the Dematerialised marketplace — true to form, the brand was early to embrace digital fashion, launching its first NFTs in September 2021.
The hottest Gap hoodie yet?: Gap has recently leaned into multiple opportunities to sell hoodies. That includes rereleasing vintage colorways after influencers including Emma Chamberlain sported thrifted styles and playing into Ye’s vision of “The Perfect Hoodie,” released in September. Now, it’s collaborating with legendary Harlem tailor Dapper Dan on a pink style featuring “DAP,” in place of the brand’s name. The only suitable response, based on those who have shared the news with me, unprompted? “I need it.”
Inside our coverage
Modular styles are the future of fashion: That’s according to Georgia Dant. With her 3-year-old brand Marfa Stance, she’s betting that fashion fans will buy into the notion of owning just one piece of outerwear that can be updated with various add-ons to be warmer or bolder, for example. Bonus: Compared to three, one coat is easier to pack.
So much for “that girl”: The “it” vibe on social media is decidedly shifting to an aesthetic best described as “night luxe.” While no less Instagram-friendly than its predecessor, it’s comparatively darker, moodier and hedonistic, according to Glossy reporter Liz Flora. More specifically: Hangovers are replacing 5 a.m. workouts, espresso martinis are becoming the new green juice, and sparkly heels are moving in on sneakers, for better or worse.
Name slaps are out. Today, many influencers are building brands from the ground up, ensuring they reflect their style and values, and incorporate the input of their followers. Our new Pop guide – featuring influencer-founded brands across fashion, beauty and wellness – spotlights the digital-native celebs who are doing it right and, at the same time, reshaping the industries.
Image via Ashley Barrett