U.K.-based Wolf & Badger is pushing for a bigger presence in the U.S., and it’s hoping its newly opened storefront in New York’s Soho neighborhood will help establish its name.
Launched in 2010, the online retailer sells clothing, accessories and beauty products for men and women from 700 independent luxury designers (like Kaia and Due Fashion), which are accepted to the marketplace on an application-only basis. Founded by brothers George and Henry Graham, the company’s goal is to give these emerging designers a platform to reach a wider customer base, similar to the way Farfetch serves as a global marketplace for small luxury boutiques. As of 2016, the company, which doesn’t disclose revenue, had estimated annual sales of $130 million.
“We’ve seen the retail market shift over the past five years, where wholesale roots are dying out,” said co-founder George Graham. “That’s no longer a sure way for designers to get a start. Brands are looking to sell direct-to-consumer, but small labels are focused on design and manufacturing in the early stages, and reaching their target customers is a big task on their own.”
After establishing itself in the U.K. and Europe online — opening two London-area showrooms, and earning customers including Solange Knowles and Cara Delevingne — Wolf & Badger is focusing its growth efforts on building a global customer base, starting with putting down roots in the U.S.
“We wanted to bring our selection of brands to the U.S. and build out the website here further, as well as build out our marketplace with brands native to the U.S. to reach a new customer,” said Graham. “After the U.S., we’ll focus on the Middle East and Asia to create a global platform.”
Young brands are looking for freedom from department store partners for multiple reasons: Going through a middleman inflates costs, plus it causes brands to lose control over their identity and their connection to customers. However, it’s not easy to do alone. Most recently, New York–based brand Thakoon closed off wholesale partners to go direct-to-consumer with partner and investor Bright Fame Fashion; the business was put on hold last week, after a Bright Fame Fashion spokesperson said the model was “ahead of the retail industry.”
“Brands are looking for department store alternatives,” said Elizabeth Stafford, director of business and strategy at the agency Four32c, “but holding all responsibility is incredibly challenging for a small brand.”
Wolf & Badger hopes to be a modern solution that can help designers grow businesses, while taking a cut of sales. Right now — though the company has two showrooms in the U.K., in addition to its newly opened store in New York — 90 percent of sales are online. Graham expects that percentage to rise to as much as 98 percent.
With in-store accounting for a small sliver of its annual sales, Wolf & Badger is using a brick-and-mortar presence not to drive a bulk or even a significant portion of the business, but to establish brand recognition and get designers face time with customers. The company’s team swaps designer brands in and out of the stores on a three-month rotation to keep the store stock fresh. During that period, the retailer hosts events with designers and customers, similar to trunk shows.
“Customers respond well to seeing product in person,” said Graham. “By bringing in a revolving set of designers, people keep having a reason to come back.”
Unlike online-native brands like Reformation and Everlane, Wolf & Badger doesn’t design its physical stores with an e-commerce-first mindset. Graham said the company avoids putting screens into its physical stores and doesn’t put an emphasis on anything in stores other than the inventory. Instead, Wolf & Badger’s analytics team uses online customer data to determine which products are resonating with customers at that particular time in order to inform the brands that get stocked in-store.
“We merchandise our stores based on data — the brands that sell in a particular region and at a particular time of year,” Graham said. “It allows us to not only offer clothing you can’t find elsewhere, but to respond in real time to what’s trending.”