With more than 900 fashion companies headquartered in New York City, getting noticed is not just difficult - it's a downright miracle. And if you happen to be a digital fashion start-up like StyleCaster, holding on to your competitive edge is only half the battle. "StyleCaster started at a time when the economy was anything but optimistic," says Meghan Cross, Communications Manager at StyleCaster. Founded in 2009, the interactive fashion platform allows users to build profiles, consume news, share style tips and source trends. In addition to curating content, the company also produces in-house editorial shoots and has a staff of writers who report through two of its verticals - Beauty High and StyleCaster News. Reaching more than 10 million users a month is no small feat, "when you walk into the [content] office, our editors are constantly in brainstorm mode," says Cross. She believes that the company's rapid growth is tied to its willingness to break rules; straddling the worlds of journalism, advertising and social media to create an integrated user experience. "It's a two-way street, where tips and trends trickle across the community, and our editors use their expertise to direct that conversation."
Digital start-up StyleCaster curates online trends
Fusing editorial and branded content has quickly become the new way to do business. Instead of targeting a general audience base, both businesses and online content platforms are zeroing in on niche communities to empower their brand and advertising dollars. But marketing departments at major fashion labels haven't always felt comfortable with using social media outlets and partnering with emerging platforms like StyleCaster. In fact, communicating in the digital space is something most fashion labels still don't know how to do quite right, says Laura Zapata, a digital strategist, fashion editor and founder of fashiondigitaldaily.com who has consulted for a number of brands, including Calvin Klein and Mikimoto. "The general tech space was clearly lacking representation from the fashion and beauty industries… it was only last summer that [some] major fashion brands were still considering Tumblr! Fashion and beauty brands are all about identity, and they're rightfully protective of that. It's part of the reason why some are often stubborn, and have come so late into the game."
Size scanning technologies, trend curation and even magazine pages that dissolve into animation (or video), are just some of the ways fashion start-ups are using apps to redefine traditional business models. "It's like the Wild West right now," says Gili Golander, Chief Fashion Officer and Co-founder of Bazaart, an iPad app which allows users to create personalised fashion catalogues with Pinterest. "I think that as fashion and digital continue to mesh [combined with mobile technology], the way we shop will change irreversibly."
Start-ups in and around Silicon Alley are also looking to disrupt the process of merchandising itself. FashionStake, an e-commerce company recently acquired by flash sale giant, Fab.com, allowed users to pre-order items from independent designers at a huge discount. Backed by Battery Ventures, the e-commerce company launched in 2010 with the premise to "democratize fashion." Prior to its operations ceasing after the Fab.com acquisition, FashionStake allowed users to shop for independent designers hand picked by fellow community members and gain access to exclusive deals.
The company was able to offer competitive prices because pre-order numbers were used to help designers gauge demand. Mike Katz, a vice president at Battery Ventures, says that the fashion sector's traditional models of delivery are outdated. "It's archaic that key players still must make purchasing decisions several quarters in advance of delivery. I'd love to see more companies focused on technologies that help bring product to market more quickly. This would enable fashion labels to order more accurately, minimising overages. It would also help boost brand image because items would be on sale less often [in retail outlets]."
Apps which focus on aggregating content and fashion items are able to leverage their position to advertisers and labels by cultivating a savvy community of trendsetters and influencers. "Brands are looking to connect with audiences in real-time," says Peter Chun, CEO and co-founder of Swaag, an app that allows users to hunt for trends by building profiles, and exchanging lifestyle photos. "On the flip side, consumers can discover new trends… the notion of expressing yourself [though different channels] is essential to interconnectivity."
Seth Porges, founder and CEO of Cloth, an app that lets you organise and share outfits, agrees with Chun's logic. "Fashion is a social passion. People who like clothes like to share their clothes with others, and social media has popped up as sort of the perfect tool for this. It doesn't hurt that people who are really into fashion tend to be a bit more tech savvy than the average person."
To secure funding for Cloth, Porges skipped angel investors, incubator programs and even small business loans. Instead of preparing pitches for investors, Porges put an extra room in his apartment up for rent on Airbnb, an online community marketplace users can scour for temporary accommodations. As Porges explained in his article for The Next Web, "a $100-per-night room is booked for a conservative 20 nights out of the month. That's $2,000 of income every time you flip the calendar!" Albeit, not every entrepreneur can afford to take the same funding route as Porges, but being able to operate without the constraints of outside investors was a key factor in Cloth's accelerated development (Porges and his team were able to crank out the app within six months). "There may come a time when we outgrow this model, but it's worked beautifully so far, and has allowed us to operate with complete independence, and grow at our own pace."
Swaag allows users to swap style
A basic app will cost approximately US$10,000 to develop. If you want to develop one that has all the bells and whistles needed to stand out (and function seamlessly), initial costs can run upwards of US$20,000. For those without an extra room or couch to spare, sourcing capital for the most part comes straight out of pocket, or through seed funding provided by angel investors. For Chun, choosing to fund Swaag with personal funds (along with his cofounders) was not just a business decision, but also a philosophy. "We really believe in our product… we didn't want the process of securing funds to stifle our organic growth and creativity."
The creators of Bazaart belong to the DreamIT Ventures accelerator program for startups in New York. Golander believes that the initial pre-seed funding provided has been a big help, but even with investment backing, challenges still exist. "It is not easy to get brands to collaborate with a new digital or social platform. Rather than take a leap of faith, many of them require [large] data and usage statistics before they can embrace a new platform." Golander and her team are currently preparing for an upcoming demo day in Israel and are meeting with prospective investors in New York. "We are hopeful to close our current funding round in the next two months and grow the product to the next phase."
This summer, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), launched Project Pop-Up NYC, a competition for fashion retailers and technology start-ups. In collaboration with STORY, a Manhattan-based curated concept store, winners will receive PR and mentoring support and a temporary pop-up shop to correspond with New York Fashion Week in September. "We're proud of the robust entrepreneurial environment that exists in NYC for fashion… it can be very difficult for new companies to break through the noise," says Eric Johnson, Director of the Fashion Team at NYCEDC. The competition is a vital aspect of Mayor Bloomberg's Fashion.NYC.2020 initiative, launched in 2010.
While the aim of Project Pop-Up NYC is to support promising fashion start-ups, New York's status as a design centre will continue to attract innovators and help keep the city's US$10 billion fashion engine pumping. "The startup community is incredibly supportive of the entrepreneurial spirit," says Zapata. "If you're smart and passionate about your product… people will spread the word like wildfire."
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