The Genteel
April 16, 2021


Leather Couture by Jessica Galindo
Classic Petites - Dance. Play.


With a platform that has continued to grow for more than a decade, online retailer Zappos has been putting the spotlight on up-and-coming designers through its Emerging Designer Program for the past year. Citing the company's "overwhelming" customer and vendor support, Allison Callaway, Trend Manager for Zappos Development, said in the company's launch press release, "We want to turn that support around and help new talent get their first big break in the retail industry. It is our hope that by giving a national platform and exposure to millions of loyal Zappos customers, we can help give the next great designer, or brand, the chance they've been waiting for."

From athletic wear to outerwear and everything in between, since February 2012, Zappos has been encouraging upstart designers to submit their applications to the program for consideration. At the same time, the company seems to realise that connecting with its current customers by offering them a voice, is an integral component of program's success. Zappos customers can recommend their favourite designers or brands for the program, which puts them on equal footing with the Zappos employees who pioneered the initiative.

Every month, the program promotes an individual designer or brand by featuring them prominently on the Zappos website along with boutique pages that include a video interview with the designer and product shots. In an effort to further secure consumer engagement for each designer, Zappos uses its social media channels, company blog and print publication as key communication vehicles.

 With [Amazon's] recent foray into the luxury retail fashion industry, the Trend Managers responsible for [Zappos'] Emerging Designer Program seem to have their sights set on targeting a different audience.

Many of the designers currently involved - including Leah Ketcham, co-founder and designer behind Krickette and Crave designer and founder, Carli Rae Vergamini - have experienced some success with their accessories collections which are sold in boutiques throughout America and online through Esty, respectively. Even still, as the program's most recent recipient Tonya Gross concurs, targeting a broader consumer base can be both daunting and costly if not properly executed.

While "partnering with a major online retailer, such as, is a dream come true" for Gross, the founder of Tonya Gross Millinery understands her involvement with Zappos won't guarantee customers. It does, however, serve as a launching pad to connect with a fresh audience of potential customers who most likely wouldn't have heard of her collection otherwise. "With this partnership, I hope to draw a larger audience to my brand and scale my business."

As a Chicago-based headwear designer, Gross explains that the opportunity to work with Zappos also extends beyond sales, as she feels she'll profit from raising awareness of the Windy City's history in millinery production which, until the 1970s, included Gage Bros. & Co. and Theodore Ascher & Co. As a small business owner she's also committed to offering training and employment opportunities to other Chicago-based fashion industry talents.

If other designers feel as Gross does - that they can learn the intricacies of product research from the Zappos team while gleaning additional insights as to what large retail buyers are interested in purchasing - the company seems to be nurturing a crop of business- and creative-minded designers. As Gross notes, "the fact that they [the buying and trend managers] are willing to dialog with us through the Emerging Designer Program takes a bit of the mystery out of the buyer-designer relationship." 

Gross works closely with the online retailer to produce a collection tailor-made for Zappos' customers. "I would never have expected the buying team for such a large online retailer would be so accessible," shares Gross, "but I have felt [nothing but] mentorship with the program." Through her experience with Zappos, Gross has gained a deeper understanding of the nature and scope of product research, knowledge she believes will contribute to the growth and development of her brand on a national and international level.

Regina Taylor, Chicago Magazine's
2012 Chicagoan of the Year,
wearing Tonya Gross Millinery hat.

For Zappos, excitement surrounding the next up-and-coming designer will no doubt drive traffic, at least at the beginning of every month, which is something every online retailer hopes to do. According to Gross the company is definitely on trend, "by nurturing fledgling designers that are a little off the radar," as it's a prime opportunity for designers who are looking to "speak directly with those who dictate a product mix that is well-researched and executed for a billion dollar retailer."

At a time when retailers are vying for consumers' dollars, the Emerging Designer Program means fresh product offerings for Zappos, but it may also be a way to further stand apart from its parent company Amazon, which acquired Zappos in 2009. With the latter's recent foray into the luxury retail fashion industry, the Trend Managers responsible for the Emerging Designer Program seem to have their sights set on targeting a different audience, one more interested in becoming trendsetters than being branded as tastemakers. It's a move that will likely keep Zappos where it has always prided itself on being positioned, offering customers creative and innovative products through an experience that's driven by what the customer wants - yet, with something a little unexpected that's worth discovering.



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