I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, so I figured I’d finally write a post about and put it out into the world.
Every startup in the e-commerce or shopping space thus far has been dubbed as existing in the “fashion tech” space. I’m not sure where this term was born, but journalists, VCs, commentators and even the founders themselves, including me, have called it this for awhile. For the broader purpose of describing the “genre” or category of startup, I think the term does just fine. But now that the space is getting a bit more crowded, I think there is a big difference between “fashion” startups and “style” startups, and I don’t think it’s out of line to begin to categorize separately. I’ll explain.
The more I research my potential users and their lifestyles, habits, likes, wishlists, and so forth, the more I realize that their concern is less about fashion and more about style. For those standing on the outside or periphery of this new ecosystem, I simply mean that many women seem to care more about making purchase decisions based on their own tastes, budgets, lifestyles and personal aesthetics now, more than they do about buying the latest Proenza Schouler bag, or other “it” items.
In fact, I’ve noticed an encouraging movement away from “it” items altogether. Perhaps this reflects my immediate environment – I follow some awesome people on Tumblr, Pinterest and Twitter and other sites, who have incredible taste and eye for design – but it is refreshing, nonetheless, to see a move towards self expression and, dare I say, even novelty, to an extent. The hunt for a special or unique item is personal and important in a world of easy access, hence why sites like Of A Kind and Etsy are great for those of us who like to feel like an individual and not like a human reblog on a Tumblr street style site.
The Rise of Design + Style, Over “Fashion”
Sites like Svpply are style’s response to sites like Polyvore, one of the first in the “fashion tech” space. (In fact, many Svpply users also visit Polyvore, and Polyvore has a heavy presence on the site). Both sites have slick, beautifully designed interfaces, white backgrounds, simple black logos, checkboxes for filtering, great search engines, and lots of pretty product images. But Svpply’s emphasis is on design, not on trends and collections. Svpply’s newsletters are focused on popular items on the site; Polyvore’s newsletters focus on designer collections and trends. (This also has something to do with how Polyvore monetizes, but let’s hatch that convo open another time).
This is not just to compare these two sites, but also to touch on the undeniable, growing popularity of Etsy and Pinterest, both sites with audiences and influencers who encourage DIY and independent designers, along with home decor, furniture, architecture and more design-focused products. There are never tweets or email blast’s about “the latest <insert x> designer pump!” because this is not what is considered novel to these audiences.
Most of Pinterest’s most popular users (“influencers”) are into style and what it means to them. Not “personal style” in the 2009 sense, which was: “I get paid to wear cool shit. Don’t you wish you could afford these Miu Miu pumps I got for free?” No. The ladies from blogs like I’m Revolting, Clever Nettle, Miss Moss and Honey Kennedy (to name some of my personal favs) are truly interested in shedding light on products that inspire them; these items are often from cool brands and stores from around the country, but sometimes they’re from equally great brands like J. Crew or stores like Madewell.
Another reason I think personal style, in the truest sense of the term, is gaining ground over label-focused fashion, has something to do with fast fashion’s ability to produce almost identical garments to the ones seen on the runway. At first, I think we were all excited we had access to trends: McQueen’s psychedelic patterns, Chanel’s tweed cropped jackets, etc. But then, we walked out onto the street, and every third woman looked exactly like us. What a turnoff! We as Americans want to stand out; individualism is in our blood.
That doesn’t mean we aren’t inspired by trends: we are! We all are. This is how I shop, and many women I know shop. We use images to guide us. But we aren’t trying to duplicate a look, or invest in an empty trend. We see something we like, and we say “show me something like this” (full disclosure: this phrase is part of my elevator pitch). OR, we venture on a hunt in hopes of being inspired by something special and unique.
The “fashion tech” startup community reflects this as well.
Style vs Fashion in the Tech Space
There are two different classes of startups making their way to the surface.
There are “fashion” startups, such as GILT, Moda Operandi, Feyt and Lyst that focus primarily on high end, luxury items that we all drool over and add to our master, cloud-based wishlist on <insert x> wishlist site. There are a host of others, of course, but these are what I consider “heavy hitters.” I consider these fashion startups because the main content is aspirational, or attainable for the lucky few who can purchase a Derek Lam skirt right off the runway and wait a few weeks for it to show up on her doorstep. (One day, my time will come!) Design is important on these sites, too, but so are labels and the names attached to them. And hey, this isn’t a bad thing. I have purchased an item or two simply because I wanted to own a small piece of luxury. (Chanel flats, guilty as charged).
Style startups, on the other hand, are focused on the stories of both the creators and consumers. ModCloth – though some may argue it is not a technology startup – is a great example of a site with a community, not an “audience.” The same goes for Etsy. Then, cool sites like Of A Kind, Heritage 1960, Lookbook.nu, Svpply, Uncovet, and Fab all emphasize either design or personal expression, or the blissful marriage of both.
In conclusion, I think there’s a way to take fashion, digest it, and turn it into personal style; into something that makes sense to US. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want beautifully designed things; on the contrary. Sometimes the novelty is in the label (i.e. Chanel flats), and sometimes the novel is in the specialness of the item, the store it’s from, the designer behind it, or the materials it’s made of. That’s for us to decide. The great thing about personal style, though, is that it’s personal.
For the first time in awhile, I think personal trumps popular. This is exciting.
in image: left: marc by marc jacobs bag. right: tote on Uncovet