Nasty Gal's Sophia Amoruso on 'Staying Cool While You Get Big'

No question about it, Nasty Gal, the online retailer that caters to a specific set of 20-something girls (think: Rihanna-loving, crop top and Lita-wearing party girls), has blown up over the past year. What started as an one-woman eBay vintage shop in 2006 has turned into a company that reportedly generates $100 million in sales annually and has just under 300 employees. The woman behind it all is 28-year-old Sophia Amoruso. And she's gotten to where she is today partly by doing something all of us do--using social media. We caught up with Amoruso earlier this week at an it-girl filled dinner (Alexandra Richards, Emily Weiss, Mia Moretti, etc., were all in attendance) to celebrate the launch of Nasty Gal shoes, Shoe Cult. She let us pick her brain about how she got started, her latest big hire, and the challenges she's struggling with now that Nasty Gal has exploded.
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Leah Chernikoff
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No question about it, Nasty Gal, the online retailer that caters to a specific set of 20-something girls (think: Rihanna-loving, crop top and Lita-wearing party girls), has blown up over the past year. What started as an one-woman eBay vintage shop in 2006 has turned into a company that reportedly generates $100 million in sales annually and has just under 300 employees. The woman behind it all is 28-year-old Sophia Amoruso. And she's gotten to where she is today partly by doing something all of us do--using social media. We caught up with Amoruso earlier this week at an it-girl filled dinner (Alexandra Richards, Emily Weiss, Mia Moretti, etc., were all in attendance) to celebrate the launch of Nasty Gal shoes, Shoe Cult. She let us pick her brain about how she got started, her latest big hire, and the challenges she's struggling with now that Nasty Gal has exploded.
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No question about it, Nasty Gal, the online retailer that caters to a specific set of 20-something girls (think: Rihanna-loving, crop top and Lita-wearing party girls), has blown up over the past year. What started as an one-woman eBay vintage shop in 2006 has turned into a company that reportedly generates $100 million in sales annually and has just under 300 employees. (Nasty Gal won't release sales figures but a New York Times profile from February of this year reported that "Last year, Nasty Gal sold nearly $100 million of clothing and accessories — profitably.") Starting last year, Nasty Gal also began producing its own line of ready-to-wear (which now accounts for 30% of sales), launched a magazine, and this week, launched shoes.

The woman behind it all is 29-year-old Sophia Amoruso. And she's gotten to where she is today partly by doing something all of us do--using social media. Only she does it really really well. She found her target demographic by marketing to Nylon readers and other hip 20-somethings using clever (and maybe a little shady) tricks on Myspace. She's found multiple employees on LinkedIn and found her first employer using Craigslist. She, herself, has over 50,000 followers on Instagram (NastyGal has over 880,000).

We caught up with Amoruso earlier this week at an it-girl filled dinner (Alexandra Richards, Emily Weiss, Mia Moretti, etc., were all in attendance) to celebrate the launch of her first shoe line, Shoe Cult by Nasty Gal. She let us pick her brain about how she got started, her latest big hire, and the challenges she's struggling with now that Nasty Gal has exploded.

Stevie Dance, Nick Axelrod, Emily Weiss, Alexandra Richards, Milou Van Groesen, and Sophia Amoruso (BFA)

Stevie Dance, Nick Axelrod, Emily Weiss, Alexandra Richards, Milou Van Groesen, and Sophia Amoruso (BFA)

Fashionista: I know your story has been told quite a few times at this point, but tell us how you got started in your own words. Sophia Amoruso: I was 22 years old and frustrated with my hourly jobs--my last one was working in the lobby of an art school for $13 an hour. And I had time to tool around on Myspace--mind you this was seven years ago.

Right, when people still tooled around on Myspace (sorry JT!). Yeah. So I was working in this lobby and had some down time and I was getting friend requests from eBay stores that were promoting their businesses via Myspace. And I wore entirely vintage at the time. I had never worked in a vintage store and I had never really sold vintage but I always loved digging for stuff. I've always been a pretty resourceful person. And so I saw the final auction prices prices that these stores were getting for vintage on eBay, which were like way more than you would get on Haight Street [Amoruso was living in the San Francisco area at the time] and Haight Street was expensive for me at the time. I was going to thrift stores and I knew where to get this stuff for a good price and set to do that after I quit that job. I was only there for three months. I think the longest job I ever had before Nasty Gal was like six months.

So you started on eBay? I got a book about how to start an eBay store and figured out enough html and taught myself graphic design and Photoshop and I had experience with photography and I just started trying things: I shot stuff on a friend in a weird room, then went outside and tried that, I messed with lighting, used different models.

What was the name at this point? It was Nasty Gal Vintage.

Where did the name come from? One of my random jobs was working at a record store. And I got pretty into it. Music is my first love before fashion. [She has a tattoo of the Virgin Records logo on her arm.] There's this lady named Betty Davis--she was married to Miles Davis--and she's this crazy funk singer and she's super stylish. Anyway, she has an album called Nasty Gal and there's a song called "Nasty Gal" on that album. I didn't know I'd be saying it seven years later! [The name has been a source of some trouble for Amoruso--originally the domain NastyGal.com was registered to a porn site.]

And I figure the eBay store was a success? So I started with vintage on eBay and in 2008 I launched NastyGalVintage.com and hired my first employee who is now our buying director, Christina Ferrucci--she's been with me for five years. We started going to trade shows and showrooms and buying stuff from designers. We were buying like vintage buyers--not retail buyers--saying, 'Oh this one's cool and that one's great.' We were buying individual pieces. We didn't have an "open to buy" plan--it was more like let's go buy cute stuff. And we tried some expensive stuff in the beginning and it really didn't sell so that's kind of how we found our price point.

We just kept buying what sold and we couldn't have afforded to keep buying expensive stuff and try to be a quasi-luxury website. We did that for several years and scaled the business that way--because you can sell six or 60 or 600 of a single item when you have multiple sizes. With vintage you take a photo do the same amount of work for just one thing--even if the margins are higher it's just hard to scale.

Then in early 2012 we hired our first designer. I sat with her and we planned out what the first collection would look like, that came out in September of 2012, and Terry Richardson shot the look book. It's been a year since then so we're celebrating the fall collection now. This is the first collection by our VP of design, Sarah Wilkinson, who was at ASOS for the last six years. I wrote to her on LinkedIn and moved her across the world. Thirty percent of our business is stuff that we are designing now.

That's pretty crazy in just a year. Yeah it happened pretty fast. And I want it to be even more. But it takes time to align production and design, to ramp up and have good quality and make sure everything's taken care of.

Alexandra Richards, Sophia Amoruso, Milou Van Groesen (BFA)

Alexandra Richards, Sophia Amoruso, Milou Van Groesen (BFA)

How do you explain Nasty Gal's exponential growth? It's grown out of social media. I literally used to sit in a bathrobe with a towel on my head with a friend adding bot that was totally against Myspace's terms and I'd enter CAPTCHA codes every 30 seconds after it would add 12 friends. [To translate a bit, CAPTCHA codes--those annoying boxes that pop up on sites and ask you to type a swirly word and some numbers--are built into programs to verify a user is actually human. So Amoruso kinda gamed MySpace to get the word out about NastyGal.] I could type in the user account number for Nylon magazine and choose girls between the ages of 16 and 26 in LA and NYC and push a button and add all of them. That's where it started from--from this pretty specific group of girls that I marketed to. And then there are the girls that found us naturally on eBay and told their friends.

How are you handling all the attention? I'm handling it really well. I waited a really long time to handle it--and I didn't want to handle it until I felt like I was grown up enough and confident enough to be here doing this right now. If you had put me here even three years ago it probably would have been a really terrifying experience. I think it's important for us to be here now talking to the fashion community and getting involved with the greater fashion powers that be--I don't want to be just an LA brand.

What would you say is your biggest challenge now? The biggest challenge is institutionalizing the magic. It was such a great serendipitous trip all the way here--not that I didn't think along the way or make really good choices or find great people to help me--but there's been a lot of serendipity and finding out what those things are and making sure we can find people who can define what that is and actually plan for it in the future, take our prior success and magnify it, that's a really big task. Staying cool while you get big is a really difficult thing to do.