When Alexa Chung announced to her nearly two million Instagram followers on the day before New York Fashion Week that a new shopping app she launched called Villoid was available for download, we were certainly intrigued, if not a tad surprised. While many fans readily accepted Chung's very sudden career change from expert clothes wearer and occasional TV host/documentarian to tech entrepreneur, we had some questions that weren't answered by Chung's Insta-announcements and cute press statements like, "I suppose that scene in 'Clueless' where the computer puts an outfit together from Cher's wardrobe really stayed with me," and also, "Silicone Valley sounds like a bouncy castle I want to play on."
We later learned that most of the marketing around the app since Chung started promoting it left out a bit of its history. Villoid has been around for about a year and used to be called SoBazaar. Its CEO is entrepreneur and former lawyer Jeanette Dyhre Kvisvik, who has started several mobile marketing and e-commerce companies. She launched the app in Norway (she works between New York and Oslo) and reached a 25 percent market share there within a few months. The app is backed by Telenor, a Norwegian telecom company, and Schibsted Media Group, a global online media company. It makes money through generic and individual agreements with brands, including commission, advertising and "other relevant win-win agreements."
When it came time to take the app international, Kvisvik says she wanted someone with more fashion industry and social media expertise, so she "stalked down" Chung, as she puts it. "It took a lot of fake and real agents to finally get hold of her. When I finally did, Alexa said I could have 20 minutes with her at Soho Grand Hotel in New York the day after. I was in London and went straight for the airport. And well, we hit it off." Chung came on board last November, and the two worked together "undercover" to keep her involvement a secret until they were ready to relaunch.
Like many of us, Chung had already thought about creating an app, and so the two of them "merged" their ideas — though Chung never made the trek to Norway. "We have worked mostly out of New York and London together and also on Skype," Kvisvik explained. "Oslo is a small town and we didn't want the secret of Villoid to come out until we were ready." Still, Kvisvik says Chung was very involved with helping to revamp the app's design, branding, the user experience and tone-of-voice. She also came up with the new name, which comes from "a little bit of Villain and a little bit of astroid, but really just something Alexa calls some of her friends."
Of course, the real value seems to be in Chung's influence. Given the proliferation of fashion apps over the past few years, many of which do more or less the same thing, it takes something special (like a big name or major venture capital) for one to get the attention of consumers — or even press. But despite seemingly coming out of nowhere, Villoid got written up everywhere from Elle to the Telegraph. Judging by the headlines (sample: "Exclusive: Alexa Chung Is Now a Tech Mogul"), that has had more to do with Chung than Villoid's capabilities.
With her powerful combination of fame and legitimate industry credibility, it's difficult to think of a better name to have attached to your fashion-related venture. And in terms of getting people signed up on the app, it's worked. "So many downloaded the app the minute Alexa announced her 'secret project' last week that the app was crashing," said Kvisvik. She declined to give an up-to-date number, but a spokesperson said on Sept. 11 that 10,000 new boards were being made every day since Chung had begun promoting Villoid.
Users are able to make Pinterest-like "boards" with outfits they like, as well as follow other users to see the boards they create. Each item on the board can be clicked on and potentially purchased. You can also follow brands like Acne and Adidas, and search for items by category or whether they're on sale. It's similar to a lot of apps that have launched over the past three years or so — Polyvore, Trendabl, The Cools, Pose, Snapette, Spring and, most recently, the Net Set come to mind.
Chung promoted Villoid the way a lot of celebrity side projects are marketed: The public is often made to believe that an actress or pop star suddenly learned how to design clothes when really she's just a face of (and probably an investor in) a brand someone else developed. Chung's venture is working in part because her interest in Villoid comes across as sincere — especially to those less skeptical than us — because she rarely self-promotes; she seems picky about projects; and she talks about Villoid on social media in a humble way that doesn't stray from her usual voice. She is also cool, and it seems unlikely that she would get involved with a thing that wasn't.
Unfortunately, as we've learned from past apps that banked on influential users but couldn't hold public interest, that doesn't guarantee long-term success. Only time will tell if the Net Set and (or?) Villoid turn out to be the ones who got it right.