If you ask Maggie Winter, there’s a difference between basics and essentials in a woman’s wardrobe. The gray tank top you wear under a sweater is a basic. The silk crepe top you reach for three mornings a week and wear year-round is an essential. Well-made and flattering, it’s the team player that sets the stage for an amazing, standout skirt.
That’s the story that Winter, formerly a senior merchant in J.Crew’s women’s retail division, is telling at her new venture, Ayr. Announced late last month, Ayr is the womenswear offshoot of Bonobos, the e-commerce startup that set out six years ago to make better-fitting pants for guys. When the first Ayr collection debuts in full in February, it will deliver a range of jeans, silk camis, sleeveless t-shirts and sweaters that, in Winter’s words, “look like a hug.”
Ayr isn’t the only startup that is building an online-native brand with a keen focus on seasonless essentials, though. Maison Standards from France, the globally conscious Cuyana, and Everlane, perhaps the best known example in this category, present variations of the same pitch: a tightly edited collection of high quality staples at a price point that won’t break the bank. And in the same way that Warby Parker knocked down the price on eyewear a few hundred dollars by selling directly to the consumer and cutting out exorbitant wholesale to retail markups, these e-commerce companies are angling to capture consumer interest with the promise of quiet luxury for less.
Offering Value, Not Bargains
They aren’t marketing themselves as bargain brands, though. The emphasis is almost universally on value. As Cuyana co-founder Karla Gallardo notes, Cuyana's shopper is a woman who knows what high-quality materials feel like and knows how much products of that kind typically cost.
"Our customers are educated customers," Gallardo says. "We’re not a cheap alternative. Our leather tote is $150, which is an incredible price for that, but it’s still not at a Target price."
Style-wise, this brand messaging strikes a chord with a current inclination in fashion toward '90s minimalism, simple silhouettes and unisex dressing. With what seems like a new season getting tacked onto the fashion calendar each year and fast-fashion brands churning out trendy styles quicker than you can say "peplum," an unfussy boyfriend sweater you can depend on month after month in many ways feels like a breath of fresh air.
"I’m seeing a general want for something different, a nostalgia for an era when things were tailored nicely, because we’ve grown up with stuff. Whether you’re a low income household or middle [class], there’s just stuff around us. People are starting to reject that," says Soraya Darabi, one of the founders of the conscious consumerism site Zady.
For Cuyana, taking the counterintuitive step of telling shoppers to buy less is very much part of its brand identity. Founded in 2011, the e-commerce startup builds its products around specific materials, which are sourced from artisans in the countries that do them best. There are Alpaca sweaters from Peru, for instance, and leather saddle bags from Argentina.
Offering fewer, better things is part of the zeitgeist. But it’s also a smart move for getting a venture-backed startup off the ground. In this generation of e-commerce brands, you’re more likely to find graduates of Stanford Business School at the helm than graduates of FIT or Parsons. Design very much comes hand in hand with a well-planned business model.
When mismanaging inventory or misfiring on a particular style can kill a young company, putting through a production run on five styles -- as opposed to 15 or 25 -- minimizes manufacturing costs, while helping to convey a strong brand identity to consumers right off the bat.
Basics are also a relatively low risk area of fashion to focus on, since they don’t go out of style the way some designs do. (See: sneaker wedges.) What isn’t sold in one season can easily be turned over for the next. In fact, “seasons” as defined by the ebb and flow of trends cease to exist, and when a collection is essentially seasonless, the retail evil that is sales become unnecessary. Maison Standards CEO Uriel Karsenti says his company doesn’t plan to put anything on sale, a hope that is echoed by Everlane CEO Michael Preysman.
“We don't overbuy. We underbuy on inventory because we don't want to go on sale,” Preysman says.
He adds that the Everlane team tracks which colorways perform best after launch and then continue to stock accordingly. In a few instances, Everlane has re-dyed clothing from the previous season to resell, although Preysman points out that it only happened a few times and is not typically part of their inventory strategy.
Gallardo says that by forming close relationships with the artisans and craftsmen they work with, the Cuyana team is able to turn around new designs in an average of two and a half to three months, much faster than other fashion brands. With a shorter lead time on manufacture, Cuyana can launch a product in five colors in small batches and produce according to what is most in demand.
But that doesn’t mean stocking is easy for a young company. As Sucharita Mulpuru-Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester Research, points out, it takes a large upfront investment in inventory in order to get prices down.
"You could easily be in a situation where you just run out of cash because you have to front a lot of cash," Mulpuru-Kodali says. "You have to make big upfront investments, and then you hope that over time you can recoup that."
Facing a Competitive Market
The other challenge facing young essentials companies is that they’re easily replicable, as Everlane discovered with the launch of a Turkish site called "Mavelane." Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but when a young brand starts seeing competition from like-minded, cheaper copycats -- sometimes incubated within bigger brands -- it can put them out of business.
According to Mulpuru-Kodali, the market for essentials is a competitive one, encompassing not only other brands like Uniqlo and Vince, but also department stores. Consumers are relatively brand agnostic when looking to fill the white t-shirt gap in their closet, so in order to dominate in essentials, a brand has to build their visibility to the point where they are at the top of shoppers’ minds when they realize they need a particular item.
"A lot of these guys have managed to use social very early on, and they have this big burst of awareness for six months because there’s this world of fashionistas who are looking for this next big thing, and they buy one thing once," she says. "That’s why all these brands ultimately have to invest in offline marketing or store infrastructure or something of that nature."
Growing Slowly, But Surely
The market is there, though. Vince raised $200 million in its IPO last week, making it the first US apparel brand to go public since Michael Kors in 2011. After pricing shares at $20 each on Thursday, Vince closed its first day on the New York Stock Exchange at $28.66. According to the filing, the company brought in $114.7 million in sales in the six months ending on August 3.
As Bloomberg reported, the successful IPO suggests a consumer desire for understatement in luxury. Comparing Vince against a company like Everlane, one can see how the latter might approach building out its product. Vince turns out seasonal collections along with its more perennial styles, and they are able to iterate liberally on the latter. Silk blouses, for instance, come with and without collars, with colorblocking, pleating at the neck, two pockets, none. Any number of these pieces could be a startup label’s “perfect silk blouse.” But with small riffs, Vince is able to accommodate more women’s definitions of “perfect.”
Everlane, which initially sold one t-shirt in three colors, will eventually touch every category that other brands do, Preysman said. The goal for now is to expand across categories, rather than within them. That means having one "perfect" style in each vertical with a few supporting, or more stylized, designs. Cuyana and Maison Standards are slowly growing its offerings, too — the operative word being slowly.
“We would rather expand slowly and surely,” Gallardo said. “Especially being in the Valley [Silicon Valley] when there are people telling you to grow fast, it comes at the expense of doing things right, and to build the brand you need time. We need investors to understand that.”