I never, ever click on a Facebook ad. Between covering the fashion industry and working in media, I have become nearly fanatical in my avoidance of anything sponsored or served up to me in my feed simply because I meet certain algorithms. But when I scrolled past an ad for a brand called Girlfriend Collective, I clicked through; perhaps it was the promise of free leggings or the familiar, clean aesthetic so many fashion startups are using, but I had to know more.
The current website for Girlfriend Collective is simple: There's a link to redeem a free pair of leggings via Facebook (or email, for the social media averse), a FAQ and an About Us, which each seem to lead to the same page. There are no product pages or shopping options, because Girlfriend Collective won't even officially launch as a brand until September. There are just the leggings — free minus the cost of shipping — a campaign to which Girlfriend Collective dedicated all of its advertising budget.
But there's more to Girlfriend Collective than free leggings. Seattle-based Quang Dinh and his wife Ellie founded the brand when they saw a gap in the direct-to-consumer space for activewear brands. Despite the fact that his background is in mechanical engineering, Dinh followed his interest in fashion to launch premium denim brand Sling & Stones in 2005, putting his own spin on the trend by going eco-friendly, sourcing organic denim and opening a fair-trade factory in India.
"When I looked at the market, everyone was sort of doing the same thing; they were buying from the same mills, there was nothing special about a $300 pair, you were just buying a brand name," he explains. "I wanted to launch a denim brand that actually made sense for $300, in terms of what you actually pay for."
Dinh left the industry after the economy crashed in 2008, when stores started to go out of business without paying him or returning his inventory. Then, about a year ago, Ellie felt frustrated that she was unable to find an activewear brand with a responsible ethos. They looked around the direct-to-consumer space at brands like Everlane and Warby Parker, and realized there was a place for activewear — especially one with an eco-friendly twist.
"I started digging into how activewear is produced, what type of fabrics they use, how they produce their stuff, and it was very similar to what I saw in premium denim," Dinh says. "Unfortunately, or fortunately for us, a lot of people in activewear use the exact same fabric, go to the exact same factories as Lululemon in Taiwan, and slap their label on it. Obviously, I tried to figure out how we could make it better, and this is what we ended up with."
They found a mill in Asia that uses a material made 100 percent from recycled bottles, and an SA8000-certified factory in Vietnam, the fair-trade certified equivalent for garment manufacturing. "The only way to make sure that factory workers are protected is to go through a third-party certification source that actually cares," Dihn says of the importance of this certification.
With a design team that includes ex-Lululemon and Acne Studios hires, Girlfriend Collective is taking the fashion aspect as seriously as it does responsible manufacturing. And by going direct-to-consumer, it can deliver more cheaply than its competitors: Dinh estimates that once they're available for purchase, those leggings will ring in around $58 to $68, instead of the $100 retail price of similar styles.
Girlfriend Collective plans to officially launch with a full-fledged line of activewear, including sports bras, organic tees and even bomber jackets — so why promote with a simple, black legging style customers could find anywhere? "I think the past two to three years, leggings are similar to what we saw with denim in 2005 — especially with athleisure and the health movement," Dihn says. "If you want to be in this lifestyle, you want to work out, you get a pair of leggings."
Which brings us back to that Facebook campaign: After stepping away from fashion, Dinh worked in digital media and digital marketing — in his own words, "understanding how to drive traffic and conversions and the whole digital advertising space." He knew that Facebook advertising is relatively cheap, and could help target his brand to the right audiences. More importantly, it promotes sharing and engagement.
"We know for us, if we can get a few users to click through and fall in love with the brand, they'll share," he says. "You see the content, you see what we're doing, you see the campaign and you read our 'about' page — that's what we want consumers to do, not just redeem a free pair of leggings. We want them to be fans and fanatics, and show their friends."
In fact, according to Dinh, the majority of leggings "sold" have come from just these such referrals. When Girlfriend Collective launched the Facebook initiative on April 1, the first two days crashed the website. They pulled the campaign, revamped the site, and picked things back up again a couple of weeks later, but didn't miss a beat thanks to that referral mindset.
Even the name was inspired by the idea of close-knit, health-conscious friend groups — specifically, those in the world's most famous #squad. " We just thought of Taylor Swift and girl squads, a bunch of girls living this healthy lifestyle," Dinh explains with a laugh. "If we're going to make an activewear brand that's a lifestyle movement, and it's female focused, it should be called 'Girlfriend.' We saw the domain, it was available, and we were like, 'Okay, done.'"