When you walk into the Modern Citizen store on Union Street in San Francisco, any image you have of Silicon Valley's bro-culture fashion disappears as you find yourself surrounded by sophisticated women's clothing — think sweaters, loose dresses, crisp blouses and joggers — hanging on four small clothing racks amongst perfectly placed plants and pottery pieces (which are also, coincidentally, for sale). Not only are the clothes beautiful and the setting tranquil, but you're also surrounded by women — something of a rarity in San Francisco.
Though the store itself is modestly small, insiders know that in four short years, this brand has gone from the website your cool friend bookmarked for you to being mentioned in the same sentence as direct-to-consumer powerhouse Everlane. This comparison is, in part, thanks to Modern Citizen's admittedly hip aesthetic, as well as its similar beginnings as a digital-native brand based in San Francisco. But where Everlane is known for its staple pieces, Modern Citizen has been dubbed the women's fashionable workwear alternative to Zara.
"We have a lot of empathy for this customer, because we are this customer," says Jessica Lee, who co-founded the brand in 2014 with business partner Lizzie Agnew. "We're in our early 30s; we're trying to go to seven weddings this year, and buy a house, and do all the things and still have brunch on Saturdays. We wanted to make sure that this category, which is important, is not what gives them gray hair."
Lee, who honed her skills working in strategy and business development at Gap Inc., credits the clothing giant for teaching her that a friendly price point — everything at Modern Citizen is $110 or less — isn't a bad thing.
"Being mass is okay," she explains. "Gap addresses so many customers and I just didn't think the world needed another brand with $600 tops. What gets me excited is being able to touch a lot of women. With these price points we can become a much bigger business." She also credits Gap for being direct-to-consumer early in the game, pointing out that they were always a stand-alone brand rather than one that sold to department stores.
Veering from the Gap plan, Lee took cues from the female founders of ModCloth and Nasty Gal and pursued the digital-only route; her target customer was the modern working woman who didn't need to be stressed by shopping for her office wardrobe. "For me, it was about a desire to do things differently. Lizzie and myself also felt this desire to speak to a very specific kind of customer," she says.
That customer was one who wanted to be not just professional, but also unique in the workplace, and who wanted to make a statement with their fashion. "We aren't focusing on basics, which many of our peers are in this market. We're trying to layer on top of that — clothes that make a bit of a statement that you can mix with a basic, but it is still polished," Lee says. "It is more feminine and allows for a little bit more individuality."
Modern Citizen is helping San Francisco transition to becoming a more fashion-friendly place for women — a shift Lee has observed recently with the popularity of Everlane, as well as her own business. Though most of the pieces are predominantly in practical shades of black, white, navy and gray, some hues of pink and oatmeal make an appearance, too. According to Lee, Modern Citizen is becoming the alternative for people in San Francisco who don't want to wear Lululemon all weekend.
"We do want to say it is okay to wear a dress to work — it's a good thing," she says. "Our girl likes fashion. That makes us different and we attract that."
While she's serving the growing fashion community by providing them with non-spandex items, she's also giving them a support system. Modern Citizen regularly holds female-led panels on career development and networking events for women in their store. Lee says many girls have made new friends and professional contacts at these events. "It doesn't feel intimidating or like they are the minority in the room, and that they are a woman is a non-factor when they walk in," she says. "It's really the aspect of creating community around the brand that's very new. It's a changing of the guard [for] a new generation of brands."
Currently, Modern Citizen puts out 50 items a month across clothing, accessories, beauty and home goods categories, and they expect to put out more of the latter two in the second half of the year. Lee couldn't comment on expansion, but the prospect is clearly there: New York City is Modern Citizen's number-one online market. In the meantime, Lee is taking her time as she plans her next move.
"We've been fortunate enough to build a company in the last five years where you could choose how you wanted to build the foundation and be thinking about the future when you made those choices," she says. And, as the saying goes, the future is female.