When I think back to my childhood, a common resurfacing theme is loneliness. Sure, I had friends. But what I didn't have was a sense of belonging. As a multicultural, first-generation kid growing up in the Heartland, that was hard to come by. It wasn't until the Internet Age — and the subsequent rise of social media — that I discovered others like me even existed. Instantly, I could connect with millions over our shared cultures, quirks and experiences.
As it turns out, that deep, unmatched sense of connection is also good for business. A new wave of online retailers is beginning to emerge, all sharing a central mission: to curate and sell inventory centered on cultural or geographic identity.
Brittany Chavez, founder and CEO of Shop Latinx, can pinpoint the exact moment she knew an e-commerce platform dedicated to products by Latinx people would resonate with her community. "It was the summer of 2016 during the height of the presidential election," she tells Fashionista. "I came across so many directories, lists and articles written by other marginalized folks, and that inspired me one night to look up Latino businesses I could support. I found there was no resource for us to really do so."
Originally, Shop Latinx was an Instagram account, intended to be an online meeting place for Latinx folks to gather and bond, especially after the election. But once Chavez began posting products on the platform, she noticed her audience was hungry for more. (According to a 2019 Nielsen report, Latinx purchasing power in the U.S. is slated to surpass $1.9 trillion by 2023. That's higher than the gross domestic product of most countries.)
"We'd probably receive 300-plus messages from customers who are like, 'Hey, I'm on your website and I'm trying to purchase this product. How do I check out?'" Chavez shares. "We had to redirect these customers to the brand. After 300-plus times of customers doing that, that's when the idea of the marketplace came to mind. We realized, 'Okay, customers want to see us as a destination for them to find products they love, and they want to shop directly on our website, so let's make that happen.'"
In November 2019 — on Latina Equal Pay Day — the Shop Latinx marketplace launched with just seven brands, including social-media favorites Hija de tu Madre, House of Intuition and Brujita Skincare. In its first month, Chavez says the site pulled approximately $10,000 in sales — though, she explains: "I will say, we launched during the height of the holiday season. This is a business, so to scale, I have to be honest about my key points. It's doing well, but at the same time, there's a lot of work to be done." A few months in, Shop Latinx now boasts 180 different products from Latinx-owned or -created brands.
One of the vendors, Jen Zeano Designs, has developed a loyal following for its cheeky apparel, like T-shirts that have "Latina Power" and "Cabrona" written on the front.
Like Chavez, Zeano says her namesake label began out of post-election sadness and fatigue. "I was feeling defeated and frustrated," she shares. "I created the Latina Power [shirt] as a reminder to myself. This tee catapulted everything else. I knew then I was meant to create a brand with a mission to empower Latinas."
Three-and-a-half years later, the Texas-based designer has done just that. "There is a gap of representation, and when those gaps are filled, people are left with a sense of belonging," Zeano explains. "One of our goals is to create products that are relatable and that remind you of your roots. Having these conversations makes us feel like we are friends with all our customers."
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The Folklore, which stocks contemporary designers from Africa, stems from a similar mindset of openness and collaboration. Founded by Amira Rasool (a Fashionista contributor) in September 2018, the online shop offers an array of expertly curated apparel, shoes, jewelry and more from brands like Maxhosa, MmusoMaxwell and Orange Culture. The venture is part e-commerce, part editorial experiment: Rasool — a writer-turned-entrepreneur — profiles each designer on the platform, providing shoppers with a more nuanced, holistic perspective of where their products come from.
"[With] most retailers, it's a very transactional experience you're having with them," Rasool says. "That's where the storytelling element comes in. We're really helping the brand build and create imagery around these women and their stories."
Although some brands had received significant international attention, their growth was stifled due to a lack of infrastructure, according to Rasool: "Everyone was writing about how great these brands were, and they were publishing these images. The only thing lacking was for them to be able to monetize that press. I've created a platform that allows them to do so."
Not only is The Folklore supplying a space for African designers to be seen, it's also providing them with the tools necessary to be successful in the highly competitive world of wholesale retail. "For now, e-commerce is what we're working with, but we're also helping these brands get into larger retail stores, approaching retailers on their behalf, soliciting wholesale orders and helping them organize shipment of the orders to these retailers," Rasool explains.
Speed to market remains a priority for most industry executives, which can often squeeze out up-and-coming brands that lack the expertise to navigate convoluted contracts and purchase orders. One 2018 McKinsey report sums up the challenge — and opportunity — many emerging brands are currently facing, writing: "The days when fashion firms relied on a single, one-size-fits-all, go-to-market process are long gone. In addition to faster preseason development, companies can improve their in-season reactivity, i.e., their ability to respond quickly when they spot a missed trend or need to replenish a sell-out product. In all cases, time is of the essence when meeting consumer demand." That's precisely where Folklore enters the picture.
"We recognize these brands are not used to doing business with international retail companies," Rasool says. "We want to make sure The Folklore is not the only place you can buy these brands, which — for the most part — is the case right now. We want to make sure you can walk into a Selfridges or a Nordstrom and find [them]. We're curating an experience that benefits them and takes into consideration their limitations, but also their strengths."
Indeed, empowerment and representation are at the core of this growing movement in retail. But beyond visibility, it's about giving these communities ownership over their work and giving them a platform to make their mark on a larger industry.
Shop Latinx and The Folklore are doing it at the retail level, while individual vendors like Zeano, Hija de tu Madre, Pinay Collection and Morena the Label, plus many more, do it on a smaller scale, representing different groups and cultures. Taken altogether, they offer more proof of the demand for this kind of merchandise. And their sizable social media followings show that consumers are paying attention.
"People of different identities want to feel seen," Chavez says. "They want to feel like they belong. They want to feel part of this community. They want to feel spoken to. And other platforms [and] retailers don't really touch on that — there's no cultural nuance in their messaging."
The people that shop at these retailers, "they're buying more than just products," Chavez explains. "They want to buy into this community. They want to feel like they're making a difference in someone's life when they make a purchase. They want to know these founders. They want to know who I am. They want to know our stories, and so it's up to us to deliver."