In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
San Francisco isn't quite considered a high-gloss fashion capital, but then again, it's home to Lisa Bühler, the former Nasty Gal buyer who built one of the industry's most ubiquitous Instagram brands.
For the last seven years, Bühler has developed a retail business that's truly all her own, right there in the Bay Area. That business, of course, is none other than Lisa Says Gah, an e-commerce destination born out of Bühler's particular vision for quirky nostalgia.
What is "gah," exactly? In a recent profile on The Cut, Emilia Petrarca exquisitely describes it as "what you say when you turn a corner and gah! Look at that adorable little dog in a bow tie." In Bühler's case, "gah" was, maybe, not so philosophical: "Lisa Says Gah" was simply the name of her Instagram handle at the time of the retailer's launch, and it stuck. It's a fitting first chapter in the origin story of a brand that helped put social shopping on the map.
Lisa Says Gah formally entered the cybersphere in 2015, on the heels of Bühler's three-and-a-half-year stint at the fast-fashion-adjacent former brainchild of one Sophia Amoruso. Bühler's timing couldn't have been better. She was already proficiently Online™, having banked valuable experience at a rapidly growing e-commerce startup. She understood how to cater to the newly-lucrative millennial-aged consumer in a way that was at once aspirational and relatable. And she certainly didn't water down her whimsical, more-is-more aesthetic to better appease the Phoebe Philoheads.
By the time Instagram launched its in-app shopping feature a year later, Bühler had already secured an audience thanks, in no small part, to Lisa Says Gah's blooming presence on the platform. (Bühler's shrewd financial savvy certainly didn't hurt.) The business has grown immensely since that era, when Bühler spent her days running Lisa Says Gah from her apartment, on a website she set up herself on Squarespace. What's remained more constant, however, is the brand's commitment to speak for the Lisa Says Gah shopper: They're trend-driven, sure, but also unapologetic in their commitment to themselves, in all their eccentricities.
"Nostalgia is a big part of the reason I find fashion so romantic and dreamy and inspiring," Bühler explains from San Francisco, on one of those foggy San Francisco mornings. "But I also want to put it in a light that feels fresh. Both contradict each other, but they've become what the brand has stood for."
Ahead, Bühler shares how a supermodel-obsessed '90s kid in Southern California went on to create and now scale Lisa Says Gah, all without sacrificing her belief in what clothes, really, should be about.
How did you first become interested in fashion?
Growing up in the '90s, supermodels were such a big deal. I was just thinking about how Cindy Crawford filmed a Pepsi commercial in my hometown of Redlands, and my dad took me to check it out. This supermodel walked by and waved, and it was such a moment for me.
I was always interested in photography and artistry and fashion, but I never went into fashion design. It's such a mysterious business. I studied communications and advertising and Italian, and I felt that Italian fashion and the culture and the style… I was attracted to all of it.
My first fashion job was in a wholesale showroom, which was a knowledgeable position for me to be in to start. My first job post-college was in 2008. We were still faxing purchase orders, and I thought this industry felt so behind and in many ways, it was. It's improved over the years, of course. But pre-e-commerce explosion and Instagram, a lot of brands had to start out by going to showrooms to get into stores. Learning about price points and wholesale pricing and margins — meeting with designers, meeting with buyers — was really eye-opening. That led me to thinking I wanted to be the curator in this piece of the puzzle. That's when I moved over as a buyer at Nasty Gal.
How did that opportunity come about? What lessons did you learn in your time at Nasty Gal that you still carry with you today?
I had already shown this collection from One Teaspoon, an Australian brand, to Sophia [Amoruso] and Christina [Ferrucci], who was the main buyer at the time. Nasty Gal was in San Francisco, and I had started dating my now-husband, Louis, and he was in San Francisco. I thought about Nasty Gal because they were based there. But anyway, they ended up moving to LA. They had a position open for a junior buyer, and I remember emailing Christina about it and pushing to get in there. I knew it was hard to get into the buying world, but I really wanted to work for Nasty Gal, which was the brand that kind of launched e-commerce.
It sounds corny, but I found myself there. I felt like I flourished in that size of a company. It was still a startup and everyone was so excited about what we were doing. I was doing well and I felt like I had a lot of ownership and growth opportunity, and Nasty Gal did grow a lot at that time. Of course, they got funding. That's a big learning lesson for where I am now with Lisa Says Gah, making financial decisions — what's best for me and the company and the team. I think a lot about spending and how it can change team dynamics and how the business operates. That's probably my biggest takeaway from that journey.
What are some of the most significant changes you've witnessed in the industry since you started at Nasty Gal?
The impetus for Lisa Says Gah was moving away from fast-fashion after being in it. It didn't feel sustainable, and what felt better were these independent brands. I also felt that sustainability was targeted to wealthy moms. I wanted to get to brands that were doing sustainability, but in a more fashionable way, that reached a wider audience who wanted to feel cool. What I set out to do was to become that platform for the discovery of new brands by focusing on independent designers and trying to reach a price point that was a little more accessible. That, I think, has changed — the values have really changed in fashion. The customer has been put in the driver's seat more than being told what to do.
In 2015, you ventured out on your own and launched Lisa Says Gah. How did you decide to make that transition, and how did you go about getting your business off the ground?
I moved to San Francisco for personal reasons, to be with Louis. He was living up here and we had done long-distance for three-plus years, but it really got to this point of, "Do I want to make this relationship work?" And his business is very much here, so I decided to move to San Francisco for love. [Laughs] How do I sound not-cheesy? It was a tough decision because I loved working for Nasty Gal. I wasn't sure what I was going to do in San Francisco, and it was really sad to leave all my friends and this career that I just loved. But I made the leap.
When I moved to San Francisco, Nasty Gal said, "Can you actually stay on and consult for a while until we find a replacement?" So I still had some financial resources, and I also just thought, "Oh, I'm going to be a consultant!" I did some moodboard inspiration, just smaller jobs. I was recruited a bit, but I wasn't set on any one company. I kept thinking about this shop I had in mind, and one day I got on Squarespace and started working on it. It was such a small idea.
It was great to talk to new brands again and buy really small orders. I kept the inventory in the apartment — I stocked it in, like, my kitchen cupboard — and did all the photography myself. I had a little bit of savings, but the real benefit was that I moved in with my boyfriend and he had a small apartment. Our expenses were so low that it was feasible, and I used a credit card for the rest. The business became self-sustaining after around four months when it reinvested in itself, and it has been since then.
At what point did you decide to launch your in-house line?
It launched in 2017. I had picked up some dark linen fabric and we created a piece with a local San Francisco factory. I hired a freelance designer to help with all the fits. We wanted something that felt contemporary, paying close attention to trends, but that was also timeless — something that could be worn for a while and in a sustainable way. It started out with just a couple pieces here and there as we were testing the waters, and now it's become a big piece of the business.
It was a way for us to have more control. We can launch it whenever we want. We're not stuck to these seasonal drops. So if you're wanting to find this perfect silhouette, then it can be done much faster by developing it in-house. Layering that in with designers felt like the right move for us.
Your in-house line goes up to a 3XL, and you've been vocal that you one day plan to launch a dedicated plus line. In your opinion, what are some of the largest hurdles facing true size inclusivity in the fashion space in 2021?
It's shocking that traditionally, large has been the largest size. I'm typically an extra-large, and I oddly never questioned that a lot of times. We didn't start to see the demand for it until a couple years ago, when we started asking our brands to comply. We also asked them for biodegradable packaging. Now that we have more influence, we can place larger orders, and in some cases, we'll force brands or make it more incentivizing for them to spend a little bit more. Cutting extra sizes sometimes requires the pattern to change, and that's just more cost added. I think that's probably why a lot of brands don't start off with plus sizing, but that's also why the fit really needs to be separate after a certain size. That's something we're working on.
It just comes down to being responsive and community-oriented, which we are. We're always evolving. Also, to go back to my point of the consumer driving change in the industry… That's a big part of it.
Lisa Says Gah is widely considered to be one of the first true "Instagram brands" that have helped transform the platform into one with enormous commercial power. What role has social media played in your business to date?
I often think, "Would Lisa Says Gah be where it is today without it?" I don't know. We had a lot of great press early on because we had kind of unorthodox photography. We did things that weren't done in the e-commerce business, and that was really attractive. It was relatable and imperfect, but still drew out this inspiring reaction of, "Ooh, I want to learn more." But it's allowed us to reach an audience consistently that would be hard to do with no advertising budget. We were able to grow organically because we could develop that reach through Instagram.
In early 2020, your staff more than doubled, you opened an office in LA and as of Q1 of this year, you charted growth by a full 300%. What has it been like scaling in such a critical time for the retail industry as a whole?
Well, online shopping spiked. We didn't have the burden of brick-and-mortar and we were already well set for e-commerce. A part of the reason we were able to scale, I think, is that values really changed during the pandemic. But also, as far as my business, we moved to a third-party warehouse. I opened an office in LA and ultimately let go of a lot of areas and let other people help more. There were days where I was shipping orders when it got really busy, of course, but I was able to step back and really think about how to grow the business. I was also a new mom at that time, so it was a lot of change at once. I had to delegate and figure out where I wanted the business to go.
If you were to go through the highlight reel of your career thus far, what big moments stand out to you?
When I was working in the showroom, I was representing this line called Wilt — they didn't even have a lookbook, so I went in over the weekend, brought a friend who was a model and another who was a photographer, and we put together this lookbook in a beautiful format. When my boss came in on Monday, I showed it to her and she just said, "Get in the car right now." We drove over to the designer's studio, and she just threw it on her desk. They were just so impressed. It was a great feeling, and I just did it for fun. That was when I realized I had more to offer than the assistant job I had. All these little moments add up to Lisa Says Gah. Everything informs the next move in a lot of ways, even if it's only seen in hindsight.
What's something that's exciting to you about the fashion industry right now?
There's a lot. Inclusivity has become such a welcome addition to the fashion industry. Fashion should be a happy thing, and it's been pretty destructive in a lot of ways. Being able to participate, but feel good about participating is really exciting. We're behind that mission, so it's great to see consumers and retailers moving in that direction.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.