How StyleSaint Went From Online Tearsheets To Its Own Fashion Line

Can an L.A. fashion startup’s data-driven, community-led, ultra-lean approach to production overturn an industry's methods?

StyleSaint hasn’t even sold through a single collection yet, but the mere existence of Oceans Lost, the 20-piece debut rolling out this week from the Los Angeles-based online fashion community, is already something of a triumph in an industry that’s notoriously difficult for newcomers to break into. One major barrier to entry: minimums, industry-speak for the lowest quantity per garment a manufacturer will allow designers and brands to order, often far exceed what new apparel brands can reasonably expect to sell.

"To suddenly be a new company and to sew 10,000 units of a T-shirt is a really risky game," says Allison Beal, who cofounded StyleSaint with venture capitalist Brian Garrett of CrossCut Ventures.

To hedge against the risk associated with ordering untested or unrequested garments, fashion companies have traditionally spent months doing a "dog and pony show," Beal says, creating numerous samples that they then show to buyers, who, in turn, place wholesale orders on behalf of retail stores. Only at that point does production begin.

"That whole process is hugely inefficient, time consuming, it costs a ton of money," says Beal.

Enter StyleSaint, which aims to speed this process along in ways that are simpler, cheaper, and faster.

"We can cut down the time of manufacturing by up to five months," Beal says. "We can bring this product to market within four weeks and with wholesale pricing that we can sell directly to the audience."

When it goes on sale this week, Oceans Lost, the company’s first collection, will bypass minimums to offer limited quantities (as few as five, but typically more like 80) of items like silk maxi dresses, camisole tops, and blouses produced by the same manufacturers who make garments for The Row, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s luxury line, as well as designers like James Perse and Vince. Pulling that off required the help of fashion industry veteran Brian Weitman, CEO of Los Angeles manufacturing group STC-QST and StyleSaint’s manufacturing partner, as well as a compelling proposition.

StyleSaint orders smaller quantities at more frequent intervals and does away with production samples. All pre-production takes place in-house. All manufacturers receive is a finalized design to reproduce.

"They’re able to just get started working. They get to do what they’re best at without all of this pre-work," Beal says.

StyleSaint also aims to sell clothes for less than a designer label equivalent with a direct-to-consumer, e-commerce-only sales approach that’s increasingly common today. A maxi dress made of Italian silk will go for $158, while a silk shell is $64.

It’s a cost-cutting strategy that can work, says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst of The NPD Group, Inc.

"So many of these smaller brands have the option to find ways to cut costs," he says.

But in addition to cutting costs, emerging brands like StyleSaint still need to turn a profit if they can hope to survive beyond their latest funding round.

"They also have to recognize that, if they’re underselling it by too much, they’re also minimizing their profit margins," Cohen says.

Selling, of course, is key and the kryptonite to so many young brands that come out of the gate at the same time they’re seeking to build a customer base. Good thing StyleSaint already has one.

Since launching late last spring, the company spent more than a year (as well as its first round of seed funding) building a community of "fashion freaks" who use StyleSaint to build stylebooks populated with images and "tears" of fashion editorials and products. These stylebooks can then be shared and embedded, and individual users can follow and be followed by other users. According to Garrett, a community of 100,000 members has emerged, with about 25,000 creating stylebooks on a regular basis.

Garrett does concede that it’s impossible to know whether the community will be enough to sustain the brand. "Whether that translates to sales is something we don’t know, but we feel better having done it than with no audience at all."

At the very least, StyleSaint can be reasonably assured that its audience is interested in what it’s selling. Along with members, the stylebooks are mined for data about fashion trends, information that the company can then use to design and produce apparel that it will sell. While it’s true that plenty of sites have built communities first and then sold to them (Beautylish is a good example), others are forging ahead with crowd-approved production (ModCloth’s Be the Buyer program is probably the most notable example) and a number of startups are championing the lean, direct-to-consumer approach to building an apparel brand (think Everlane, American Giant). StyleSaint is doing all three behind the façade of a glossy, fashion-forward aesthetic.

But perhaps the most noteworthy element of StyleSaint’s strategy, one that combines community, data-driven design, and unconventional manufacturing relationships, is what it forecasts for the fashion industry as whole: Instead of large collections produced on traditional timetables and with six-month lead times, the fashion brands of the future may actually succeed by producing smaller runs of reasonably priced, high-quality items more frequently and adding the most successful designs to core collections that define their brands season after season.

As Garrett says, "The tech entrepreneurial mantra is make mistakes quickly, iterate and move on… We’re applying that methodology to fashion."

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