Let’s get this out of the way: Betabrand calls its synthetic fleece Vagisoft. Yes, it's material named after a woman's privates. And yes, cofounder Chris Lindland is aware of the product's Beavis & Butthead-ness and occasionally fields complaints from people who aren't comfortable with the concept—despite the fact that Betabrand markets the resulting garments as "so ineffably comfy, test subjects had to be removed from them with the Jaws of Life."
"I just keep making it, but every now and then I have to answer for what appears to be a sophomoric joke," says Lindland.
He keeps making it because, well, customers want it. Most recently, female customers crowdfunded Vagisoft back into production.
"I love moving forward, but the web is not letting go of it," Lindland says.
Vagisoft showed its enduring appeal earlier this year when men’s "Vajamas" resulted in production demand four times greater than anticipated. Next, it reiterated its popularity as a runaway success on Betabrand’s newly launched crowdfunding platform. Called Think Tank, the platform has evolved over time to allow designers to submit ideas voted into prototypes, which the company’s in-house production team creates and posts online. If enough people pre-purchase the items, they get crowdfunded into production. Original ideas garner creators 10% of sales revenue. Helping to attract crowdfunders are discounts starting at 30%.
"It’s a way for us to let the feedback of our fans determine where we spend our money," says Lindland, whose company counts quirky items such as a reversible smoking jacket and a hoodie inspired by a disco ball among its popular sellers.
Well before the close of its funding period, the Vagisoft Hoodie for women—designed, it should be noted, by female designer Sarah James—exceeded its goal of 85 pre-orders. With those and more in place, the hoodie will head into production at a factory in San Francisco, where all Betabrand products are made, and ship to backers in early November. Others with similar success include designer Tomo Saito’s Tokyo-inspired cargo pants and a fleece pea coat for men by Betabrand cofounder Matt Thier.
Encouraging interaction is nothing new for Betabrand, which has long allowed design submissions and turns uploaded images into "model shots" displayed on shareable, user-specific versions of its home page and on the walls of its San Francisco store. In many ways, the crowdfunding feature is really an extension of what Lindland and crew have been doing all along: using ongoing interaction to drive the likelihood of sales and amplify the reach of the brand.
"The Internet is about creating as many units of engagement as you possible can with people…The more times they interact, the more they will purchase," Lindland says.
It’s also a move that means a wider variety of products to sell courtesy of fresh ideas from a roster of new and different designers. As a brand-extension tactic, crowdfunding reminds investor and former Gucci board member Enrico Beltramini of the way fashion houses functioned decades ago.
"You have a core group of designers and then a group of young designers, fresh designers coming with new ideas every six months…. The idea was very well established 20 years ago in the '90s," says Beltramini, who is the founder of FT Accelerator.
For major fashion brands, multiple stables of designers and frequent turnover are difficult to sustain during market downturns.
"From the creative point of view, it’s costly and time consuming," Beltramini says.
As Lindland tells it, Betabrand’s approach is neither. Working with designers, the in-house production team streamlines the design process, rapidly creates prototypes from inside the retail headquarters, and ensures things like consistency in sizing and realistic manufacturing specs—both routinely delay the delivery of design-driven projects after they’ve been crowdfunded. Established relationships with suppliers and manufacturers and a built-in base of buyers only add to the brand’s ability to conceive, vet, and produce new designs in a way that’s faster than traditional apparel production cycles and relatively free from financial risk, thanks to user-submitted ideas and upfront project funding.
The hope is to merge crowdfunding with fast fashion to create items quickly and often, with new products launched daily to the specific audience willing to support them.
"Inspiration is something designers usually have a year and a half ago. The trick is to try to really speed that up … we can generate enough convincing data about a new product idea that we know we should try to get this live as fast as possible," says Lindland.
For its part, convincing data certainly played into the recent fast-tracking of the Vagisoft Hoodie. But there was something else.
Lindland: "It’s the science of soft, what else can I say?"
[Images courtesy of Betabrand]