For its beautiful relationship with the fashion industry. Instagram is actively positioning itself as the fashion world’s infinitely scrolling newsreel—one sign of how it stokes its hypergrowth—and is creating a premium product inside Facebook. Its in-house team spotlights the most creative fashion houses, off-duty models, professional photographers, bloggers, and tastemakers, and works with brands to develop campaigns. Its growing fashion clout has also influenced the features it develops. Its old and unpopular "Explore" feature was relaunched as a tailored survey of user interests—handbags if you follow Rebecca Minkoff, couture gowns if you follow Dior. Last August, Instagram introduced a new app, Hyperlapse, which generates time-lapse videos, and is another gift to the fashion world—ideal for a makeup artist applying eyeshadow, say, or the final adjustments to a photo-shoot tableau. And now fashion companies are seeing Instagram as not just a place to promote their wares, but to advertise them as well. Instagram’s first ad launched in November 2013; it was with Michael Kors, and subsequent campaigns have been with the likes of Levi’s, Macy’s, and Burberry.
For helping to build an industry from scratch. "In Rwanda, everyone wears a very classic and conservative style," says Scorpio Ramazani Khoury. "The younger generation is out there trying to be stylish, but there is no establishment that sets trends." So this 26-year-old, a mineral trader by profession, is trying to lead the way—and in the process, boost Rwanda’s reputation as a global exporter (of textiles, of course, but also minerals). Her fashion house, Made in Kigali, expanded in a year to employ nearly 50 tailors, and is currently working with the minister of trade on a large-scale training center in Kigali that could handle 3,000 tailors. Most of her business is industrial clothing—simple garments for construction, mining, and hospitals. Smaller-scale projects, though, garner international attention. One line combines brightly colored East African wax fabrics with Western silhouettes, adjusted for Rwandan body types. Khoury also mentors local designers and helps them produce capsule collections. And she constantly travels the world to show her wares. "For us to have a fashion industry in Rwanda," she says, "people need to know that we exist."
For turning screens into applicator brushes. The $30.5 billion cosmetics giant L’Oréal is smartly investing in a future where makeup isn’t sold predominantly amid the hawking din of department-store cosmetics counters. Last June, L’Oréal's US-based tech lab launched its first product, an app called Makeup Genius, which uses a phone’s front-facing camera to host the digital equivalent of a counter-side makeover. It recruited the firm behind many jaw-dropping visuals in the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to create startlingly realistic effects when users move and pucker. "Seeing is believing," says Guive Balooch, Global VP of L’Oréal’s Connected Beauty Incubator. (Consumers downloaded the app more than 1.4 million times.) It’s just one of the ways L’Oréal stays au courant. To appeal directly to YouTubers, L’Oréal gave video star Michelle Phan her own line, Em-Cosmetics, and acquired cult-favorite brand NYX Cosmetics after it became favored among a wide swath of video bloggers who routinely mention and wear it—something L’Oréal CEO Jean-Paul Agon calls an "inspiration."
For making a case against fast fashion. Last July, New York-based startup Rent the Runway—the Netflix of party dresses, if Netflix had to repair ripped seams and operate the country’s largest dry-cleaning service—launched the beta version of its accessory-focused Unlimited service. For $49 a month, subscribers manage a queue of designer handbags, sunglasses, and glitzy headphones, selecting three to be delivered each month, shipping and insurance included. Cofounders Jennifer Fleiss and Jennifer Hyman’s initial formalwear-lending concept acknowledges that many women can’t afford a closet full of wear-it-once gowns, most of which cycle quickly out of style. But what Unlimited offers is accessories for the weekday wardrobe, a service poised to free the startup from its reliance on less-frequent special-occasion shopping. Rent the Runway, which saw a 126% increase in new customers last year, uses its own unique back-end algorithms, developed to ship items in and out of the homes of 5 million members nationwide (orders jumped 122% between 2013 and 2014). Last year also saw the introduction of the startup’s first stand-alone boutique in New York, offering on-site hemming and adjustments, and a swipe-happy app for sorting and "liking" dresses and accessories, that sucked up 40% of the website’s traffic after its fall 2013 launch.
For being the Etsy of China. Taiwanese-American entrepreneur Natasia Guo moved to Shanghai in 2009, where she served as project and events manager at a boutique agency, and found herself in the middle of a burgeoning scene of young Chinese designers and artists. At the time, there was no popular online shopping alternative to Taobao, China’s circa-2003 Amazon equivalent. "I personally couldn’t find unique products offline, and Taobao was a pain to search," she says. "But I knew these products existed, and I wanted to help curate kick-ass products." So in 2011 Guo moved to Beijing and, within a year, had turned her design blog Nuandao ("Warm Island") into an e-shop for independent designers. After two successful years, Guo and her business partner Yan Zhang, former CEO of Random House in China, left to colaunch a second curated retail space in October 2013: Yetang, or "Wild Candy," an Etsy-like shop for fashion and accessories. The company has brought over 2,000 designers into the fold; 80% of their brands were founded within the last four years, evidence that Yetang is influencing the shift toward domestic, independent retail in China. And while other successful e-retailers in China display a wide range of products, Yetang editorializes its content with a unified, hip aesthetic to attract a target customer: the post-90s Chinese woman, median age of 23, who was never constrained by Communist khaki, and is increasingly interested in making an edgy fashion statement.
For turning DIYers into wholesalers. Last August, Etsy, the online marketplace for independent makers and vintage sellers, launched Etsy Wholesale out of beta—a second, juried marketplace for makers who want to sell their goods wholesale to boutiques. With a $100 joining fee and 3.5% off of each sale (competitive with the standard 12%), wholesale users gain access to online seminars with titles like "Pricing 101" and an e-commerce site that only store owners can browse. And the site is organized to sellers’ advantages. On Etsy, a search for "rings" yields every ring on Etsy. Wholesale instead offers a bundle of three rings from each ring maker, forcing the browser to shop brands—the makers themselves—not just products. It’s all toward Etsy’s purported goal: to help ambitious hobbyists grow their Etsy side games into viable income sources (an internal study in late 2013 revealed that 74% of sellers considered their Etsy page more business than hobby, and 18% considered their Etsy business a full-time job). At the same time, a cleaner interface for shop owners helps Etsy tap into a whole new category of potential customers—owners of big boxes and boutiques that get proven mileage out of cute note cards and wooden coasters. In 2013, while Wholesale was still in beta, Nordstrom signed up, bringing Etsy makers onboard. But while Nordstrom chose to plaster the Etsy logo liberally, Etsy is open to a more subtle approach for independent boutiques—a sticker here and there, alongside the maker’s own branded hang tags. The logic? The more autonomy Etsy gives to its makers, the less likely the most successful ones are to decamp elsewhere.
For doing fast fashion…on a larger scale. Despite the fact that 65% of American women wear sizes 14 and up, this majority group is hard-pressed to find clothing that fits, much less anything trendy on par with H&M and Forever 21. In 2011, The Limited quietly launched an in-house plus-size line called Eloquii, in an effort to serve this customer. Then in May 2013, after only a year and a half and modest growth, The Limited shuttered Eloquii. There was an outcry from plus-size fashion bloggers: Eloquii had failed to ask the plus-size customer what she really wanted from a fashion-forward clothing line. Eloquii’s team of designers was also dismayed. Eloquii creative director Jodi Arnold met an investor through LinkedIn who was inspired by the Eloquii team’s desire to relaunch, and last February, with his help, Eloquii debuted as an independent brand and e-shop.They’ve been doubling down on social media outreach since October 2013, and among the early revelations was that plus-size women wanted to see their peers modeling on Eloquii’s website. Now, any Eloquii customer who Instagrams herself with the hashtag #XOQ is uploaded to the site, and tagged alongside the products she’s wearing. Arnold describes Eloquii as plus-size Zara, offering a wide range of price points and a steady flow of small-batch, fast-turnover trendy pieces (crop tops, laser-cut skirts) alongside staples like well-fitting denim and blazers. The website has experienced a 236% increase in unique monthly visitors since its launch, and customer requests keep pouring in. Last winter saw the introduction of cashmere and evening dresses, both exceedingly rare in plus sizes, and Nordstrom began stocking the brand. A line of intimates will roll out this spring.
For using technology to get intimate. Since the launch of her handbag line in 2005, Rebecca Minkoff and her brother (and CEO) Uri have been jumping at tech-startup collaborations. In 2011, there were the print ads featuring fan Instagrams. In 2012, Minkoff debuted looks on Snapchat, and sent a Bluetooth-enabled speaker-clutch down the runway. In 2014, she revealed a Bluetooth-enabled bracelet that vibrates with phone notifications, and leather bracelet that conceals a USB charger (both in collaboration with the mobile accessories company Case Mate). And though the tactics may sound gimmicky, the proof is in the numbers: In 2014 Uri estimated between 60% and 70% year-to-year growth in the company’s e-commerce business, and projected another 80% leap in the year to come. And last fall, the brand opened stores in New York and San Francisco with the industry’s first smart dressing rooms—tech-enabled touch-screen mirrors that immediately recognize any item brought into the room, suggest how to pair and wear it, and enable shoppers to request that different sizes be delivered to them. Out front, a smart wall allows shoppers to send all of the components of a Rebecca Minkoff runway look directly to a dressing room (ushered there by iPad-mini-equipped attendants), or even order a latte or champagne.
It's a tie! For creating a story for backpacks. When brothers Lyndon and Jamie Cormack founded Herschel in 2009, they aimed to give backpacks the same legacy narrative that sneakers and denim had enjoyed for years (think, Air Jordans and Levi’s). They populated fashion runways and commuter trains alike, but backpacks still hadn’t cashed in on a branding makeover. So the Cormacks picked a name with a story for their fledgling company—Herschel is the tiny Saskatchewan town where their grandparents settled in 1906 after emigrating from Scotland. (Never mind that the Scottish Cormacks had no particular affinity for backpacks, or that Herschel was actually founded in Vancouver.) And recognizing early on that their backpacks had a powerful dual purpose—not only meant for carrying personal possessions but also as a tool for travel and adventure—Herschel leverages social media to further its high-minded approach to backpacks. Images of Herschel products slung over the shoulders of stylish adventurers against Icelandic backdrops garner thousands of likes from the brand’s nearly 475,000 Instagram followers with series like #WellPacked. And the brand’s marketers use that ever-growing social presence to land lucrative collaborations. In 2014, Herschel saw 80% overall growth, boasting a catalog of 1,300 unique products of backpacks, wallets, footwear collaborations with Clarks and New Balance, even laptop sleeves for Apple.
For customizing the runway. Founder Aslaug Magnusdottir, an Icelandic entrepreneur and fashion industry vet, has responded to a growing desire among high-end customers to own one-of-a-kind pieces, coupled with the increasing popularity of customization in more affordable markets, such as iPhone cases and sneakers. With Tinker Tailor, shoppers can customize dresses from high-end designers, like Marchesa and Vivienne Westwood, or build dresses, skirts, and tops from scratch using 30 silhouette options and custom prints. "I’m making fashion relevant for different cultures and lifestyles." But also, "Not all women can wear six-inch heels every day." Middle Eastern women, for example, are hard-pressed to find designer dresses that cover their arms, Magnusdottir says. Tinker Tailor can serve them. In order to retain the creative integrity of each dress, and maintain high-end sensibilities, Tinker Tailor confers with each designer to approve a limited number of cuts and colorways. For example, a drop-waist black silk ball gown can be ordered with a square neckline instead of a v-neck, but Christian Siriano won’t cut it out of gingham for you. And last September, just four months after the launch, Tinker Tailor introduced accessory customization for shoes, handbags, and jewelry.
For making a facial mist made of live bacteria seem appealing. This biotech startup breeds bacteria commonly found in dirt and untreated water, and put it in its first product: AO+ Refreshing Cosmetic Mist, a spray that looks, smells and tastes like water, but is bacteria-loaded. The premise is this: Before human beings started scrubbing with soap and shampoo, our skin and hair was coated with healthy doses of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria, which cleaned, deodorized, and boosted the immune system. Initially uninterested in marketing AO+ like a cosmetic (the primary goal was therapies for severely blemished and damaged skin), AOBiome changed tack when a New York Times Magazine profile of the product went viral last May, holding the most-e-mailed slot for a month. The startup received 20,000 e-mails in two weeks requesting the product, and quickly hired a GM of consumer products, adopted the slogan "Bacteria is the New Black," and tackled the tricky task of rapidly increasing production in larger and larger bioreactors. It hit market last summer. Early data revealed equal interest from men and women, highly unusual for a cosmetic product. And while it’s hard to call a healthy immune system stylish per se, there’s something to be said for a company that aims to disrupt the product-laden routine many people consider a necessary step toward living stylishly. Shampoo and a body wash are now on the horizon.
*Due to a production error, Herschel Supply Co. was previously left off of an earlier version of this list.