3 startup tips for fixing the broken fashion industry

The traditional fashion industry is broken. Just a few of the long-embedded issues include: huge margins, a staggering barrier to entry and massive waste of resources.

But it’s 2015, and startups are working to fix it.

Nineteenth Amendment is tackling fashion’s problem by targeting, and empowering, new designers. The company, founded in June 2014 by Amanda Curtis and Gemma Sole, sells young designers’ fashion lines through its e-commerce platform on a by-order basis. The designer benefits by getting a sense of the market and accumulating a sales history (something that’s needed in order to enter traditional retail); shoppers benefit by getting access to unique, fresh fashion.

But in the fashion business, it takes more than a lofty ideal that all designers should have their chance to shine – or make money. So Curtis shared her startup’s tips for taking a notoriously impossible industry to task.

Know who you’re up against, and who you’re working for.
Curtis grew up inside the industry, having spent time on sales floors and alongside runways with her aunt, the vp of bridal company Priscilla of Boston. She worked for smaller brands before launching her own collection, and quickly realized how hard it was to scale a fashion business.

“I saw how much was working against the designer,” said Curtis. “It was all ‘who do you know’ rather than ‘how much talent do you have.’ That’s a huge injustice.”

So Curtis began rethinking the business model. In creating her concept, she and Sole identified their audience, and broke it down into two types of shoppers: those who want to support a person rather than a company, and those who are over the current fast-fashion industry. Their audience is, according to Curtis, hungry for something different.

“What’s so great about this is that it’s tying together premium luxury, discovery, uniqueness and a personal engine for growth,” said Jessica Navas, chief planning officer at Erwin Penland. “You feel like you’re helping the next generation of designers.”

Navas described Nineteenth Amendment’s appeal as “slow fashion,” a retail take on the booming culinary farm-to-table trend. These designers, according to Navas, will have a better chance, thanks to the consumers they’re able to gain exposure with.

“If you have a vision, you shouldn’t have to pull together $300,000 to get started,” said Navas. “It’s a great way for consumers to validate if there’s demand.”

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One designer’s About page.

Then, they targeted their designers. Curtis said each designer who approaches them is put up against a scorecard. They must be trained, familiar with the industry and its processes, and understand what it takes to succeed in order to be featured on Nineteenth Amendment.

To connect the right audience to the right designers, Curtis and Sole built out the technology behind their platform. With Nineteenth Amendment, designers can showcase and sell their products as well as have access to data, marketing tools and a manufacturer, as well as potential customers. (When designers earn a net profit, Nineteenth Amendment takes a 50/50 cut.) Since Nineteenth Amendment partners with manufacturers solely in the US, they can oversee the process and maximize margins. The consumer can then discover new designers and trends, critique items and order fashion they can’t – quite literally – find anywhere else.

Recruit an army.
Even though Curtis wanted to solve fashion’s “it’s all about who you know” problem, she didn’t underestimate the power of relationships when building her company. But rather than who you know, she said, it’s about choosing your friends wisely. “It’s all about getting like-minded people on your side.”

Nineteenth Amendment has worked out of multiple incubators – most recently, the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator – an environment that naturally lends itself to creating connections. Last summer, the company was accepted to the New York Fashion Tech Lab, which got the founders in front of top retailers and brands.

“That was hugely validating,” said Curtis. “Seeing them get excited let us know we had something, and that overall, the industry was ready to support what we’re doing.”

Word-of-mouth about Nineteenth Amendment has been spreading as well, thanks to the designers who use it. Chicago-based designer Ian Hargrove said that he’s been telling fellow designers about the platform.

“Everyone I talk to in the industry, I tell them it’s amazing,” he said. “Which maybe I shouldn’t do because that increases designer competition.”

It’s not only new companies that are looking to change the industry. Curtis said that her company has harbored relationships with traditional retailers like Macy’s and J.Crew to figure out how to change the tides in the digital age.

“Older companies are innovating,” said Curtis. “They want to make things better, but they need to be smart about it.”

Make it impossible to say no.
Pitching a fashion startup to investors is no easy task. But Nineteenth Amendment’s seen success, listing investors like Kayak founder Paul English as a supporter. The secret to a successful sales pitch: “Be smart about it,” said Curtis.

According to Curtis, she adjusts her pitch to show off her product best to different investors. But it breaks down to three main points: cost-effective sustainability, current shopping trends, and fashion tech.

The startup’s business model is sustainable, and in fashion, the ability to eliminate wasted resources allows cutting cost while being environmentally friendly. Items are made-to-order, which allows the designer to get a grasp of what’s striking a chord with the consumer before they head into production. For the investor, this means they’re not spending money on maintaining inventory, avoiding a huge risk that comes with new retailers.

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“The way people shop is changing,” said Curtis, citing Bonobos, Warby Parker and Etsy as emblems of contemporary retail. “It’s a major trend,” though nobody’s yet introduced it as a platform for fashion design.

To seal the deal, according to Curtis, they’ve built their own system, an entire back-end platform that provides a scalable solution for designers to sell their wares. “In fashion, it’s all about how you get to that point,” she said.

Curtis’s mission is to create opportunities for designers in an inclusive industry, but she recognizes it’s “all about the approach.”

“If it makes sense from a business standpoint, then things can change,” she said.


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