On a brisk Friday morning, the StyleCaster office is in hangover recovery mode. The all-encompassing dot-com hub’s slender twentysomething rank and file slowly trickle in, fatigued after a charity function (and publicity opportunity) the night before. Most of them are young women, wiry and chatty and fueled on a strict diet of coffee and the occasional pink frosted cupcake. “We’re on sugar highs all the time,” explains the company’s zealous communication director, Meghan Cross.
In keeping with the motif, pink shopping bags containing clothes borrowed for photo shoots wait on the sidelines to be messengered. An exotic model clad in skinny jeans saunters in and introduces herself in a thick, ambiguous accent. She is led to the in-house photography studio, where a giant green screen and a testy, scruffy team are expecting her. She will be photographed in various looks for company’s patented “360 Style Cyclometer” – an interactive website function that allows users to mix and match different outfits on a model and view the custom creation from all angles.
“Style to the People” is the motto of StyleCaster, a pioneer in the phenomenon of fashion social networks. The telling slogan is on prominent view in poster form throughout the thriving company’s headquarters. The office, a sleek amalgam of stainless steel, pale wood, and glass is located in the heart of Manhattan’s garment district, a stone’s throw from the Fashion Institute of Technology.
As StyleCaster, Inc. and similar internet creatures become aggregators of the simple click-and-buy shopping sites – the middlemen of the past – outsourcing photo shoots, publicity, or technical development is becoming yesterday’s burden. StyleCaster, which employs a grassroots, community-based approach both in-office and online, incorporates a sister website called BeautyHigh and an iPhone application; it also shares several employees with the web analytics startup upstairs, SocioCast.
StyleCaster is part of large movement of user-driven internet browsing and shopping, and an even larger takeover of New Media fashion powerhouses, known in New York as the faces of Silicon Alley. Networks like Polyvore, Refinery29, ShopStyle, and LookBook.nu seek to become nationwide, niche-specific Amazons with even more bells and whistles, incorporating every aspect of fashion and imagination into a one-stop shop.
With some ingenuity and luck, StyleCaster is among the few such children of the recession that has managed to see profits through turbulent markets. Having drawn deep-pocket investors like Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and having become a rapidly growing digital media site among many failed, it seems that fashion social networking is the business to be in. But what or whom in the industry does this new business paradigm sacrifice?
When the idea for StyleCaster first popped up in 2007, it was an entirely different animal. Its founders are the Goldberg brothers, Ari, 29, now the CEO, and David, both New York University graduates with entrepreneurial spirits. They conjured a simple iPhone app (of the same name) that answered two questions: “What’s the temperature?” and “What should I wear?” You could wake up, grab your smart phone, and be suggested a weather-appropriate outfit in the matter of seconds.
Ari had a background in publicity, most notably as the vice president of LeBron James’s PR firm; David had long worked in sales for apparel giant Theory. The two joined forces along with several major outside investors like Gilbert, StyleCaster co-founder and media tycoon Albert Azout, and even former MySpace CEO Owen van Natta, according to VentureBeat.com; the brothers had encountered many of the investors through prior business ventures.
It took until June 2009 for the company to receive its Series A rounds, the crucial initial funding point for startups, which was the springboard for an auspicious launch.
Now with about 2 million unique visitors a month, 43,000 Twitter followers, and 38,000 Facebook fans, it seems that StyleCaster has established itself comfortably within the demographic of women aged 18 to 34. It comprises about 25 staffers, not including junior employees (rather than interns, the distinction being that “interns get coffee,” kids Cross).
Samir Balwani is StyleCaster’s director of customer relations and acquisition marketing, in charge of technical aspects like analytics and search engine optimization. A large part of the site’s success is, in fact, due to a well-integrated system of SEO, a tactic to move a website higher on a list of internet search results, concentrating on specific keywords. “StyleCaster was built from the ground up with SEO in mind,” says Balwani, adding that this is what separates his site from others, which might not have initially incorporated SEO in their game plan (though these days, SEO incorporation is anything but a rarity).
On the surface, it may appear that sites like StyleCaster are driving traffic away from smaller retailers. In truth, though, it is a symbiotic relationship. “If you type ‘Steve Madden’ into Google, our site comes up first,” explains Cross. But Balwani says that Steve Madden only benefits from being featured as an option on their site; they gain publicity and a direct link to Steve Madden’s site, where the user can purchase the shoes she saw in a community-recommended outfit.
Rachel Seigel, the network’s publicity maven, is the hands-on counterpart to Balwani. “Seigs,” as fellow staffers affectionately call her, spares no digital media outlet when it comes to making a name for StyleCaster. She uses social networking sites big and small, from Facebook and Twitter to Tumblr, Pinterest, and even the photography network mobile app Instagram, to promote the site. She has forged cyber relationships with famous models and fashion executives.
Among Seigel’s most unique and innovative tactics are “tweet-ups” – carefully planned virtual rendezvous with other social networking heads and style-conscious public figures, who all eventually become friends in real life, too. Every Wednesday from 3 to 4 in the afternoon, the #Stylechat hash tag plays host to a live Twitter discussion, which the users can watch or take part in. In limited characters, participants like stylist @rzrachelzoe, designer @TommyHilfiger, and upscale department store @Bergdorfs debate back and forth as to the merits of #cybermonday trends, holiday treats, and new design collaborations. Observing tweeters might learn valuable tips about fashion apps, all-weather coats, and layering; Hilfiger’s November 28 tip in response to an inquiry by blogger @Fashionalities instructed users to wear a bold print to stand out from the crowd this holiday season.
When she first started getting reply tweets from department stores and big brands, Seigel’s excitement skyrocketed. Since then, such events have become commonplace.
Meghan Cross fêtes StyleCaster’s “original” editorial content as the lynchpin to its success and staying power, deeming it responsible for keeping the company fresh and on its toes; she also claims that its integrity is fully in tact. Yet, a closer glance at their business model contradicts this claim.
Most of the advertising revenue StyleCaster brings in is due to “partnerships,” the online equivalent to deceiving magazine advertorials. DKNY, for instance, pays the site for publicity disguised as editorial praise or regular service journalism. Branded text is labeled ‘sponsored content’ but is not visually distinct from the rest. This means that, despite the company’s assertions about their editorial content, a portion of what we trust StyleCaster to do for us when we log on for celebrity makeup trends or outfit ideas is, in fact, tainted by advertising money. Ironically, StyleCaster’s Fashion News garners the most clicks on the site.
Still, the audience is either vapid, forgiving, or oblivious – and ever growing.
Three thousand miles away, Californians are no strangers to this form of enterprise. The state is home to a slew of startups that are StyleCaster look-alikes such as ShopStyle and Polyvore, some predecessors and others imitators. Polyvore.com is an industry leader and one of the first of its kind to emerge. The company, based outside of San Francisco, has reached mega-stature at about double the size and clout of StyleCaster.
Though they operate in like spheres, Polyvore emphasizes more amateur content such as user-to-user advice, not foisting as much manufactured text onto the reader. It also provides a large amount of information, such as listing trends alphabetically, and ranking and sorting brands and even other websites according to their aesthetic and popularity within Polyvore’s confines. As of December 6, the French couturier Balmain is fifth most popular with 273,906 impressions, 332 outfit sets including it, and 286 comments regarding it, according to the brand’s page.
The network, as per its CrunchBase.com profile, has received a total of $8.1 million in disclosed Series A and B funding, dwarfing StyleCaster’s $5 million, though the latter is newer. One of Polyvore’s standout features is its separate sections for interior design and art, where you can virtually decorate your apartment in the same way you pick your eveningwear. This is an area in which its competitors lapse entirely – or perhaps they are hesitant to branch into for fear of irrelevance or painting a stroke too broad.
A year ago, Polyvore’s then-CEO Sukhinder Singh Cassidy described the unique appeal of the company to Vikram Alexei Kansara of BusinessofFashion.com:
First, the market opportunity in e-commerce around apparel, home and soft goods is massive and still largely untapped. Polyvore is filling a large unmet need: there has been no good way to shop for products in these categories online, as they are not about search, but rather about browsing and discovery, which Polyvore does uniquely well . . .
More importantly however, Polyvore struck an emotional cord with me as a user, as a woman and as someone who has always believed in the power of fashion as a creative, empowering, fun and social outlet.
Polyvore has engaged in smart partnerships. New York City socialite and renowned blogger Leandra Medine, known by her blog’s namesake, The Man Repeller, is a prime example. Medine makes her own Polyvore “sets” – magazine-esque editorial spreads with built-in links and basic information about a garment readily available, laid onto cute formats and backgrounds. She then embeds them as blog posts, showing eager readers how to be sophisticated dressers. In turn, Polyvore’s unique creative apparatus is publicized and Medine is featured their “Blogger Buzz” section.
In this cooperative dynamic, everybody wins – except sometimes, the average customer. “I do read [“The Man Repeller”] and I love it. But I don’t necessarily find it helpful because I don’t buy designer things at those price points,” admits Shanna Benlevy, 21, a fashion merchandising student at Manhattan’s Laboratory Institute of Merchandising College.
Three hundred miles south of Polyvore’s headquarters, in Los Angeles, the co-founder and CEO of DailyLook.com, Brian Ree, 32, takes related issue with Polyvore. “Nobody actually goes to Polyvore to shop,” he observes of the site’s concept, which is weaker in the field of actual product sales. Ree claims that Polyvore, through “aggregate data feeds and an affiliate model,” gets a five to ten percent cut of a purchase made, within a certain window of time, if it was linked from Polyvore.
DailyLook takes a different approach. It is at the core a flash-sale retail site that has incorporated social media aspects; instead of linking away to other sites, though, they manufacture and sell the same looks that they suggest to the reader, and at much lower price points – about $35, on average. In a similar model to wildly successful luxury flash-sale website Gilt.com, items are only available for 36 hours, creating an incentive for quick buys. It has no ads and makes the bulk of its revenue on direct sales.
Ree, who comes from “an e-commerce and SEO background” and was trained in business administration, says of Polyvore: “It’s too broad . . .There’s a lot of friction in the process for the consumer to put together a look and buy it. It’s more of a destination for fashion discovery.” Plus, “Some of the pieces are outrageously expensive.”
“We are innovating in the retail space,” the DailyLook CEO declares, with his company, a two-month infant, defeating all expectations. “The whole idea of Polyvore is what’s been happening in fashion magazines in decades.” Along with his cofounders, an old friend in manufacturing and a tech-savvy prior business contact, Ree plans to file for Series A funding in the first quarter of 2012.
Back on the east coast, StyleCaster is not afraid to toot its own horn. A long corridor at the headquarters is lined on both sides with framed media acclaim boosting the company’s ego. “It sounds like it will take over most-distracting-procrastinator title from Net-a-Porter,” reads a boldfaced clip from Fashionista, a blogosphere staple, contrasting the network with a more traditional luxury shopping website.
At the office, I insinuate to Balwani that Polyvore is probably StyleCaster’s main competitor. He seems taken aback, or at least feigns astonishment. “Really?” he said. “That’s interesting for me to know.” It is rare to come across any company in this realm who will readily admit to having competitors, let alone named ones.
StyleCaster remains attuned to the preferences of its followers; the inner workings of its paradigms have piqued the curiosity of others in the biz. A recent survey in collaboration with Empirica research group demonstrates sophisticated market research tecniques. A pop-up on the website requesting the viewer to take a survey introduces itself: “We’ve teamed up with a bunch of style professors study the ‘science of style.’ Want to help out?” The message then offers a chance at 50 giveaways upon completion of the survey, including an iPad 2 and a $500 cash prize. Readers are coaxed, perhaps bribed, into cutting edge market research that reveals everything from simple viewer demographics to the specific desires and degree of peer pressure among shoppers.
In terms of growth, Cross envisions a lucrative future for the company, which she sums up as “Facebook meets Conde Nast.” They plan to expand into men’s coverage, the road less traveled, sometime in 2012. If StyleCaster plans to stay in business, it must constantly be evolving and thinking two steps ahead to avoid disappearing in a cyber nebula. “Our editoral team insulates us from becoming stagnant,” insists Cross.
The original app was fully developed and still serves the same purpose, using the seedling idea that has now sprouted. While larger and broader digital media mainstays like NYMag.com have a fair amount of comparable functions to these networks, they can be lost in a sea of a million other tricks up the outlet’s sleeve. The specialized, balanced, bottom-up nature of the StyleCasters and Polyvores goes missing.
Ultimately, fashion social networks come down to “empowering style enthusiasts,” as Cross puts it, and giving the user more options in one place. StyleCaster CEO Ari Golderg is often heard around the office repeating a single mantra: “In 2010, content was king. In 2011, conversation is king.” One might wonder what will reign in 2012.