Though at the upper levels of the industry, fashion is still a male-dominated business, it feels like many of the most noteworthy innovations in recent memory have come from women (which you know we’re here for!). Female entrepreneurs have been out there making the change they—and customers—want to see happen: Just recently we saw the big breaks of companies like Premme(a clothing line launched by bloggers Nicolette Mason and Gabi Gregg that makes legitimately stylish statement pieces in plus sizes), Fashion Tech Lab (an institution focused on innovating the sustainability space launched by fashion force Miroslava Duma), and Anti Agency (Lucy Greene and Pandora Lennard’s modeling agency made up of a cool, downtown crew that aren’t models by trade). Out of all the thriving companies on our radar, there are three that stand out: The Modist, 11 Honoré, and Stitch Fix. They each target demographics that have been ignored in retail and aim to elicit a culture change in the industry—a shift we’ve seen overall as of late. Ghizlan Guenez started The Modist after years of not having a place to go to shop for modest clothing; Kathryn Retzer grew frustrated that designers weren’t making bigger sizes due to no retail outlet buying them and started 11 Honoré (alongside cofounder Patrick Herning) to do just that; and things are booming for Katrina Lake at Stitch Fix, where they make shopping a highly personal experience via customized subscription boxes.
Ghizlan Guenez, The Modist
After spending 13 years working in finance, Ghizlan Guenez felt a calling to launch her own fashion retail platform. Sure, that seems like a broad stroke, but for her—a Muslim woman—getting dressed presented a daily challenge: “The Modist came from a genuine and authentic place,” she says, noting how it was hard to piece together modest styles for the office. “I always shopped in a fragmented way. I curated pieces that worked within the brands I love.” The Modist now offers pieces that fill that void, from luxury brands like Marni and Ellery, all in one place. Think of it as the net-a-porter.com for modest women…
…But don’t assume that it caters to just one customer. “We’ve got women who sit across the spectrum of modesty,” says Guenez. “You have women who are extremely conservative, and they wear long sleeves and the skirts or the pants are ankle length and it’s even dark colors. And then you’ve got the other side of modesty, where women are more liberal, but want things to be slightly more covered up—she doesn’t want to show cleavage or wear a mini, but she does want fashion color.” What’s more: “It’s across religions. It’s across nationalities. Fifty percent of our customers are from the Middle East, 50 percent are from the rest of the world, and our second biggest market is the U.S.,” she says.
Guenez is doing more than just selling clothes, of course: She’s helping make the fashion world more diverse and accepting. “We’re raising awareness about the existence of this woman and the fact that she is into fashion and that she is an important segment,” she says. “We’re trying to change the perception of modesty being boring, placid, dated, and dowdy.” And why now? “We’ve seen so much going on around empowering women, the reactions to socioeconomics and political situations globally,” she says. “Encouraging this kind of movement for women makes it more relevant today than any other time.”
Kathryn Retzer, 11 Honoré
Back in the day, Kathryn Retzer sat between Lauren Santo Domingo, the founder of Moda Operandi, and Meredith Melling, the cofounder of La Ligne, at Vogue. When she decided to go out on her own to cofound 11 Honoré, a retail site that sells designer clothing in sizes 10 to 20, she turned to her former colleagues and fellow fashion entrepreneurs. “Meredith was like, ‘Wait, these high-end designers in the contemporary space don’t exist [in plus sizes]?,’” she recalls. “And Lauren was like, ‘I cannot believe no one is doing this.’” With the help of cofounder (and former HL Group executive) Patrick Herning, though, Retzer is out to change the plus-size market once and for all.
How? “We were literally going door to door on Seventh Avenue [in New York’s garment disctrict],” she says. “We would sit in the lobby and our palms would be sweaty, and we would ask, ‘We need you to produce these three runway looks in sizes 10 to 20, can you do it?’” They actually got a number of established designers to say yes when it launched this summer, including Christian Siriano, Prabal Gurung, Michael Kors, Brandon Maxwell, Zac Posen, Baja East, Marchesa, and La Ligne (Melling’s brand)—but they also got plenty of nos along the way. “For those who said no, they said it’s about engineering and fabric; it’s such a big production to wrap their heads around,” Retzer explains. “They need to know who’s going to do what and if there is going to be an additional cost.”
Though those sound like valid reasons, the 11 Honoré team isn’t taking them as a strict “no”: “We’re providing resources out of pocket for bigger sizes—if they are more expensive to produce, we are covering that cost,” says Retzer. “We are connecting them with the correct people. We’re working very closely with their pattern makers.” As a result, brands like Tome are coming on for spring 2018. “I don’t want this to just be American-based,” she adds. “I want Gucci. I want Dolce & Gabbana. I have big aspirations for the European designers.”
The company is also aiming to have a stockpile of plus-size designer samples that magazines can shoot a season ahead and that celebs can wear straight after Fashion Week. “As a former editor, having to find bigger samples to dress women who weren’t sample size for publications was the hardest part of my job,” she says. End of an era!
Katrina Lake, Stitch Fix
Though Stitch Fix, the popular subscription box clothing company, is six years old, the business just had a game-changing year: It launched plus-size (a division that had an 80,000-person waiting list by the time it went live) and luxe array of new brands (like Helmut Lang and Rebecca Minkoff), and made headlines when a New York Times article reported sales of $730 million (nine figures, y’all!) for the previous year. The strides are huge for founder Katrina Lake, who “started the business feeling like, ‘Hey, I am a busy woman, I love fashion, and yet at the same time, I don’t have time to look at the new arrivals of every site every day, and I don’t have time to go to the mall on a Saturday,’” she says.
Along the way, Lake says, there were plenty of challenges. “This isn’t a company that venture capitalists were super excited to invest in,” she recalls. “We were raising millions of dollars and putting that into dresses—and that wasn’t something that traditional Silicon Valley investors were excited about. A lot of Silicon Valley investors are a very homogenous group of white men.” As a result, the company was “eight weeks away from not making payroll at one time,” she says. After that was sorted, the first years of the business were positively overwhelming. “Our clients were telling our other clients, and the organic growth was so big that there were clients that were waiting 90 days to get a fix,” she says. “Now we’re in more control of our future; we can spend marketing dollars; we can try new channels; we can plan for growth in a purposeful way.”
Though she now has breathing room to strategize for the future of Stitch Fix, Lake still has one day-one habit. “I style at least five fixes [a.k.a. orders] a week,” she says. “There are a couple people who know it’s me, but there are others who don’t. I have one client who lives in Indianapolis—I’ve seen her through three pregnancies; she’s a doctor. I have another client who is in college. I have one who is 50 years old and is on her forty-ninth fix.” Sure, it’s freaking heart-warming, but this practice, on a much more pragmatic level, gives the founder access to the clients. “Eighty-five percent of people are sharing with us some level of feedback. One of the reasons our vendors love working with us is because we can have amazingly accurate data on products very quickly.” Sounds like a (seven hundred thirty) million-dollar habit to us.