Whether through brick and mortar shops or e-commerce, the direct-to-consumer strategy is one of the most significant trends to hit the fashion industry, with some of the largest labels taking back control of their brand and the customers' shopping experience by connecting directly with the consumer.
Lisa and Hadrian, the powerhouse team behind the lifestyle brand Urban Gilt, saw this emerging trend early on and decided to jump in with both feet to build their own fashion brand on Shopify. In one of the most competitive markets out there, they understood from the beginning the importance of having a website that isn't just beautifully designed but also one that allows your customers to shop easily from anywhere.
We chatted with Lisa to hear the incredible story about how they got started, what they've learned so far, and where the business is headed next!
Let’s start at the beginning since your story is such an epic one. Tell us a bit about what each of you was doing before you met and the Urban Gilt journey got started.
A mutual friend set us up on a blind date. At the time I was working as a business analyst in the city and Hadrian as a product designer, but he’d already quit his job and was about to leave the country to go traveling. The blind date went so well that 4 weeks later I quit my job too. We went traveling for several months and we haven’t been apart since. On our travels, we were chatting about how much trouble I had finding clothes which worked for my varied and busy lifestyle, and that was the point when the idea for Urban Gilt was born.
Prior to meeting, had either of you ever considered starting your own business?
Hadrian really wanted to work his way into fashion but wasn’t sure how to make the jump. He’d even entered into a Jimmy Choo competition to design their next shoe and came 2nd place from thousands of entrants, so the writing was on the wall for him. I’ve always loved fashion too and used to sketch ideas when I was younger, as well as customizing my clothes to make them fit better. I decided to study math at university to establish myself financially first but always knew that one day I’d return back to my creative roots. But the main thing is we both wanted to work for ourselves. I think that’s a big part of why we were set up on the blind date - we’d had enough of working for big corporations and were ready to build something for ourselves.
What made you opt for direct-to-consumer, instead of having other shops carry your brand?
We believe in great quality and the idea of having things cost more just to go through a middleman didn’t make sense to us. It was a question of how could we provide the best quality at the lowest price. We also started the business at a great time due to options like Shopify; you didn’t need a huge budget to have a website custom built anymore.
When we researched the best website platforms in the market, Shopify was the best we could find. It works great for small businesses like ours but also huge ones like Kylie too.
How did you decide on fashion? Has either of you previously been involved in the fashion industry, or was this an entirely new endeavor for you?
Our first thoughts when we were toying with designing clothes was how can we enter one of the most, if not THE most, competitive industry. To make sure we weren’t completely mad we really analyzed our skills, strengths, passions and the lifestyle we wanted to have. Although neither of us has any background in the industry what we have is a ‘can do’ attitude, and once we’ve decided on a goal we’ll do everything possible to over-deliver on it. That’s something we both have in common.
Once you had the initial concept for Urban Gilt, what steps did you take to get the business off the ground?
We hadn’t even finished traveling when we started working on the business. It probably sounds crazy, but as much as we enjoyed traveling we were really excited to start work on Urban Gilt. A few weeks before our travels finished, while in San Francisco, we set up an office at the kitchen table of our Airbnb and started contacting suppliers, getting costs and ordering up samples. For the next few months, we focused entirely on getting our product right and when we were happy, we turned our attention to branding, marketing and sales. If you’re new to that side of things I can only recommend you read as much as you can, speak to as many people as you can and try whatever you can. I don’t think anyone gets it right straight away but if you really believe in what you’re doing, you’ll find a way of making it work.
Had you ever designed a website before?
Never! I did have some experience of UX through working as a business analyst, however, templates in website platforms like Shopify come with that aspect built in, so the actual look and feel of how we wanted the website to look was new to me. Of all the options Shopify was perfect for us though. It was the simplest and also the most configurable, depending on the template you use. We started with a theme by another supplier, which we had for the first 2 years, but had a lot of trouble with their customer service and that started to cause problems. So when we found your Turbo theme with everything we wanted to have - and more - already built in, it was a no-brainer to upgrade to our current website. Shortly after launching we met the owner of an e-commerce business who said she’d been charged £80k to set up her custom website. We didn’t have the heart to tell her she could have done exactly the same for a fraction of the cost with Shopify!
Did you experience any challenges or roadblocks when setting up the website? How did you get through them?
Haha....starting a business is all about challenges and roadblocks! There were definitely a couple of memorable things with the website though. We had great pictures from our photoshoots but when we uploaded the photos the clothes didn’t look the same color, which as you can imagine is really important for fashion. That led us down a rabbit hole of trying to understand digital files and different browsers. Something I’m not sure we fully understand even now! But we’re definitely better than we were.
What role has social media played in growing your business?
Social media is great for not only spreading the word about your brand but also connecting with people. Not just customers but also key industry people like stylists or magazine editors, as well as other business owners. Most importantly it’s free. When you’re having a conversation with someone and you tell them you have a business, the first thing they do is grab their phone from their pocket and search for your Instagram account - so you’d better be there if you want to be taken seriously!
Why is using ethical manufacturing and high-quality materials important to you as people and as a business?
Neither of us ever bought into the fast fashion movement. For us, fashion is about finding something you love and feeling great about it every time you wear it - not keeping up with trends which change week to week. As we started to look into the industry we were shocked at what goes on. It all came to a head when we watched a documentary called ‘The True Cost’ and we never want someone to suffer like that to make you feel good in what you’re wearing. In the beginning, we used to think we were too small to do anything about the conditions in the industry, but now we’ve realized that the only way to change it is to be part of it, and that’s an incentive that keeps us growing.
What’s the biggest milestone that you’ve hit so far? What do you think attributed to it?
When we started to have sales every day was a big one because it made us realize we had a proper business rather than just a project we were doing for ourselves. Another milestone was when we hit 1000 T-shirt sales which felt amazing! We’re now working hard to reach the next milestone - there’s no rest for the wicked! Good photography, online reviews, and repeat customers all definitely help.
Do you have any advice for merchants who are looking to sell clothing through an online store instead of brick and mortar?
Online marketplaces are going to grow massively over the next few years as we start to change our shopping habits, so it makes sense to sell through them. They’re experts at online marketing and have a brand which customers can trust, which is great when you’re starting out and still establishing your own brand. Just make sure you’re a good fit for their target customer and you’ve built in allowances for postage, returns, and the marketplace fees.
What’s next for Urban Gilt?
It’s a really exciting time for us. We’ve been working on a new range of womenswear for almost a year which is launching very soon. As a brand, we want to support ambitious women on a mission and clothing is one way we can help her achieve her goals. But there is so much more to come....so watch this space!