Fashion Briefing: The brand playbook for growing beyond a cult product

This week, the founders of two very different brands discuss how they’re leveraging a hot hero product to build a business that transcends fads.

Over the last decade, “sexy” earned a bad name. In part, you can blame the former poster brands for “sexy” – i.e., Victoria’s Secret – and their narrow definition of the people and styles fitting the criteria. But, as with many things, Gen Z is rewriting the sexy playbook. As such, when browsing trends, you’ll see push-up corsets and “thong pants” on the menu, along with sweats.

“Being sexy is just feeling good,” said Alexia Elkaim, founder and CEO of 6-year-old L.A. fashion brand Miaou. “Rather than non-tasteful and abrasive and in-your-face, [sexy] is understated. It’s cool, it’s fun, it’s playful. Young people want to be empowered. They don’t want you saying, ‘You should look like this.’”

Miaou is coming off of a record year, with 2021 sales increasing 600%, compared to 2020, and its staff growing from four to 15 people. Corsets, which put the brand on the map, are 60% of its sales. “Bridgerton” buzz fueled the corset trend, while media on celeb fans including Kim Kardashian and Billie Eilish solidified Miaou as the go-to source for the style. 

For 2022, Elkaim is projecting consistent growth. Miaou kicked off the year strong, with its Thong Pant being part of the look that catapulted Julia Fox to “it” girl status in early January. Fox is a friend of Elkaim’s, she said.

Elkaim’s plan to maintain Miaou’s current trajectory is to expand the brand to new international markets, starting with France. She’s secured a French PR agency and is planning to host a fashion show in Paris, which is her hometown. In addition, a Miaou product collaboration with a multi-brand retailer in the U.K. will launch with global distribution, in February. 

Otherwise, a dedication to “community building, collaborations and making stuff girls like” will define Elkaim’s ongoing strategy. 

Category expansion will be a part of that. In April, Miaou will introduce extended sizing with a collaboration designed by an influential plus-size model. 

And gifting styles to influencers and celebrities will remain a key practice. Elkaim first saw the power of the celebrity placement in 2017, when Bella Hadid wore a pair of pinstriped pants by the brand, driving great awareness via press. The secret to getting the most out of those street style images is designing styles that are distinctly Miaou, she said. 

To strengthen the Miaou community, Elkaim hosts seasonal dinners in New York and Paris with influencers she’s dubbed “Miaou girls.” They’re “into fashion and trend-driven, and want to wear something original,” Elkaim said, noting that she typically meets them through their Instagram DMs requesting styles. Last week, she held “Miaou Self-Care Day” for Miaou girls in Paris, complete with massages, manicures, oysters and tarot card readings.

“Miaou is an extension of my life,” she said, adding that she’s so far bootstrapped the business. “And I love to host.”  

As for other marketing, Elkaim credits organic Instagram posts with driving a majority of the brand’s direct-to-consumer sales, while paid posts drive 20%. And the brand’s emails are effective customer retention tools, she said. 

In addition, Elkaim views the brand’s wholesale partners as marketing and PR tools. She said that having a brand presence in Opening Ceremony early on “changed the business.” And along with awareness, it allowed the brand to reach factory minimums and offer competitive pricing. 

In Miaou’s early years, retail partners controlled its presence in their stores by telling Elkaim what styles will sell, she said. However, today, they look to her to inform their buys, based on what’s selling on Like influencers, retailers often find the brand on Instagram and reach out by DM. Elkaim said she likes to “go deep” with select partners, rather than “go wide” with many partners. Offering them exclusive styles is common. 

Wholesale makes up 45% of the brand’s sales, and retail partners include Ssense, FWRD, Revolve and Kith, among others. Miaou will host a shop-in-shop with a U.K. partner early this year. Owned physical retail is a goal for the future, but won’t likely happen in 2022, Elkaim said.

While Gen-Z is both the main driver of the corset trend and Miaou’s core customer, the brand has not taken the expected route when marketing to the demo. For starters, it just launched a TikTok account this year. And its $245 corsets are often out of reach for young people.  

But the “youthfulness” and “energy” of the brand resonate with Gen Z, Elkaim said. And some of Miaou’s business challenges during the pandemic have worked to better reach that audience. For example, a flash sale that was a knee-jerk reaction to the pandemic’s onset drove a 60% sell-through in the first week. It taught her that “there need to be ‘moments’ and price cycles,” in part to appeal to price-conscious customers, she said. 

She also saw sales increase when factories slowly began to open up. Miaou was forced to drop small runs of styles versus full collections, at a more rapid pace than usual style releases. 

“It was a huge lesson for me that our girl is always looking for newness,” she said.

As for betting big on the longevity of the corset trend, Elkaim said she’s confident it’s the right move. 

“It’s a trend that’s been around forever,” she said. “It occupies this space in the market that’s sexy and novelty, and we’ve introduced a cool way to approach that. So we’re going to continue to develop this cool, novel way of dressing, with corsets as our focus category.” 

Dudley Stephens: Building a brand off a best-selling turtleneck

Successfully breathing new life into an age-old wardrobe staple has served as a strong foundation for Dudley Stephens.

The brand, best known for its turtlenecks, was founded in Connecticut in 2015 by sisters Lauren Stephens, a former fashion PR executive, and Kaki McGrath, who was working in marketing. Their mom, Bonnie Dudley, is an active player in the business. 

They saw a hole in the market for cute fleece clothing and decided to jump on the opportunity. Their approach was to start with a “small family investment”  and to be scrappy. McGrath built the website, while Stephens and Dudley tackled product design. Stephens also took the lead on the brand’s Instagram account, which has worked wonders to fuel growth, she said. 

Today, fleece turtlenecks make up 70% of Dudley Stephens’ sales, but the goal is to establish more evenly distributed sales across product categories as the brand grows. Based on customer feedback, largely through Instagram, the brand has iterated on its best-selling turtleneck with a shorter version for petite women, for example, and a version with a puff sleeve. A new style drops every Tuesday.

2020 marked the brand’s biggest sales year – it experienced 79% growth year-over-year. It followed that up in 2021 with a 40% sales boost over 2020 numbers. Factors working to the brand’s advantage include the popular desire to be cozy at home, but also look put-together on Zoom, as well as the widespread shift to shopping online. Dudley Stephens is primarily a direct-to-consumer brand. It currently employs 12 workers full-time. 

“We’ve been successful by just reinvesting in the company and growing that way,” said Stephens, noting that fundraising is not among the brand’s immediate plans. “Going out and raising a bunch of money isn’t as glamorous as it sounds.”

The brand’s customer loyalty is noteworthy. One in 10 customers has at least five Dudley Stephens styles, while nearly half have at least two. The brand’s email list contains 100,000 names. Now, its focus is getting Dudley Stephens styles into more hands, to bring more repeat shoppers into the fold. According to the founders, the brand’s next-level attention to fit is a key differentiator in the market. For example, its fleece tops wear more like a close-fit sweater than the usual boxy pullover.

Dudley Stephens’ advertising mix to date has largely centered on Google, Facebook and Instagram ads, and Instagram influencers are a “huge” part of the strategy, said McGrath. 

The founders ramped up their marketing spend in the last year, introducing two home mailers that mostly went to prospective customers. Based on their success at driving sales, the mailers will remain in the marketing rotation, despite the large investment required. As for its influencer strategy, Dudley Stephens is now prioritizing diversity, in order to reach demos beyond the current, core customer base of young suburban moms, aged 25-45. 

Thus far, influencers that have worked best to earn the brand followers include Julia Dzafic of the blog Lemon Stripes and Eva Amurri, who’s the blogger behind Happily Eva After and also Susan Sarandon’s daughter. Posts by influencer Katie Sturino and TV mentions by Katie Couric have also worked to boost the brand’s connections. Dudley Stephens is sold on Couric’s LCM marketplace. As Instagram posts featuring the sisters drive good engagement, they make a point to insert themselves regularly.  

Outside of turtlenecks, Dudley Stephens has introduced select kids’ styles, to facilitate the “mommy and me” trend, as well as a single men’s style that sells well during the holidays. The plan is to expand both categories to include more styles. 

“Our customer is ready for it,” said McGrath. “Our Instagram posts with the most engagement are focused on new products and styles.”

Over the last 3-4 years, the sisters have developed a new, summer-friendly material featuring recyclable components, just as all Dudley Stephens styles do. The stretchy, athletic material, dubbed Eco Jersey, was introduced in a small selection of styles last year. All sold out. The founders have since perfected the fit of the jersey styles, and they plan to roll them out in a big way for summer; the first of four drops, which will feature various prints and stripes, will hit in March. 

Prior, June and early July were slower sales times for the brand. 

“We want to become a year-long lifestyle band,” said Stephens. “And we’re doing the right things internally to safeguard ourselves.”

Within the last year, that’s also included bringing diversification to the supply chain. After working exclusively with a Brooklyn manufacturer, the founders linked with two international factories. The founders are currently scouting additional manufacturing partners in the states, with the vision that each factory will focus on different products. 

Other changes the brand has tackled in recent years include starting a loyalty program, based on “pineapple points” (a reference to the brand’s logo) earned with each purchase. It also set up new warehousing to more accurately communicate the availability of styles online. A new fit guide has worked to lower the return rate and the number of incoming calls to customer service.

The brand has hosted successful pop-ups in the past, and the founders are now actively considering physical retail opportunities. At the same time, they’re being careful to be strategic about their approach and choice market. Best catering to the customer is at the center of such decisions. 

At the same time, the founders are focused on aligning the brand’s values with those of its customers. As such, they’re dedicated to improving the sustainability of the brand and they’ve enlisted St. Jude as a charitable partner.

“This is a community of warm and welcoming women,” said Stephens. “We all just want to look and feel good, and be able to tackle our day without being uncomfortable.” 

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Fashion Briefing: The brand playbook for growing beyond a cult product