It's hard to separate StyleSaint from its founder Allison Beal, and that may be its biggest advantage
The best startups exploit an unfair advantage over their competition. Sometimes it is unique industry knowledge, a hot rolodex, an in with major customers, access to the best investors, first-mover advantage, or some sort of IP protection.
In the case of Los Angeles fashion and media startup StyleSaint, that advantage is founder and CEO Allison Beal.
Beal is a unique combination of a veteran fashion industry exec, style icon, self-taught technologist, and savvy builder of digital brands. Typically companies looking to approximate this Swiss Army knife worth of skill sets need a team full of co-founders to get all that.
StyleSaint has leveraged this advantage to evolve from a media startup empowering women to create content around their favorite fashion trends, to one that designs, manufactures, and sells aspirational fashions direct to consumer at accessible price points. It's still in its early days, no doubt, but the young company is well ahead of where it would be expected to be sans Beal.
Nowhere is Beal’s value more readily apparent than in her connection with her fans. Going by the name Saint Allison within the StyleSaint community, she is the face of the brand and an icon to which legions of young women aspire to emulate. Many of these followers have adopted the “Saint” moniker in their own social profiles, on the company’s network and across Twitter and Instagram.
Beal’s life has turned into a pseudo-reality show, as her every move is now photographed and videotaped, later turning into “content marketing” for the brand. As the real life “Style Saint,” fans can’t get enough of how she wears the company’s clothes, where she gets her inspiration, and other seemingly mundane aspects of her life. This could be unbelievably disruptive to her marriage, now just one month old, were it not for the fact that her husband is also a photographer and videographer. File that away as another possible advantage.
Look no further than Nasty Gal, the multi-hundred million dollar online fashion business built on the back of founder Sophia Amoruso’s now edgy brand for evidence of the value of an iconic founder. This type of authentic fan appeal is something that can’t be faked and can’t be forced. You either have it or you don’t. Judging by the response from her fans, Beal has it in spades.
It’s not just “soft” advantages Beal brings to StyleSaint. Thanks to her time in the fashion industry, where she spent nearly six years in senior marketing, business development, and creative development roles in both the US and Europe, the startup CEO has deep relationships that others entering the industry would be lucky to duplicate. StyleSaint has a relationship with a Los Angeles garment house – the same one that makes Rag & Bone, Maison Martin Margiela, and other high-fashion lines – that enables the company to regularly produce runs of just a few dozen pieces per style, rather than the typical several thousand unit minimums imposed on those walking in off the street. Taking this a step further, Beal says that she is able to reorder without slowing down delivery times and also rapidly incorporate customer feedback by making alterations mid-production run if necessary, something that would be highly unusual for most small designers.
StyleSaint debuted its first apparel collection in August of this year, a full two years after launching as an online “tear sheet” creator and media company. All the designs in the 16 SKU collection, while entirely unique and original, are inspired by the styles trending within the StyleSaint community, Beal says. And each is meticulously designed by Beal and her team with a focus on flattering the average woman – her models are a size six, not a size two, she notes, and she makes no less than a dozen women all with different body types try on each style before signing off on its cut.
“We’re now building trust with the StyleSaint girl around quality and reliability,” Beal says. “I’m obsessive about making things that make women feel sexy and powerful, but that are affordable and whenever possible made locally and ethically. That’s my fashion utopia.”
The inaugural StyleSaint collection includes camisoles, blouses, a maxi-dress, and a silk dress. Pricing will be similar to Zara, Beal says, meaning that tops will range between $80 to $250. This makes StyleSaint accessible to the upper-middle class, and a fraction of the cost of Rag & Bone and similar lines of comparable quality.
Because of Beal’s manufacturing relationships, StyleSaint can take a more dynamic merchandising approach than most young companies designing their own lines. Every eight weeks, the company plans to add four new pieces, removing pieces from the existing collection that proved unpopular or are now out of season. A few staples, like the company’s maxi-dress, will always be available in the same reliable cut, although the colors and patterns may change. This is approach is one more commonly seen from fashion startups that private-label styles from larger, third-party designers, but nearly unheard of when designing a collection from scratch.
StyleSaint has yet to use any paid marketing, instead relying on its existing community of aspiring fashionista and on Beal’s appeal to attract women to the brand. The average customer is 21 to 35 years old, Beal says, a demographic that is a prime target for her edgy but practical styles. By comparison Nasty Gal and ModCloth target a much younger 16 to 25 year old girl. Beal has a long way to go, but hopes to be in a similar position to those two companies in another three to five years.
The nine-person company has raised $5.8 million across two rounds of funding from backers including General Catalyst Partners, e.ventures, Andreessen Horowitz*, Crosscut Ventures (where Garrett is a partner), Brian Lee, MuckerLab, and Dennis Phelps. It's not a ton of capital in this expensive and risky industry, but it gives the company a few years of runway to prove out its model. [Disclosure: Andreessen Horowitz partners Marc Andreessen, Jeff Jordan, and Chris Dixon are investors in PandoDaily]
The above advantages have paved StyleSaint’s entry into the game of online fashion retailing. But there is no shortage of work to be done to make sure it stays there. It's notoriously difficult and expensive to build something lasting in this space. The company has a valuable brand and an enviable manufacturing setup. The net challenge is to expand beyond the initial core audience of rabid online fashionistas into the mainstream female consumer.
Given what Beal has accomplished to date, it would be foolish to bet against her. But at the same time, it’s no small feat creating a brand and a company out of nothing but sheer will and force of will. The road ahead will surely test the young founder in more ways than she knows today.