Bonobos' new women's line launches with gorgeous atoms and glitchy bits

By Sarah Lacy , written on February 10, 2014

From The News Desk

Last week, I noticed a bit of tech news reported via the fashion press: Bonobos finally unveiled the inaugural spring collection of its women's line, Ayr.

At first, I was excited as a consumer. The line didn't disappoint. (More on that in a bit.) But actually, there's a pretty interesting tech story in here for an ecommerce company that insists it's more about brand and fashion and just happens to be online. In other words, it's more about the atoms than the bits.

First: The clothes. After all, that's the real product here. If Ayr doesn't have something new to add to the fashion world, it's toast right off the bat. And Ayr faced far more of a challenge than Bonobos did when it launched.

Ayr's premise was to make stylish and classic essentials, redefined for a busy woman who wants to go from work to play. That sounds like about a million designers' mission statements. And Ayr started from the beachhead of denim, just as Bonobos started out with better fitting pants. Again, better fitting pants for men was novel when Bonobos launched. But $150 women's jeans that flatter were a new idea back in 2000.

Indeed, I got an early (beta?) pair of Ayr jeans, and while I liked them, they weren't life-changing. Nothing against Ayr, but I have a lot of great pairs of jeans. I liked the wash, the softness, and Ayr boasts an industry-leading 30% stretch. That means the jeans have held their shape wear-after-wear and wash-after-wash much better than most pairs. Still, I could go my life without these jeans and be OK.

It's a good thing Ayr rapidly moved beyond that beachhead, because I was much more blown away by the non-jean parts of the collection-- at least in photos. They not only focused their collection on just a few signature pieces, but they focused on the hardest ones to get right. Sweaters that don't look too tight or too boxy. A flattering blazer that can go with anything. And this tunic that can be worn over jeans or as a sort of modern shirtdress with opaque tights.

While I have drawers of great fitting jeans: These three items are my fashion white whales. I placed an order, and I hope they live up to my expectations. It's basically the opposite of everything I said about Amazon's uncharacteristically tone-deaf attempt at "fashion."

Also, at $150 or so per item, the price point seems fair, assuming the quality and durability is as good as the jeans have been. The pieces look comparable to $350 department store versions, which I can't really afford on a startup salary with two kids. Ayr isn't fast fashion nor is it meant to be. It's a mid-level splurge for a working mom like me, or a girl early in her career who wants to start building a professional wardrobe full of go-to pieces.

I had high expectations based on my conversations with Ayr's founder Maggie Winter, and the collection looked better than I expected. (My one gripe would be there's not enough color... I realized after the fact almost everything I ordered was in black.)

Apparently, they were excited inside the company too. The average order size for Bonobos is $200. "Whales" are ones that spend $300 on their first order and repeat purchase in 60 days. (That seemed like a tiny whale to me, but astoundingly, the average male only spends $2,000 a year on clothes. At least I found that astounding. The men of PandoDaily found that a high estimate.)

Women's fashion is a different animal. The early Ayr orders a week in are already at the "whale" level, and you could argue there'd be a problem if they weren't given how much more women spend on clothes. (Mine was more than double that of a Bonobos whale.) Bonobos co-founder and CEO Andy Dunn said the team is giddy enough that there are bets on when Ayr's revenues will surpass the men's line. 2018 is the earliest bet.

Launch enthusiasm aside, there'd be a problem if Ayr didn't surpass the Bonobos brand at some point, simply because women spend a lot more on clothes. But, still, Dunn was nervous about some of the early victory dancing. Dunn would be pleased if Ayr represented 5% of overall revenues this year. It's rare that lightening can strike twice in even the best multi-brand etailers. It's still too early to tell what they've got.

The only thing disappointing in my experience with the new line? The glitchy site I had to use to order the pieces. While pretty and streamlined, it broke my mobile browser a few times, so I had to switch to my laptop. (Not ideal: Ayr would likely lose a lot of shoppers in this process.) And even on the laptop there were glitches. I aborted buying another pair of jeans because after picking the wash, because it wouldn't let me pick a size.

When I asked Dunn and Winter about it, they owned up to the glitches, and it lead to an interesting conversation about how Dunn-- a CEO who is more obsessed with merchandizing and brand than tech-- is thinking about the future of the "bits" part of his company.

First a bit of background: Dunn wasn't too upset about the glitches because he was frankly amazed a working site was produced in just 100 days. In 2013, he decided to spin off a Palo Alto-based division of Bonobos focused on building better ecommerce technology. Ultimately, he decided it wasn't core to the business and was splitting resources and focus. With it, he spun off most of the company's engineering talent. He had two engineers left after the move and has tried to only hire ones that have a passion for fashion. (That's a sliver of a Venn Diagram...)

That said, Dunn is bullish on how they built the site. They built it on top of Spree, an open source platform build on Ruby on Rails that Dunn invested in via his firm Red Swan. It separates the front end and the back end more cleanly, so that these multiple brands can all run on the same back end, but build the front end more like single-page apps. They'll move Bonobos to this in the future, and launch all subsequent brands on it. He argues this is a more elegant way to build it than a traditional Web site that's a collection of tabs and pages.

Not only that, it's key to how Dunn thinks about the future of the company. If he's going to continue on his quest to be "Mickie Fucking Drexler," he's either going to have to keep finding people like Brian Spaly (his original co-founder who sewed the first pair of Bonobos pants) and Winter and lulling them out of jobs, or he's going to have to embrace life as a platform. The latter is faster. Should Ayr succeed, in the future, he'll try to streamline this process by acquiring up brands or just offering distribution to independent designers who don't have great digital reach.

Consider it like a digital version of a mall or even what Nordstrom does in offering mini-stores of prominent designers or up and coming brands like, well, Bonobos.

But the first step will be making sure Ayr's first week isn't just a fluke via enthusiastic early adopters like me.