In January, SF Fashion + Tech hosted a panel discussion about how technology is changing the fashion business. Moderated by Lorraine Sanders of the San Francisco Chronicle, the panel included executives from ModCloth, BetaBrand and Google. One topic that came up was the rise of subscription services. Everyone on the panel, and many in the audience, seemed to doubt their potential for long-term success.
No subscription startups were present, which I thought somewhat unbalanced, so I decided to undertake a small case study. I chose Elizabeth & Clarke, a young startup based in New York City which hasn’t gotten a ton of press. They specialize in womens’ shirts. Needing a mannequin, I signed up for my mom.
Elizabeth & Clarke was co-founded by Melanie Moore, formerly of To Vie For, and Sara Chipps, an NYC-based developer, after they became frustrated with the difficulty of finding nice, affordable clothes for wearing to the office (more on their motivations here). The premise is simple: four times a year, they send subscribers a box of what are described as “perfect basics.” For now, the focus is on shirts, though there are hints that they could expand to other items as well.
I signed up in mid-January, with the boxes due to be delivered in early March. Here we hit a snag: the boxes arrived more than two weeks late due to what Melanie told me were delays at the factory. I decided to chalk this up to a normal learning curve for a startup and forget about it. Explaining what had happened, she seemed confident the process would run more smoothly going forward.
The shirts, when they arrived, were as good as promised: a white shirt with a shawl collar, a black blouse with a bow at the neck and shiny buttons (very Blair Waldorf), and a sleeveless shirt with a sharply pointed collar and an extra-long back.
My mother tends to be a stickler for natural fibers like cotton, wool and silk, and she noticed the synthetic-feeling fabric. My response was that for the price point ($30 a pop) they seemed like good value, and they could always upgrade to more expensive raw materials when they have the kinks worked out and a quickly-growing subscriber base. Overall, I was impressed, particularly since this is only the second batch of product Elizabeth & Clarke has ever shipped.
One area where Elizabeth & Clarke could improve is how they explain their sizing. Having seen my mom shop, I know how tricky sizing can be, especially the first time one buys from a label. Though their site does say they run small, it would be simpler for the shopper if they provided guideline measurements the way many etailers do.
As I thought more about subscription startups, I realized Elizabeth & Clarke’s model brings an important advantage: unlike many subscription startups, they are in the business of making things, designing their product to truly fill a niche in their customers’ lives. At base it ‘s more important for them to be designer and manufacturer than subscription retailer.
Whether Elizabeth & Clarke will continue to operate on a subscription basis, I can’t say. For the moment it provides key advantages: the product development cycle is clear and short, and having subscribers gives them a very accurate picture of demand. The real advantage, though, is in creating new products that will be better-priced and more compelling than what you might find at competitors like Zara, H&M or Theory.
What does this say about subscription startups as a group? Only that while skepticism is justifiable, young companies do exist for which a subscription model can add value.
Top photo via Flickr