The myth of the high-growth fashion startup

For the previous decade, fashion startups with disruptive enterprise fashions—from direct-to-consumer manufacturers to clothing-rental platforms—have taken the business by storm. Now, many of these once-scrappy startups are going public.

This 12 months alone, ThredUp, Poshmark, and Warby Parker have gone public; Lease the Runway and Allbirds have filed for IPOs and are anticipated to go public quickly. A have a look at these corporations’ financials reveals that none of them managed to create a worthwhile enterprise whereas additionally scaling quick sufficient to satisfy traders’ expectations. And a few of these corporations’s inventory—together with ThredUp and Poshmark—have stayed flat or tanked since their IPO. All of this prompts the query of whether or not the age of the fast-growing, VC-funded fashion startup is perhaps coming to an finish.

Why now?

Whereas it may appear stunning that each one of these corporations are going public so shut to 1 one other, there are some larger tendencies that assist clarify it. For starters, many of them launched round the identical time, roughly 10 years in the past, says Dan Frommer, a veteran tech journalist and editor-in-chief of The New Consumer. In addition they obtained giant quantities of capital from traders who handled them as in the event that they had been tech corporations with the potential to scale rapidly. (Lease the Runway, the oldest of the bunch, launched in 2009 and has obtained $500 million in funding; Allbirds, the latest, which launched in 2015, has obtained $200 million.) However these traders are in search of a return on their capital—which suggests going public or getting acquired. “In the enterprise capital enterprise mannequin, corporations are anticipated to indicate returns on these funds someplace between 5 [and] 15 years,” Frommer says. “So the minute an organization takes enterprise funding, they’re on a ticking timer.”


And 2021 occurred to be a very good 12 months to go public, in accordance to Sucharita Kodali, a principal analyst at Forrester Analysis, who makes a speciality of e-commerce and retail. There have been a record number of IPOs this year, partly as a result of corporations put them off final 12 months when the pandemic prompted a lot instability in the market. Now, traders are in search of locations to place their cash. “Amongst the wealthiest folks, there’s a ton of money floating round,” she says. “Final 12 months, folks couldn’t journey, purchase automobiles, or eat at eating places. So in case your web price went up and also you don’t have a lot to spend your cash on, you may put money into an IPO.”

Many of the manufacturers going public now truly bucked the broader retail downturn and thrived throughout the pandemic, so it is smart that they wish to capitalize on this success. In the case of ThredUp and Poshmark, there was already a rising demand for secondhand items; throughout the lockdowns, customers turned to those platforms to purchase these items on-line. Warby Parker rapidly pivoted from its retail shops to its current e-commerce enterprise, whereas Allbirds choices of athleisure garments and sneakers had been objects folks wanted in the pandemic.

Lease the Runway stands aside on this regard, as a result of it didn’t have a very robust 12 months. The firm constructed its enterprise on renting garments for fancy occasions and the workplace, however customers didn’t want formalwear for a lot of 2020 and weren’t dressing for work. Whereas the firm says enterprise is starting to return, the delta variant postponed many occasions and delayed the return to work. “I’m scratching my head at their resolution to IPO,” Kodali says. “Their numbers are down, and there’s nothing notably compelling about their enterprise proper now.” In accordance with the company’s S-1, its lively subscribers dropped from 133,572 in 2019 to 54,747 in 2020. This 12 months, subscribers appear to be coming again, however they’re nowhere close to pre-pandemic ranges. Frommer suggests the purpose for the IPO’s timing is perhaps that firm wants to lift capital so as to hold the enterprise going.

[Photos: White House Flickr (Archived), Sophie Backes/Unsplash]

The future of fashion

These IPOs reveal precisely how laborious it’s to each flip a revenue and develop rapidly as a fashion startup. Frommer says many of these corporations had been rather more tech-forward than their predecessors, so traders handled them like tech corporations. Warby Parker and Allbirds, for example, constructed digitally native manufacturers that took benefit of all the things the web needed to provide, from social media to immersive web sites. Some traders hoped that profitable e-commerce manufacturers like these may finally take over the market. But it surely turned out that there have been limits to their development. Not like software program corporations, these manufacturers needed to develop merchandise, construct provide chains, and finally construct retail shops, all of that are capital intensive. A decade later, Warby Parker has just one% market share by income, in line with its SEC filing in August. For comparability, Lenscrafter’s mum or dad firm, EssilorLuxottica, dominates with 20% of the market.

For Lease the Runway and ThredUp, the challenges had been much more advanced. Each corporations collected huge portions of knowledge about their customers and created methods to digitally tag clothes. In addition they had strong on-line websites the place prospects may filter via garments to lease and purchase. However to make all of this work, they needed to create the bodily infrastructure to course of the clothes. Lease the Runway famously constructed the largest dry-cleaning facility in the world, and ThredUp has constructed huge warehouses to gather, {photograph}, and ship secondhand clothes. Once more, all of this requires loads of capital.

Warby Parker had a profitable IPO final week, hitting a $6 billion market cap  on its first day of buying and selling. It’s too early to say how the firm will do on the public market long run: Some analysts said the firm was overvalued; others believed it was merited as a result of the firm has good margins, a fascinating model story, and is prone to keep growing. Poshmark’s inventory, on the different hand, has declined steadily because it went public in January. Its third quarter revenues had been under estimates, which it partly attributed to Apple’s new privateness insurance policies that make it more durable to trace customers and successfully market to them. ThredUp’s inventory value, in the meantime, is close to to its public debut in March. Whereas analysts consider the firm has room to develop as the resale market picks up, its web losses develop yearly because it retains constructing out new warehouses to course of garments. These losses are typical for an organization in development mode, however are one thing traders are watching intently.

The efficiency of these corporations exhibits how laborious it’s to construct a worthwhile, high-growth fashion enterprise. Enterprise capitalists have pumped lots of of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} to assist these corporations scale, however a lot of this capital has gone towards costly infrastructure, from warehouses to retail shops. And over the previous decade, the market has been crowded with different fashion startups, which has meant steeper competitors for a hard and fast quantity of customers. It’s additionally more and more costly to accumulate new prospects on social media, chopping into their margins.  “None of these companies look like it’s going to be the subsequent Amazon,” Kodali says.


With their IPOs, these corporations will now not really feel the stress of enterprise capitalists, however there will likely be new issues: They’re now beholden to shareholders with their very own expectations in relation to development and profitability. And in the event that they don’t carry out, founders danger being faraway from their management positions by the board of administrators. In some ways, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fireplace.

So what subsequent?

There are different manufacturers from this cohort of startups which may resolve to leap on the IPO bandwagon, together with Everlane, Away, and Glossier. These manufacturers have collectively raised upward of half a billion {dollars} in enterprise funding, so their traders could also be in search of a payday quickly. However as a brand new technology of entrepreneurs begins to construct fashion companies, they will not be trying to publicly traded corporations as inspiration. Kodali says that quite than going out to lift huge sums of VC funding and rising exponentially, in the present day’s startups is perhaps keener to develop slower, however work towards profitability. They may take a web page from corporations like menswear model Buck Mason, high-quality jewellery model Aurate, or womenswear model Cuyana, which have taken a lot smaller funding rounds and have been extra targeted on constructing sustainable companies.

Kodali factors out that with the startups based a decade in the past, entrepreneurs had been aiming to personal a small stake in a billion-dollar enterprise. However in the present day’s entrepreneurs is perhaps extra eager to personal a bigger stake in a hundred-million greenback enterprise. “It’s a must to work loads much less laborious to be a hundred-million greenback enterprise,” she says. “There are fewer boundaries to entry, you’re below the radar, and also you don’t have a goal in your again if you’re smaller. And at the finish of the day, you make simply as a lot cash.”