"My story could never have been incubated"
Nasty Gal pioneer Sophia Amoruso on creating a game-changing online fashion brand from scratch.
There can’t be many CEOs of 300+ employee companies around the world who personally reply to their customers and fans on social media networks, but Nasty Gal’s founder Sophia Amoruso is an exception.
When we meet at her company’s Beaux Arts-style building in downtown Los Angeles, Nasty Gal, a red-hot online fashion and accessories site, had recently set up a Snapchat account.
“I said to my Instagram followers ‘Hey, I’m on Snapchat! Find me @Nasty Gal,” says Amoruso, an entrepreneur with the looks and demeanor of an indie film star. “And now I can’t keep up with it.
“It’s girls writing things like ‘I love you Nasty Gal!, OMG!’ Or girls lying in their bedrooms just [sending] a crazy face. I’ve made crazy faces back and forth with the customers, basically texting them, which is crazy when you think about. I just did it in the back of a cab in New York.” She then concedes: “But I’ve been too busy to look at it in a while.”
Since its inception, Nasty Gal’s growth has “happened serendipitously”, through friends telling friends, Amoruso explains. But finding new customers, via social media has now become a key part of the job, while Nasty Gal’s community, whom she describes as “owners of the brand, in a big way”, has been instrumental in the company’s rapid evolution.
So how would she describe a typical Nasty Gal customer? “She is a girl who dresses for herself, who finds getting dressed a creative part of her day,” she replies. “She finds fashion interesting, but it’s not her whole life. She’s interested in other things too. She’s smart and ambitious. She isn’t afraid of turning heads, but she doesn’t necessarily get dressed to turn heads.”
Few CEOs or founders embody their brand in quite the way Amoruso does. She eschews the trappings of the corporate world, its clichés and platitudes, which trip off the tongue for so many. Her language is refreshingly free of buzzwords and marketing-speak. As a result, she inspires die-hard loyalty in her fans (and many of them are fans, as much as customers). Some of them, perhaps, even aspire to be her.
“I’m not a trained marketer,” she says. “I’ve done what comes naturally to me, so I found [my customers] naturally -- and they responded.”
Amoruso began work on Nasty Gal in 2006, initially by selling vintage clothing on eBay, doing every aspect of the business herself, from sourcing and styling to photography, writing copy, and shipping. She shies away from the word “authentic”, but it’s clear that authenticity -- in the sense that this was a business built from a passion, from scratch, rather than designed by business school graduates hunched over spreadsheets -- is exactly what Nasty Gal has.
In part, Amoruso thinks this is because she has continued to talk to her customers on social media in the same voice as she used at the beginning. “Customers these days are very savvy and can see through it when you are trying to pander to them,” she says.
Crucially, there has been “no big strategy” or master-plan. “I didn’t start out with venture capital, so it wasn’t like I had this dream that I had to convince other people to buy into, then went out and bought a bunch of shit and crossed my fingers that it sold,” she says.
“It’s a very different kind of learning when it’s as iterative as it was for me in the beginning. The same amount of work goes into putting something online that sells for $10 as something that sells for $1,000. On eBay I didn’t control my final prices, as everything was an auction. So I started everything at $9.99 and I had to create excitement myself.
“It was like ‘How do I elevate this thing that I found in a thrift store, that really has no inherent value, into something that is desirable?’ So really exalting the product in every way possible was the only way I could do that.
“In a lot of ways it’s like alchemy,” she says. “That’s how I learnt perceived value and what girls want -- just by being there and watching for so long.”
A hallmark of the Nasty Gal site is the extraordinary lean-back-to-view quality of the images used, which are particularly suited to tablet screens. Amoruso describes photography as something which means “everything” to her. Indeed, at first, she’d wanted to be a photographer. “But not a fashion photographer,” she adds quickly, “I was chasing around after Russian Orthodox monks, in fact, taking their pictures.”
She did all the photography in Nasty Gal’s early days and was visionary when it came to understanding the power of imagery on websites. “People can’t touch the clothes so how else can you show them the shape and weight of the garment, the way that it moves, the silhouette and the different ways of them being able to wear it, without them trying it on?
“Before visual shopping, before everyone realized that interesting things that are presented with good photography is what the Internet wants, I figured it out via trial and error,” she says. “My photography wasn’t always amazing. But was better than everything else that was happening on eBay, and it increasingly got better.”
Does Amoruso think there are disadvantages, alongside the clear and evident advantages, in her being so integral to the Nasty Gal brand?
“There are,” she agrees. “One thing is how do we extract what’s in my head and what’s made this business successful, and organize it and institutionalize it across the organization?
“That’s what we’ve been trying to do since I hired one person, I guess. Now we have a President and Chief Product Officer, a head of creative, a VP of design, we have a lot of senior people and they are doing an amazing job – but I don’t think we’d have a brand, if there wasn’t one filter that things could pass through.”
However, with so many fast-moving elements to the business, not least 250 items to post on the website each week, Amoruso concedes there is now too much for an individual to oversee – at least not in a hands-on way.
“There have been times where things are working just great and I don’t really need to be very involved with the brand voice or merchandising. But there are other moments, when I really have to jump back in,” she says.
Building Nasty Gal has taken forensic attention to detail over a period of years and the key to delegation, she explains, is ensuring your entire team appreciates that every aspect of the business can impact on the brand.
“I just want everything to be right and I’ll speak up when it’s not,” she says. “Everything is as important as one thing. Email blasts, for example, are not an afterthought. Nothing is an afterthought.
“It doesn’t matter how often we do something or how little time we have to do it in, it has to be amazing. If I was doing it, I would hold myself to that standard too. If that makes people’s jobs harder then…. Well, it’s the brand, and each time you let someone get away with taking a shortcut, a little bit of the brand dies.”
Amoruso is undoubtedly an inspirational figure for many of Nasty Gal’s fans and customers, who follow her slavishly on social media. So does she have her own fashion/retail heroes?
Her answer is blunt. “I don’t have heroes, I don’t believe in them,” she says. “I’m not going down anyone else’s path. I don’t take cues, I like to learn things, but then I put them through my own filter and what comes out is always going to be a little different.”
When this interview took place, Amoruso was putting the finishing touches to her now-published – and successful -- book #GIRLBOSS, a hybrid autobiography and manifesto, laced with ‘pro-tips’. In it, she says, there is an entire chapter about why not to look up to people. “If you look up to people, it keeps you down,” she explains.
“#GIRLBOSS,” she says, “is a romp through my history of being this angry teenager, trying to smash capitalism and then being, like, ‘No, your freedom won’t be yours if you try to live outside of this structure’. And me being, like, ‘OK I need to work hard then’, and from having some more shitty jobs, I find myself in a place where I reaped what I sowed.
“So, it’s just stories and advice about what to do and what not to do, how to write your own path, when to break the rules and when to follow them.” She flashes a smile: “It’s for the non-Harvard educated woman.”
If many Nasty Gal fans aspire to the thrill of a personal connection with Amoruso, some of them want rather more than that – they want to follow in her footsteps. “All the comments on Instagram, which are like ‘I wanna be you!’ or ‘I’m launching my line’ or ‘OMG! You’re my idol!” – that makes me feel weird,” she says. “I didn’t ever try to put myself in that position.
“I’m glad that I can inspire people, because my story is a very relatable one. There are not a lot of women who are role models, that didn’t go to the right school. The women who are role models usually went to that school. They are mostly hyper educated, reality stars, or celebrities.
“I think a lot of girls want to be in fashion, and for some reason my story really resonates with them. And that’s cool -- my story couldn’t have been incubated,” she says (in a reference to start-up incubator/accelerator programs).
“I’m only curious about the things I’m curious about now, because of what I’ve built. I wouldn’t have ever gone out and said I’m going to be a CEO. No way, would I have ever done that.”
She adds: “And I’ve never made a PowerPoint deck in my entire life.”