Betabrand: Who’s Calling the Shots On Fashion?

Ever had a design idea you were sure would “break the Internet”? Ever had to alter your favorite garment to make it better? What if you could collaborate with your favorite brand directly? E-commerce and social media have impacted the way people behave as consumers. Fashion is rapidly become a team sport. From power players competing with emergent talent at Paris Fashion Week to African luxury designers taking control of their resources and outcomes to comprehensive efforts of the Russian fashion industry, in my column I have been covering the search for best practices worldwide. Every runway season brings rumors and proclamations of seismic shifts and tectonic changes! Much of it is hype, which makes this story all the more valuable! BETABRAND is one of the businesses driving both the talk and the practice of change within the fashion industry.

Courtesy of Betabrand

The Suity, business suit onesie rom Betabrand.

It started with a counterintuitive idea of participatory design and now boasts millions of sales and thousands of products in real time development. It publishes digital 3D renderings of concepts and invites users to provide feedback and input until the final product is available for purchase. A niche outlet for shoe and bag design enthusiasts has grown into a major fashion platform in partnership with VF Corporation and Li & Fung, two of the world largest manufacturers working with the likes of Timberland, North Face, Smart Wool, Nike, Disney, Wrangler, and so on. That’s as industry as it gets; and the list keeps growing. I had an opportunity to sit down with Chris Lindland, Founder and CEO of Betabrand, to discuss pros and cons of current retail models, how the most outlandish ideas stabilize business cashflow and if the value of fun and risk in the workplace is overrated.

Courtesy of Betabrand

Chris Lindland, Founder and CEO of Betabrand.

Stephan Rabimov: Does this moment feel to you like the dawn of a new era in fashion?

Chris Lindland: Yes indeed!  The Internet is enabling the industry to rethink the relationship between supply and demand.  At Betabrand, we welcome consumers into the design department to create what they REALLY want before we make it.   They’re guiding our decisions down to the last stitch.

In a sense, virtual fashion is disrupting the physical practice of fashion…

Virtual design can come to life far faster than physical products.   Thanks to incredible advances in visualization software,  we can show consumers what products will be, in lifelike detail, before we even make the first sample. This design went from concept to sale in under 5 days. 

Courtesy of Betabrand

Betabrand Tennis Western shoes

How does your team work with designers and consumers?

All products evolve from a series of decisions made by designers and merchants.   What’s novel about our approach, is we invite consumers in discussion.    Say we set out to make a pair of high heels.   We first ask what heel style people are interested in, then start sketching and sharing from there.   Consumers vote on design details, fabrics, and colors along the way and a product comes to life before their very eyes.

In building Betabrand as a market presence, what elements were key in ensuring sustainability of its success?

Businesses that build community around creative content (Instagram, YouTube, Instructables) generally succeed.  And fashion designers create an ocean of apparel sketches and prototypes.   Our aim is to create a place where consumers and designers can connect to bring new products to life — the more, the merrier.

How does Betabrand compare to platforms like Etsy?

Etsy is a GREAT place for merchants to sell products of all kinds.   But it assumes that the merchants show up with inventory to sell.   Inventory and manufacturing minimums can be a great burden on creative people.  For instance, you may have a beautiful dress design, but lack the factory relationships or the funds necessary to meet the production needs they have.    For many,  having manufacture 500 dresses is too much of a start-up cost.

At Betabrand, we provide the manufacturing as well as the audience so designers can bring their ideas to life without the financial burden.   For this, we reward them with commissions and introduce them to a world of fans and followers.

Courtesy of Betabrand

Betabrand Stately Satchel

What ensures that the 3D-rendered prototype is exactly what gets made?

It’s something that we and our manufacturing partners take very seriously! We’ve launched over 20 products now and I’m confident that customers receive what they see on our Website.   The products are rendered from the actual patterns of the shoes and the fabrics and trims are scanned from actual materials in our manufacturer’s supply chain.  The software assembles these elements and presents them in a lifelike manner.

The mantra in the tech world now is that work environment should be fun and risk-taking must be rewarded. It increases productivity. Does that ring true to your brand-building experience?

Fun is fun, but it’s deadlines that are responsible for creativity in the workplace. For us, it’s newsletters, product launches, design idea discussions and so on. I honestly think people could take even more risks at Betabrand, because we’ve created a low risk system.

Courtesy of Betabrand

Betabrand Disco Leggings

What is the ratio of the business savvy and alchemy in digital success?

Maybe 60/40 if I had to pick?!  The savvy is to engineer a smart platform.  The alchemy lies in getting creative people to play with it.  For almost no cost we can attract an enormous number of eyeballs from the ideas people post on our platform. The Suitsy is a good example. Easily a million people visited our site because of the press it generated before we shipped the first unit.  We’ve had lots of products over the years that we didn’t plan on.

What is the most successful Betabrand item thus far?

Dress pant yoga pants. Without a doubt. It’s our Air Jordan [Laughs]. Participation is off the charts and so are sales.

Courtesy of Betabrand

Betabrand Smartwool Henley

Let’s go back to brick and mortar. Will consumers ever go back to brick and mortar or is the exodus into e-commerce permanent?

The Internet is an insane multiplier that makes betting your future on folks walking into a store seem like an outdated idea.  The amount of money it costs just to open shop in New York City, for example… You could build several creative apps for that!  If only one of them were popular, it’d be worth more than that store.

Outside of your full time job, where can one run into you?

At any of Peet’s Coffee Shops in San Francisco! [Laughs] That is my regular seven to nine a.m. place.

You have a favorite “bad habit”?

Waking up and looking at my inbox. E-commerce businesses spit out a zillion emails and it’s hard to keep up….or think about anything else.

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