Word-of-Mouth and Referral Marketing Blog

How 7 Fashion Ecommerce Businesses Acquired Their First Customers

We’re all about customer acquisition, and one of the best ways to learn about how to do it effectively is to study the success stories of those who came before. Here are 7 fashion ecommerce brands, and their stories about how they acquired their early customers.

1. Threadless – championed word-of-mouth in its community

threadcake-2

One of Threadless’ crucial early moves was to start a massive word-of-mouth campaign.

From the get-go, Threadless supported community initiated “rogue contests” (spontaneous, themed tee shirt contests). In turn, its community is insanely creative, and also full of fiercely loyal brand advocates. 

Read next: 4 ways Threadless built a fanatical community

2. Black Milk: Fashion + Fandom = Explosive Growth

black-milk-harry-potter
Harry Potter themed leggings!

The clothing store achieved its impressive growth by milking fandom for its worth.

It didn’t stop at making pop culture-inspired apparel – it established serious legitimacy by getting official license for all their geeky wear.

This set them up to be the leading brand for some of the tightest, most loyal, and most enthusiastic communities out there.

Facebook Page as fandom watering hole:

black-milk-facebook-community
Establishing a community for your customers to participate in strengthens their relationship with your brand.

Over there, dedicated “Sharkies” can connect with like-minded fans.

There’s even a Black Milk-approved group where girls can swap, buy, and sell their purchases with each other.

Read next: 3 ways Black Milk created a crazily loyal fanbase

3. Wildfang – the first online retailer for tomboys was launched by tomboys

wildfang-group-kate

Solving a very personal pain point gives you an advantage because you intuitively understand your target audience – you’re simultaneously the innovator and the consumer.

But it also makes for a terrific brand story. Co-founders Julia Parsley and Emma McIlroy recount their story behind Wildfang, a curated e-tailer for androgynous women:

We were shopping one day in Nike’s men’s department and I picked up  a T-shirt with a provocative picture of Kate Moss on the front. And Julia picked up a men’s blazer with patches on the elbows. She saw me take a look at it and try to figure out if I could fit in it and she said, ‘Why don’t they make this shit for us?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a really good question, I don’t know.’

140 hours of consumer outreach:

We heard two clear messages. One was that no one had a favorite place to shop. And the other thing we heard was, yes, a really diverse group of girls wanted to wear their boyfriend’s shirt or steal their grandfather’s military jacket from the sixties. [We thought], there was a consumer need to be met, and it was an emotional one.”

Launch featured tomboy icons Kate Moenig and Megan Rapinoe:

Even androgynous heartthrobs Tegan and Sara Quinn said that they shop Wildfang regularly.

And Wildfang didn’t spend a single cent to get these celebrities on board.

Those girls believe in the concept. Kate Moennig, Megan Rapinoe, Hannah Blilie, all those girls signed up to work with us because they wanted to. It’s an idea that’s time had come. I didn’t even know what I wanted Megan to do when we first sat down for dinner. I didn’t have a website, I didn’t have a logo, I had nothing. I walked her through what we wanted to do and she said, sign me up, I’m in…My marketing budget is tiny, I don’t have money to drop on girls like that. So it’s very organic.

4. ELOQUII – rebounded from failure with blogger partnerships 

eloquii-allison-teng

Failure to engage bloggers was a disaster: 

Eloquii is an ecommerce store for plus-sized women, and used to be one of Limited’s fashion line – until Limited axed it.

Many bloggers were angry because they were loyal fans of the Eloquii in an under-served market, and cited a poor marketing strategy as the reason for Eloquii’s failure.

From The Curvy Fashionista:

“‘If you build it, they will come’ IS NOT a viable Marketing plan. Eloquii, you NEVER advertised. And if you did, you did in a place where the plus size shopper WAS NOT LOOKING. There was NO BLOGGER outreach, NO PLUS SIZE COMMUNITY participation! HOW CAN SHE SHOP YOU IF SHE DOES NOT KNOW HOW TO REACH YOU or THAT YOU EXIST?”

Relaunched and partnered with plus-size stars:

Eloquii was rescued by a few of its passionate executives, and relaunched this year with high profile partnerships with plus-sized bloggers Allison Teng and Rochelle.

It also established a strong Tumblr presence. (ModCloth also kicks ass at blogger outreach!)

5. Mizzen+Main – wanted to set up shop in the New York Saks; shamelessly asked

mizzen-and-main
They asked, and so they received – the Mizzen+Main pop-up shop in the New York Saks.

Opportunities and PR through old-fashioned hustle

The startup that makes performance dress shirts only launched in 2012, and is already expecting a 7 figure revenue for 2014.

Co-founder Smith recalls their process of trying to set up a pop-up shop in the New York Saks:

 “We didn’t grow up in design schools or on the fashion track. So when we wanted to get into Saks, we just went to the VP of menswear. It’s almost our naiveté that allows us to introduce ourselves to people that we should probably not know.”

Their persistence also helped them get Mizzen+Main featured in publications like The New York Times and Fast Company.

Smith even got the shirts onto the backs of ESPN broadcasters.

6. Ministry of Supply – Kickstarter darling wanted to test the market

Ministry of Supply APOLLO shirt Kickstarter
The Apollo shirt raised over 13x its original target of $30,000.

Validation and loyal advocates through crowdfunding:

Ministry of Supply set out to raise $30K and within 5 days of launching the campaign, they met their goal.

They went on to raise $400k over their target.

And after their phenomenal success, they secured $1.1m in funding. Co-founder Kit Hickey commented on the purpose of crowdfunding for the menswear startup.

“We went on Kickstarter not to raise money, but to test the market and see if this people actually want to buy this. For us it was amazing to see people emailing us saying “I’ve been waiting all my life for this,” “I can’t wait to buy these in every color.” It was also to have these advocates involved in helping us launch. They are part of the family and our growth.”

7. Jack Threads – founder bootstrapped with curation and a referral program

Street style for men – members only.
Street style for men – members only.

Went solo with a great product + referral program

JackThreads founder Jason Ross built the member’s only men’s apparel brand by himself for 2.5 years.

In an interview with The Founder, Ross talks about how he acquired new members in the lonely bootstrapping days:

“I think the main reason we’ve been able to drive guys to the site, is that we deliver a very niche and curated product and work hard to make sure we’re bringing the most relevant product and brands to our audience. Beyond that, we’ve had a lot of success come through our referral program, which offers guys $10 every time they get a friend to sign up for our site and make a purchase using their referral link.”

Referral programs for fashion and apparel stores can be very powerful, especially when you’re targeting new areas for growth.

Lesson: Build a product you care about, so you’ll put in the effort that differentiates you

And this really is the common thread that ties our case studies – their founders care very, very deeply about their products and their communities.

“I know it seems sort of obvious but I feel like for many entrepreneurs it’s not always the case — it’s so important to create something you’re truly passionate about.

When I began my career, I launched a sports marketing company with a friend. We had some moderate success, but I just didn’t have a strong enough interest in what we were doing. It made it really hard to want to dig deep and put in the effort we would’ve needed to make the company truly successful.

Basically, don’t just start a business to start a business – make sure it’s something you love and believe in.”

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Read next: Fashion Referral Program Examples

Melissa Tsang

Melissa Tsang is a writer and speaker on the social impact of ecommerce and technology. She's also a bit of an impulse shopper. (A bit.)

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