These days, most retailers wouldn't dream of launching without an e-commerce strategy. But up until recently, Yael Aflalo, the founder of Reformation, an eco-conscious fashion label popular among runway walkers like Karlie Kloss, was not one of them. 

When Aflalo founded the company in 2008, there was no e-commerce site to speak of. "I was a bit intimidated," she admits, and "it felt like stores were something I understood more." This makes sense since Aflalo had previously launched the fashion label Ya-Ya in 1999, which was earning more than $20 million a year by 2005. But after keeping things modest for five years, she wanted to go bigger. After some trial and error, that's exactly what she did.

Build it, and they won't come.

In March 2013, Aflalo launched a new site with all the e-commerce bells and whistles. "We were all excited about it and turned it on and anticipated this flood of orders," she recalls. They didn't come. "A few months later, I had this epiphany that if we wanted to make [it] work, we had to focus all, or the vast majority of our very limited resources" on effective e-commerce strategies. 

First, Aflalo began learning all of the various levers you can pull online to attract customers: paid acquisition, banners, email, and so on. Then she observed other e-shops' best practices and gave herself "a gut check in each area," particularly newsletters, which she felt companies sent too often. She also took note of the areas in which competitors were lacking. 

"I noticed that the quality of the content on a majority of e-commerce sites is very low," she says. "When you look at comparable content in publishing--say, the difference between a magazine and what you see online--there's a giant delta there from a content perspective. I thought, 'This should be way better.'" 

She also noted that the styling of products online was uncreative--"very bland, very boring," she says. Photos showing a model with her head cut off or floating against a white backdrop were not only unrealistic but unappealing as well. 

"It was like an accountant was taking the picture," she says. "[You can tell they were just thinking], 'If I spend $15 per image, I'll save a certain amount of money.' But maybe if you spend more, you'd yield more revenue and make it more worthwhile." 

"It felt like we hit gold."  

When Aflalo relaunched the site, the business changed overnight. "It's like that feeling when you go out and strike gold," she says. "That's what it felt like--like we hit gold." 

She credits the business's success--the site and bricks-and-mortar stores generated over $25 million in revenue last year, while the site draws 200,000 unique monthly visitors and counting--to investing in photographers, models, styling, and image processing. "It's expensive, but we aim to be as efficient as possible at every step, which helps us keep costs down," she says. 

Additionally, she credits Reformation's ability to blend data analysis and creativity. "We'll look at the data and then explore all the reasons something is selling, from color to silhouette, and then reapply that same thinking to all of our creative on e-commerce and social, which is the lighting, the model, the styling, the lighting, her hairdo," she explains. "The magic is being able to register what it is about it that's moving the needle, and to make sure that's incorporated going forward in the creative." 

Aflalo also stresses the importance of evolving with customers' tastes. You can't hit on something that works and expect it to always work. "It's a very changing thing," she says.

Tricks of the styling trade.

So what makes Reformation resonate with customers? A number of styling tricks come into play. The brand uses backdrops that feel like real rooms, captures models midaction, and emphasizes what Aflalo calls the "no-makeup makeup" look with loose, undone hair. Oh, and lighting. Lighting plays a big part. "We change our lighting every three to four months, because we notice sales will drop off or stagnate," Aflalo says. 

Then again, some things just work and don't require constant tweaks: Shooting a T-shirt? Pick a girl with a "pretty angelic face." Adding a coat? "Head down, hands in pockets,'" Aflalo says. "Maybe it resonates because she looks cold."

Even the size of the giant pictures on the site is intentional: "We're kind of inviting the customer into our world and the model exists there in a room." Case in point: You'll never see white backdrops, only dark wooden floors. 

To Aflalo's mind, all these things work in concert to make the clothes feel accessible. "Even though they're beautiful models, it's still more real than any other representation you're seeing online," she says. "It resonates as more authentic than a girl floating in light." After all, online you're not selling just products. You're also selling a complete aesthetic. 

Published on: Feb 17, 2015