Democratizing fashion may seem like a lofty goal, but that's the mission Eric Koger and Susan Gregg Koger have set for ModCloth, an online retailer that sells vintage-inspired duds from more than 600 independent designers. Now, the husband-and-wife team is moving one step closer to its objective by launching a clothing line designed by ModCloth's customers.
Designer: Cassie Thompson of Grovetown, Georgia
Background: Thompson, 32, is a high school art teacher. In her spare time, she makes jewelry, which she sells on Etsy.
Inspiration: Wiggle dresses of the 1960s and Thompson’s love of bold colors
Customer Comments: “Gorgeous!” “I can’t wait for it to come out.”
Designer: Nicole Parker of Columbia, Maryland
Background: Parker, 17, is a homeschooled student. She regularly sews her own clothes and takes art classes at a local community college.
Inspiration: A fan of styles from the 1930s to the 1960s, Parker likes A-line shapes.
Customer Comments: “I absolutely love it. The neckline is awesome.”
In November, the San Francisco-based company introduced a contest called Make the Cut. Customers were invited to submit clothing sketches over a two-week period. After receiving more than 1,900 submissions, Susan Gregg Koger selected a group of finalists and let customers vote for their favorites on ModCloth's Facebook page. All told, the sketches drew more than 10,000 votes and 1,000 comments. The company ultimately chose seven designs-the top five vote getters plus two of Susan's favorites-for production. Each of the winning designers will receive a $500 prize. Plus, each winner will have her name printed on the garment labels, along with ModCloth's, when the line goes on sale this spring.
ModCloth has long sought new ways to engage customers and better cater to their tastes. In 2009, the company launched an initiative called Be the Buyer, which lets customers vote on which designs the company should stock. ModCloth's tech team created sentiment analysis tools to evaluate thousands of comments and votes, in the interest of predicting demand for specific garments. "The way most of the industry works is, they produce a design on a large scale, then they send it out to stores and hope customers buy it," Eric Koger says. "Ours is a more lean and agile approach. We involve the customer and get feedback earlier in the process."
Letting customers contribute their designs, however, proved tricky. The Kogers had been wanting to pursue the idea for years, but they struggled to find someone who had extensive knowledge of fashion merchandising and was receptive to ModCloth's crowdsourcing ethos. Then, last fall, they met Lindsay McConnon and Jena Wang, the co-founders of Velvet Brigade, a site that specialized in fashion design contests similar to Make the Cut. The Kogers were impressed with the co-founders' experience-before launching Velvet Brigade, McConnon and Wang had worked as buyers for Macy's-and their desire to innovate. ModCloth hired the duo in November (Velvet Brigade has since been shuttered) and announced the Make the Cut contest shortly thereafter.
The winning designs are being created by third-party manufacturers in California. By keeping production nearby, the Kogers hope to gain a deeper understanding of the manufacturing process, which they believe will benefit ModCloth's relationship with its stable of designers. "Going through each stage of the process ourselves, we see what our designers are going through and better understand how they operate," Eric says.
For the first contest, ModCloth is setting modest sales goals. The company is producing an initial run of 200 dresses for each of the seven designs. If those clothes sell well, the Kogers may turn the contests into a revenue-sharing program, in which winning designers receive a percentage of their garments' sales. Ultimately, the Kogers want to expand ModCloth's inventory by providing opportunities for new designers who may not have access to production facilities. "We'd like to help every designer get a real customer for their product," says Susan.