For the most part, stylists have been the preserve of celebs and royals. The rest of us make do with mirrors and occasionally nipping into John Lewis’s personal shopping department for some bra and magic knickers advice. True, mirrors can be deceptive, but on the plus side they don’t talk back or have clients who've just been nominated for a Bafta which apparently trumps the invitation you’ve had to your ex sister-in-law’s Solstice Day barbecue, meaning your quest for a ketchup-proof caftan goes on hold.
Many personal stylists are lovely in practice – patient, encouraging and budget-sympathetic. But as a group, they have a reputation for being high maintenance. And the expense. That’s just their fees, never mind all the “elevated” items they’ll bully you into buying.
It was exactly this perception that inspired Katrina Lake, a venture capitalist more used to investing in others, to set up her own business in San Francisco in 2011. Stitch Fix is an online styling service that’s affordable and accessible to us, the Mirror-Dependents. “I spent years pontificating what the future of retail should look like,” says Lake, now 36. “and when I couldn’t find that, I created it on my own.” The premise is simple. “How do I find clothes I love? Like most people, I want to look stylish and feel my best and often the clothes I loved the most had been recommended by a friend.”
Not one of life’s natural shoppers (Lake found spending hours online trawling through thousands of products, or trudging round the mall dispiriting and unproductive) she set out to produce an algorithm that would match clients with their perfect sartorial match. Customers fill in their “Style Profile”, a detailed questionnaire about their likes, lifestyle and what they’re looking for – anything from an outfit for a specific occasion to a whole back-to-work-post maternity/child rearing wardrobe. And voila, a multi billion dollar company erupted. It went public in 2017, making Lake the youngest woman to float a company. Last August, it was valued at $2.8 billion. Next week it finally launches in the UK.
Ok, it wasn’t quite that simple. Raising capital to fund the site and buy seasonal stock had its moments. ”At one point, we were weeks away from not making the payroll,” she says. However, there was never any shortage of people wanting to use the site. An exhausting amount of consumer choice and the rise of social media which has turned many a bedroom into a public catwalk, made sure of that. She’s passionate about encouraging other diffident entrepreneurs: “if you have an idea you really believe in and people like it even when it’s unfinished or imperfect, then it’s something they will love if you can perfect it.”
Once customers have completed their profile, Stitch Fix’s “power algo” (algorithm) matches them with an online stylist who selects a five-item “Fix” for them, complete with instructions and outfit inspirations which arrive when the customer wants them. Stitch-Fix buys all its own stock from the labels on its site, which makes it an increasingly powerful voice within the industry. It’s working with around 60 brands for its UK launch, including Whistles, Kitri, J Brand, Rag & Bone, Gestuz and, for, workers-out, Sweaty Betty, with prices from £30 - £500.
There’s nothing scary here. We’re not talking Lady Gaga’s school of stylist. This is relatable, affordable outfitting, conceived to make the average woman feel better about herself and more confident about the way she dresses – and to iron out the many sizing discrepancies from brand to brand and even within the same brand.
The industry likes Stitch Fix because, thanks to its millions of style profiles, it can provide them with invaluable data and it never goes on sale, which helps maintain their brand integrity in an era of cutthroat discounting. Customers only pay for what they keep, returns are free and the styling fee for each Fix is £10. The more feedback customers give them, the better they can hone their edits.
What’s interesting isn’t only the problems Stitch Fix solves, but that it’s shaping the way so many women (and men) shop and think about fashion. “Getting dressed has become something that feels overwhelming and emotionally fraught and it can be easy to fall back on fail safes,” says Lake. “Most people dress to fit in, not to stand out and we’ve stopped appreciating what makes us all different and unique. I think women in particular are tired of being shamed for their bodies, of being told what to look like and of having to navigate inconsistent sizing options”. Unlike a celebrity stylist, Stitch Fix doesn’t have a dominant “aesthetic’’.
“We’re not telling you want to wear,” avows Lake. “We’re saying, ‘tell us how you want to feel and we’ll get you the clothes that do that’. When you feel great, it opens up a world of possibilities".
Stitchfix.co.uk launches on May 8th