Richard Saghian doesn’t do many interviews. Until now, he’s tried to avoid them, save for some general statements and phone conversations with a few publications here and there.
It’s partly because being interviewed clearly makes him uncomfortable. Saghian, who is Iranian-American with a boyish face and a full head of wispy hair, doesn’t want a lot of attention. He dismisses the idea of a portrait photograph to accompany this story and he has on a very low-key, trend agnostic outfit: a denim shirt worn unbuttoned over a T-shirt, jeans and a black chunky watch with gold accents that looks expensive, but isn’t ostentatious.
Saghian also likes to speak in talking points and grand themes that aren’t always conducive to a free-flowing conversation with a reporter. He says things like “overpriced fashion is dead” and “Fashion Nova is the fastest-growing women’s apparel company.” To help guide the interview, which took place in a conference room at Fashion Nova’s headquarters right outside of downtown Los Angeles, he referred to an Excel sheet of questions he’s received from this journalist and other reporters over the past few months, which were coupled with very prepared, corporate answers.
But he also doesn’t need press. He’s been able to build and grow Fashion Nova, which has 10.7 million followers on Instagram, independent of the traditional powers that be. In 2017, according to Google, Fashion Nova was one of the most searched fashion brands alongside Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Supreme and Chanel. And the company landed in the fourth-place slot without a runway show, placements in magazines, traditional marketing campaigns or, Saghian added, forced SEO tactics.
So why should he submit himself to an interview now?
“For recruitment,” he said in an unsure tone. “I know most of the people who read WWD probably don’t even know what Fashion Nova is.”
For the uninitiated, it would be easy to describe Fashion Nova as “an Instagram brand.” Saghian likes to call it a viral brand, but something about those descriptions make the company feel ephemeral and illegitimate. Fashion Nova is a bona fide apparel, accessories and beauty business that’s attracted women with body measurements that don’t always fit within standard sizing — although Saghian says the clothes are for everyone. Women like Belcalis Almanzar, also known as Cardi B, or Angela Renée White, also known as Blac Chyna, who have bulbous hips, rotund butts, spindlelike waists — and big Instagram followings. The clothes are tight, trendy and affordable and by working with celebrities, Saghian has made them aspirational. By working with a network of more than 3,000 influencers, he’s made them pervasive. It’s easy to assume that Fashion Nova only exists online, but it has five stores within malls across Southern California. Saghian said the company grew by 600 percent in 2017 and is profitable, but he declines to reveal its revenue. But for context, Boohoo, another fast-fashion retailer that has 3.1 million followers Instagram, had a revenue of £294.64 million in 2017, which translates to $411.43 million.
The Fashion Nova head office, which is in an industrial neighborhood, is nondescript. It doesn’t have that sterile, start-up sheen nor is it decorated with disco balls and lacquer furniture. It’s homey, with remnants of Valentine’s Day and boxes of doughnuts, a Friday mainstay, scattered about — free food and the employee discount are apparently big perks at Fashion Nova. The staff is diverse and growing, and Fashion Nova is changing. They just released a new logo — it no longer has the hot pink woman’s silhouette and the text is cleaner and bolder.
Attracting and retaining talent seems to be a top concern for Saghian, who said for many of his junior employees, Fashion Nova is their first job out of college. He brings up poaching often, as if it’s a tactic used by his competitors, another term he uses often, to dismantle his company. One gets the sense that Saghian never imagined the business would get this big and he wants to protect and cultivate his team, which he believes will be key to Fashion Nova’s continued success. There are currently around 20 job openings, which range from a denim buyer to a data architect to a director of accounting.
“I could stop it right here and live a good life, but I want to grow the business,” said Saghian. “I’m the ceo, cmo and the cfo, so I’m trying to build up this company and I need help.”
What he doesn’t seemed worried about is outside investment. Fashion Nova is privately owned and he wants to keep it that way, for now at least.
“A lot of my competitors have teams that work on a budget all day and are obsessed with profit margins,” said Saghian. “I don’t want to focus on that right now. I believe that as long as we focus on giving the best product at the best price and getting it to our customer fast, we will continue to grow. Right now the focus is getting as many people onto the platform as possible.”
Saghian learned about offering value to customers from his father, who owned women’s retail stores. He spent his summers working in them and knew he wanted to do something similar, but in his own way. He opened the first Fashion Nova store in 2006 at the Panorama Mall in Panorama City, Calif. Around 2013 he noticed web sites that sold the same product as his stores, but were moving more of it at higher price points. He began to consider an e-commerce site, but understood he needed to find a way to direct people to it. Saghian decided to utilize Instagram and would post pictures of his best-selling pieces on models. Many of his Fashion Nova store shoppers were already tagging pictures of themselves on Instagram wearing the clothes before he started to work with them directly by giving them free product in exchange for promotion.
“I had 60,000 followers on Instagram before I launched the site,” said Saghian. “I kept delaying it because I don’t think I believed it was going to do this well.”
Saghian eventually went live with fashionnova.com in 2013 and sold out of everything over the course of a weekend. As Fashion Nova made more money, Saghian was able to work with celebrities who he pays to wear and advertise the brand on Instagram. Cardi B has previously said Fashion Nova offers her $20,000 a month to wear the label and post about it to her 19 million followers, and Saghian has told New York Magazine’s The Cut that a post from Kylie Jenner, who started working with the brand in 2016, can translate to $50,000 in sales.
Fashion Nova has built a following for its jeans, which retail for around $35 and are mostly made in the U.S. from a stretch denim that hugs the hips and the waist, which isn’t always an easy feat for women with Coca-Cola bottle figures. These jeans have turned some of his former endorsers into competitors. Khloé Kardashian, who used to wear Fashion Nova jeans, released similar styles with Good American denim, which retail for around $150, while La La Anthony also got into the business with an eponymous line of jeans that are priced around $90.
“I think it’s great,” said Saghian when asked about these lines. “The more options the customer has, the better.”
Saghian likes to say he’s turned fast fashion into ultra-fast fashion. Fashion Nova’s design and buying team works with more than 1,000 manufacturers on product — during the summer months, 80 percent of the clothes are produced in L.A. and during the colder months, 80 percent are made overseas. According to Saghian, they are able to be faster than other companies because they partner with L.A.-based manufacturers, which means they can have samples made within 24 hours of creating the concept. After 48 hours the items are ready to be shot on models, who are in the office Monday through Friday to pose in the 600 items Fashion Nova releases each week. They then post the pieces, which have easy-to-search names like the “Netflix and Chill Set,” as opposed to complicated style numbers, in the new arrivals section. Customers can sign up to be notified when it’s in stock. The pieces, which are ready one to two weeks after conception, usually sell out in a matter of days and sometimes hours and based on the performance of the item, they restock it. Then it’s wash, rinse, repeat.
“It’s important to have a lot of styles because our customers post so much online and need new clothes. We don’t want girls showing up to the club in the same outfit. We need 50 different denim jackets. Not just one,” said Saghian.
He’s also making the clothes easy to get. On top of them being so cheap — most of the assortment is less than $50 and there’s always a sale or discount code to take advantage of — speedy fulfillment is important for Saghian. Fashion Nova, which ships globally, touts two-day shipping on all domestic orders and for shoppers who live within a 40-mile radius of Los Angeles, if they order by 1 p.m. they will receive it via Postmates on the same day. Fashion Nova takes traditional methods of payment along with PayPal and Amazon Pay, but while big brands are figuring out mutually beneficial ways to partner with Amazon, Saghian said he doesn’t sell any product on the site.
“We don’t need to work with Amazon. Our customer comes to our site,” said Saghian, who added that millions of visitors shop Fashion Nova each month. “And most girls don’t want to tell their friends they bought a dress from Amazon.”
At the Burbank Town Center Mall, the Fashion Nova store, which is about 3,000 square feet, isn’t picturesque — think a lower-budget Rainbow — but that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s a Saturday afternoon and there’s a buy-one-get-one 50-percent-off sale happening. The base from “No Limit,” G-Eazy’s song with Cardi B and A$AP Rocky, is reverberating through the shop. Girls are sifting through the racks with friends or maneuvering baby strollers through clusters of headless mannequins wearing body-con everything and there are tables piled high with skinny jeans. The shop has the energy of a pregame spot — the place where people party before the party — but minus the alcohol. A few boyfriends sit patiently at the front and one stands in the long fitting room line with his girlfriend holding her selections. The vibe is decidedly different next door at Charlotte Russe — Lorde’s “Green Light” is playing in the background — and a little further down at Forever 21 things are much more sedate and youthful.
Neither Fashion Nova’s business model nor its product is that unique — there are quite a few U.K.-based retailers such as Pretty Little Thing, Missguided and Boohoo that operate in the same space. But Saghian has distinguished Fashion Nova from other players by speaking directly to an urban demographic that’s not always prioritized by brands and retailers, but has a resounding reach on social media. Take Cardi B, for instance, who has memorialized Fashion Nova with her viral Instagram videos that show her mixing the company’s clothes with Patek Philippe diamond watches or Balenciaga shoes. Saghian partnered with the Bronx native long before she was a signed artist and “Bodak Yellow” became a ubiquitous anthem. But despite these successes, Kollin Carter, Cardi B’s stylist, recently told Cosmopolitan.com that even now, many designers don’t lend her samples. “Certain names are finally coming around, because they [are starting to] get [her star power]. But we still have a lot more designers [who] need to become believers,” he said. “Fashion Nova will always be super close to her. That was a brand that was lending to her before anybody believed in her. They worked together way before [she hired] me. I always have respect for her Fashion Nova moments, because it is a part of who she is.”
“We were doing well before Cardi, but she definitely gave us some legitimacy,” said Saghian. “She is one of our favorite partners because when she talks about Fashion Nova, she speaks from the heart.”
This added legitimacy has translated to increased traffic in stores — Saghian claims the shops have become tourist destinations — but he has no desire to open up a big flashy flagship on Melrose or anywhere else for that matter.
“I had a goal of opening 100 stores across the U.S. when I first started the business, but the effort it takes to launch a store is far more harder than it is to increase revenue online,” said Saghian. “Why open up more stores when I can open up to more countries?”
So instead of building out brick-and-mortar locations, he and his team exert their energy on Instagram by posting every 30 minutes throughout the day and talking to his customers, who are usually 16 to 35 years old, in a language that’s familiar and familial. Saghian has honed in on the Millennial generation’s need to be seen, heard and validated. He calls his customers #NovaBabes or #NovaStars and when they tag pictures of themselves wearing the product on Instagram, Fashion Nova likes and comments on each post and sometimes reposts the image on its account. Fashion Nova staffers sign off on customer service inquiries on Instagram with “love” or double-heart emojis and customer service e-mails have a “Love and Light” salutation.
But sometimes the zen voice doesn’t work, particularly when customers are upset about not receiving their orders in a timely manner. Last year, Fashion Nova, along with other retailers including Rebecca Minkoff, Asos and Sephora, had issues with delayed shipping following Black Friday. What was once a three- to five-day turnaround on orders from the site turned into a 16 day turnaround. Saghian said the problem has been fixed and a walk-through at the warehouse shows some new efficiencies, like an automated barcode system that can fulfill multiple orders at one time.
There have also been complaints about certain business practices. Saghian boasts the return rate for Fashion Nova is below industry standard, but that could be because it’s easier for customers to keep merchandise they don’t want. Fashion Nova doesn’t offer cash refunds, only store credit, and shoppers must pay a shipping fee to make exchanges, which can cost more than the original purchase. At one point Forever 21 had a no cash refund policy, but the company changed it last year.
“Our girls like the credit system. It’s not an issue,” said Saghian dismissively.
The plan moving forward is to turn Fashion Nova into a one-stop shop for his #NovaBabes. He launched Fashion Nova Curve, a plus-size assortment, last year, and has big plans for other categories. But Saghian understands that influencer marketing is changing. He says it’s dead and the new algorithm on Instagram has made it less impactful. But he repeatedly emphasizes that all of his customers are influencers and he’s certain that the connection Fashion Nova has formed with its #NovaBabes and #NovaStars can transcend any platform or trending celebrity. This leads one to question the neurotic chief executive officer if Fashion Nova could have ever existed in this way without Instagram.
“Absolutely,” he quickly replied. “Social media is just helping us grow faster. But if I didn’t have Instagram, I would have grown the business the old-fashioned way: by word of mouth.”