There’s new life at Dolls Kill.
This story first appeared in the July 29, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The alt-fashion e-tailer will today debut a new doll, Kandi, styled after a modern-day candy raver plucked from the electronic dance music underground. Her wardrobe is saturated in rainbow hues, piles of multicolored beads and faux fur.
She’s obviously good for buzz among the company’s audience, which hangs out with the brand mostly on Instagram, where its followers have more than doubled from 230,000 last summer to 547,000 at press time. Just on its own, “the name creates an instant mental picture for those in the scene,” Dolls Kill’s cofounder and chief executive officer Bobby Farahi said.
But Kandi’s arrival is more than a flex of the company’s marketing muscle. It’s a significant move — and a sign of growth-mode expansion — from the San Francisco-based company, which got its start more than four years ago when cofounder Shoddy Lynn (née Shaudi Lynn), who was performing as a DJ on the EDM circuit at the time, opened an eBay shop catering to the women in her audience. It’s also a move that comes at a delicate time in the retailer’s trajectory, one when scaling up could easily be at odds with its origins. It’s not a new story: Suddenly something started as a sartorial middle finger to society has to entertain the presence of MBAs, VCs and the media.
“It’s a good tension,” said Farahi. The challenge? He answered quickly, “Managing it and making sure one doesn’t run over the other.”
Reportedly profitable from its early days, the company generated such buzz in its first three years that it collected designations as America’s fastest-growing retailer on last year’s Inc. 5,000 list and as the fastest-growing, privately held company in San Francisco, according to The San Francisco Business Times. A $5 million Series A investment last summer led by the Howard Schultz-backed, consumer-only venture firm Maveron followed. Farahi said that growth in 2015 has outpaced the 7,056 percent and $7.5 million in annual revenue reported last year, but declined to share current numbers.
But with growth that Maveron partner Rebecca Kaden described as “nothing short of awesome” and “ahead of the curve in what we see in e-commerce companies,” there is ever more pressure to grow. That brings added risks, with a possible dilution of the brand’s subversive credibility and an edging closer to the mainstream that Dolls Kill is trying to counter.
“At some point, to grow they have to become, maybe not mainstream but broader, with more products or more tastes that they serve,” said Sucharita Mulpuru-Kodali, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.
With Kandi, Dolls Kill will be able to bring a wider range of merchandise to existing customers rather than wooing a new population. In that sense, it’s easy to view her as an answer of sorts to the tension between growth and the need to hold onto outsider status. She joins the original quartet of dolls: Coco, a hyper-feminine Lolita; goth girl Mercy; Darby, a neo-punk rock chick, and Willow, the festival-loving hippie. At the same time, the company is building its in-house brands, which include Dolly Bae and Current Mood, whose second collection is due out any day. An iPhone app is also in development.
Not surprisingly, the company frequently draws comparisons to predecessors such as Hot Topic, whose one-time ceo Betsy McLaughlin now sits on its board, and Nasty Gal, which had a similar nascence as an eBay store catering to the fringes and has since moved much closer to center.
For now, the antiestablishment ethos remains intact at Dolls Kill, largely thanks to Lynn, who is its creative lead and, in many ways, the embodiment of its consumer.
“This is what it is, and if you don’t like it or something turns you off, then you’re probably not going to shop with us anyway, so you’re not really our target audience,” Lynn said while perusing some photos from a recent shoot taking place inside the San Francisco headquarters.
Kandi may sound like an obvious next step for the retailer, especially given Lynn’s EDM allegiances, but making room for her was no small feat. In fact, a new doll has been in the works for more than a year.
“Remember, it’s not just an external thing, it’s a big part of the company,” said Farahi, who is married to Lynn and previously founded and sold broadcast monitoring service Multivision Inc.
The dolls, said Farahi, play a substantial role in structuring the company’s internal operations. Dolls Kill dedicates buyers, stylists and marketing efforts to each doll’s persona. Instead of finding models to present the company’s inventory, culled from over 300 brands, Dolls Kill buys — and increasingly, designs in-house — clothing, shoes and accessories with a specific doll in mind. Modeled by women the company says started out as customers, what’s on offer has the common thread of countercultural appeal, but otherwise runs the gamut from body-hugging cloud print crop tops and platform boots to Goth wear and T-shirts emblazoned with cats wrapped in flying tacos.
Along with compelling product shots, the dolls enable merchandising flexibility that’s arguably crucial for the company’s longevity. By pegging inventory to dolls instead of style categories, Dolls Kill is positioning itself to evolve alongside fans seeking new alternative styles to replace those filtering into the mainstream.
“For each of these dolls, we have a girl that’s going to every concert and hanging out in that scene and part of that subculture,” said Farahi.