Everlane, the Millennial-focused luxury basics e-tailer with an emphasis on transparency, finally entered the denim market this month, with a $68 sustainably produced jean that already has a nearly 50,000-person waitlist.
Michael Preysman, Everlane’s chief executive officer, dropped by The Denim Counter, its Los Angeles pop-up open through the weekend, where he sat down to discuss the future of retail, the company’s premium denim play and where the start-up action is.
WWD: Why did you wait so long to get into denim?
Michael Preysman: Honestly if we did it over again, we would have done denim second. We launched with T-shirts, then we found a factory that did ties, then we did sweatshirts and then backpacks. There was no merchandising strategy at the beginning because it was much more about where we had access to the right factories. As we have gotten bigger and built a team out, now it’s much more strategic. But it took us two years to find the Saitex factory in Vietnam that we work with today because we needed someone that does a clean denim.
WWD: Is Everlane more focused on sourcing than product?
M.P.: For some people it’s the afterthought, but sourcing is almost the forethought of what we do. But if we were to do it over, we would have done the T-shirt, denim, then wovens and it would have been built around the classic American uniform.
WWD: Whether or not it was intended, the timing is fortuitous since premium denim is having a resurgence.
M.P.: As we started to see three, four years ago, there was all the yoga stuff and denim was getting stretchy. In the past 12 months you have started to see the resurgence of more authentic-looking denim coming into new styles.
WWD: How did you determine your launch assortment?
M.P.: Interestingly when we first started, the original team didn’t even want to do a wash. They wanted to do a black, a rinse and a white, so the purest form of denim. But the customer wanted that authentic look so we had to do a wash. But it was always as pared-down, minimal and clean as possible. We debated for a long time about a logo but it’s very minimal because that’s what our customer is looking for. There are times when you are buying fashion, but Everlane suits a different purpose.
WWD: What’s your retail strategy for denim?
M.P.: There’s only so much you can do. On our site there is a feature where you can see how it fits on other women, a size two, six and 10. We’ve tried a lot but there’s not that much you can do to change the return rate because people need to try denim on. That’s why we have The Denim Counter to try to get it in front of people. In San Francisco and New York we have the Lab and the Studio, so people can come try stuff on.
Denim is a category we strongly believe in so we will probably be bringing this to other cities over the next couple of years.
WWD: How has the e-tail scene changed since you launched in 2011?
M.P.: Instagram didn’t exist seven years ago. So inevitably you’ve seen a total rise in personalities that have driven massive new brands whether it’s Kylie Jenner or Glossier, obviously more in the beauty space. But for sure it’s a different discovery mechanism today. People are discovering more through other people via platforms like Instagram and that’s something we think about. I think there was a huge trend five years ago of trying to blend content and commerce and shop through Pinterest or Instagram and we’ve definitely avoided that and I think that was the right call given that it hasn’t really caught on. The whole trend of mobile apps, we tried that, too, and it wasn’t quite right. I think what we do believe in is fast delivery, which we did in New York and San Francisco before we had those retail presences. On a broad scale I think it’s about how you increase discovery for a customer and how you push convenience, not just pertaining to just denim.
WWD: Can you elaborate more on discovery?
M.P.: It’s very distributed these days. I think Instagram is a huge part of it. It’s also very different by age. People who are older find out things through the news, whereas people who are younger find more things out through their friends, because they are talking all the time.
WWD: Are you trying to grow up with your original customer?
M.P.: That’s not the intention. I think James Perse is a good example of a brand that grew up with their customer. Or, James really grew up with James. It’s like, I used to wear T-shirts, and now I want to go hiking, and now I want really nice furniture. You’ve seen that evolution. We are not that. It’s much more about staying younger, staying relevant and what matters to those people who are redefining what culture is at this time.
WWD: Do you think price and manufacturing transparency will become more mainstream?
M.P.: I think it’s much more universal. But there are very few that do full markups, or at least explaining it all out there. Our model supports that, with very few styles, very clear to the customer and highly evergreen. It’s hard for other brands to be transparent about prices. It is good that there is more transparency on the factory level. What I think people need to be conscious of, and we were criticized for it until we showed back more names, is what you could call green-washing. I call it factory-washing, where people tell a story, but how much authenticity is behind that story? There’s always a tinge in the back of someone’s head, like “How real is this?’” It is real, but how do you give that assurance?
That’s something we are going to work on — how do you toe the line between telling the story and telling the actual facts behind the story? So how good is a factory? It’s nice to show a picture but it’s not like you’re going to visit that factory in China. So there needs to be some level of accountability and what that looks like we’ll see. Patagonia does a great job. It takes time to build that trust with the customer. It doesn’t happen in a year or five years. It happens over 10 to 20 years, and you have to be consistent.
WWD: Do you see manufacturing returning to the U.S.?
M.P.: No. People like the idea of it coming back, and there was a moment three years ago when you saw things popping up. But if you want to do a line of 20,000 woven shirts, good luck. All of the fabrics are in Asia or Italy, so you are bringing it over here. We don’t have the supply chain in the same way. The whole infrastructure is built around Asia or Italy. We don’t have the infrastructure here to do it anymore.
WWD: It seems like the stigma of producing overseas is lessening.
M.P.: I hope we were part of that. We tried to do wovens here and it was a nightmare, so we had to go to China, but we had no idea what that was like so in the early days we had china.everlane.com. which was a chronicle of our trip. You can see factories in China that are pristine and treat people really well.
WWD: What other launches are in the future?
M.P.: Denim is our biggest launch ever. So there’s nothing else like that coming down the pipeline. What we think about is how do we continue to expand it. We want to build a long strategy. How iconic can our denim be and how impactful and big of a business? We barely have built a lot of things we care about. T-shirts and sweaters have done well and there’s a lot more to do, so it’s about going deeper.
WWD: What sort of start-ups are attractive now to venture capitalists?
M.P.: I think the market when we launched was pretty dead. You had a phase of all the retailers like One Kings Lane, Rue La La, Gilt. Then we saw that decay and there was a lot of fear, and now you’ve seen some interest but it’s much more on the consumer products goods side, whether it’s a Casper, a Lola or Dollar Shave Club. I still think there’s quite a bit of unclear understanding of the fashion space from the venture community. Why would they want to be investing in something that has risk? They want things that are evergreen.