How Fashion Nova used Instagram to dominate fast fashion retail

Over the course of the 20th century, high fashion gradually moved from purely aspirational to somewhat accessible. The average person still couldn’t get their hands on haute couture, but high fashion became easier to reproduce in a way that the general public could afford. This retail trend of flipping runway looks into mass-produced likenesses was dubbed fast fashion, and padded the profit margins of brands like H&M and Zara.

As media consumption evolved and trend cycles sped up, many fast fashion brands came gunning for those retailers. That included upstarts like Forever 21 and Missguided, which pumped out new clothes faster than their predecessors to grab a chunk of the market. And now, another brand has emerged with the ambition and strategy to crank fast fashion cycles to whiplash-inducing speeds: Fashion Nova.

Fashion Nova has emerged as a gigantic player in the fast fashion space in a relatively short amount of time. Despite absolutely no interest in search engine optimization, Fashion Nova was one of the top five most searched fashion brands in 2017 and the most searched fashion brand in 2018. So what’s fueling their meteoric rise? Betting big on Instagram and the power of influencers—and knowing how to capitalize when those bets paid off.

Fast fashion and the currency of trends

For most of human history, people made or bought clothes bespoke to our bodies. With the advent of the sewing machine and cheap factory labor, the middle class started to get a taste of high fashion from small shops and eventually, department stores.

In the 1970s and 1980s, H&M, Zara, and Topshop became leaders in fast fashion by figuring out how to transform runway and editorial designs into cheaper versions for the masses in less than a month. Through the 1990s and 2000s, the one-two punch of the internet and cable television sped up trend cycles as well as the public’s appetite for fresh looks.

If certain trends went underserved or completely unserviced by this crop of retailers, new brands emerged to take a slice of the market. Forever 21, originally Fashion 21, opened in 1984 flipping South Korean designs for the underserved Korean-American community in Los Angeles. Japan’s UNIQLO played a major role in undercutting The Gap by noticing a customer desire for cheap but stylish basics, so they created a line of inexpensive wardrobe staples at a fraction of the cost.

Fashion Nova also struck gold by being ahead of a trend and creating clothes for what was once treated as a niche audience. Since fast fashion designs are based off clothes from the runway, they naturally trended toward smaller sizes for smaller, far less curvy bodies. Sure, when there was pressure for plus-size options, the companies would offer them—but they were always adapting the fashion model-oriented designs into plus-size pieces, and never into pieces that celebrated curves. The fast fashion players by and large all but ignored a major demographic: Curvy women who want clothes that are really designed for their bodies.

Via: Fashion Nova.

Fashion Nova began selling affordable club attire in a Los Angeles-area mall in 2006. Plunging necklines and body-hugging dresses fed the needs of a demographic that hadn’t seen any other company focus on stylish, well-fitting, sexy clothing options in the past. And Fashion Nova kept things affordable; the company has mixed in increasingly expensive looks over the years, but most items still hover around the original median of $20 to $30. As the line expanded to include more day looks, like their extremely popular, hourglass-figure-friendly jeans, Fashion Nova became a cult favorite. As Fashion Nova became more popular, so did the Kim Kardashian phenomenon and long overdue body positivity movement—finally, curvy women were seeing media images that portrayed them and their bodies as attractive and desirable.

“All our other competitors were always using the same models over and over,” said Fashion Nova founder Richard Saghian in a rare interview with Paper. “We thought we could be a little different by celebrating body positivity and using curvier girls and the customers liked it.”

By understanding, embracing, and super-serving the core customers, Saghian was able to quietly build a large, loyal fan base. He wasn’t sure about moving from brick-and-mortar into the digital world—and that’s where Instagram first came in.

“I had 60,000 followers on Instagram before I launched the [eCommerce] site,” Saghian told WWD. “I kept delaying it because I don’t think I believed it was going to do this well.”

Four more brick-and-mortar locations would open over the years, but Saghian didn’t take the store online until 2013—after the store’s Instagram account had started to prove there was a desire for the brand in the digital space.

The website sold out of inventory in its first weekend.

Flooding the feed

Though Saghian was relatively late to eCommerce, he quickly recognized the utility of Instagram to sell clothes. From the start, the brand posted frequently about best-selling items. Since they release a jaw-dropping 600 to 900 items weekly, there’s no shortage of content.

“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 in the WWD piece.

For individuals, posting too often is seen as detrimental and a fast path to lots of people unfollowing your account. This attitude is often applied to marketing strategies for companies—perhaps inaccurately so. Social Media Today found some contradicting evidence in a report released last year that shows that multiple daily posts don’t negatively affect a brand. Though they did find a slight decline in post engagement, overall daily engagement increased.

DoubleAgent, a fashion brand featured in that report, had the highest daily engagement rate and posted an average of 4.8 times a day. Fashion Nova posts at least nine images or videos on Instagram daily, but typically rolls out 20 to 30 posts.

To a casual fan, this barrage of posts could be unseemly and might prompt a swift unfollow, but this method has cultivated a rich brand loyalty from devout shoppers. They understand the high stakes of getting the latest outfit before it sells out and happily invite the endless images of curvy models into their feed to avoid missing out.

From influencers to #NovaBabes

With growing profits, Saghian could start paying celebrities to work with the brand not too long after the site launched, including Blac Chyna and Christina Milian. Though Kylie and Kris Jenner are the only members of the Kardashian clan who officially partner with Fashion Nova (as of 2016), Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney have been organic influencers for the brand for years. Saghian told The Cut that a post from Kylie could yield at least $50,000 in sales.

“I’m convinced that influencer marketing is a hugely successful performance or profit-based channel,” said Robert Levenhagen, chief executive of InfluencerDB, to Business of Fashion about Fashion Nova’s strategy. “For every dollar they spend, they make more than one dollar of margin, and that’s why they keep scaling and investing in [influencer marketing].”

But the true bread-and-butter of their Instagram strategy is a combination of tiered influencers and a brand growth pipeline for those submitting user generated content. Fashion Nova has a network of thousands of influencers who often refer to themselves as brand ambassadors.

The company reposts lifestyle photos from these women that encourage followers to tag photos of themselves wearing Fashion Nova as #NovaBabes. This hashtag supplies a discovery channel for at the very least UGC and at most, future ambassadors.

Fashion Nova has always believed in the power of the micro-influencer, typically someone with a following between 50,000 and 250,000. They began working with Cardi B long before she was mega-famous—back when she was just a mid-level Vine and Instagram star, not yet even on VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: New York.

“Before she even started her musical career, she was shopping Fashion Nova,” Saghian told Paper. “I worked with her all the way back in 2014 or 2015. She was a personality and she had really great content on her social media. And we loved her style so we would always work with her.”

As a result of that long-time partnership, Fashion Nova now enjoys both paid and organic recommendations from Cardi B to her more than 44 million Instagram followers. In 2018, the multi-platinum rapper released a line with the brand, the cherry on top of their long relationship. The line sold out in 82 minutes.

“The most successful strategies are where you consider the influencer marketing industry like a pyramid,” said Levenhagen to BoF. “If you consolidate that in a smart way you create a lot of organic growth and organic media value.”

This UGC connection helped fuel two other additions to the brand: a plus-size line and a menswear line. In addition to fielding DMs from micro-influencers, Saghian noticed that many women wanted to shop for their boyfriends and husbands at the same price point. He also understood that other brands changed their cuts to hide curves in their plus-size lines. So he quietly rolled out a menswear line and loudly created a plus-size line that celebrates curves.

“No plus size company would ever create something like this for their brands,” Saghian said to Paper. “Yet we were bold enough to create it because we listened to our customer. They said, we want the same thing that you sell in XS, we just want it in 3X. And if you go to our Curve page you can see that’s what we did… We democratize the fashion that we bring.”

Transitioning from using influencers to having influence

Though categorized as a millennial brand, Fashion Nova’s blend of authenticity and influence has greatly appealed to Gen Z. Piper Jaffray’s teen survey for Spring 2019 shows that the brand moved into the top five online shopping websites for females. As teens come into their spending power and look across instead of up at traditional celebrities, influencer recommendations are extremely valuable.

But in a post-Fyre Festival world, influencers are starting to lose their sheen and authenticity is difficult to discern. A shift to micro-influencers in the general market proves that Fashion Nova is still ahead of the curve. A HelloSociety study (behind paywall) discovered that micro-influencers have a 60 percent higher engagement rate than those with larger audiences.

The more accessible a person is, the more trustworthy they can seem. By creating a strong mix of a few mega celebrities, several niche celebrities, and many relatable regular people, Fashion Nova insulates the brand from the drawbacks of top-heavy influencer marketing.

Their biggest strength lies in their UGC that creates symbiotic brand growth, often for the low cost of free clothes. Every post, and even their Instagram bio, contains a call to action for tagged UGC, but it’s not just empty talk. Fashion Nova reportedly goes over every single tagged post to pluck micro-influencers from relative obscurity for collaborations.

Fashion Nova’s option to be less reliant on macro-influencers isn’t just a result of its UGC and micro-influencer strategy, however—it’s also because, in a way, they’ve become influential themselves. Fashion Nova currently has 15.5 million followers on Instagram. Less than a year after launching, Fashion Nova Curve has 2.7 million followers and Fashion Nova Men has 1.3 million followers.

And the brand is now using its Instagram power to make fast fashion even faster.

Saghian calls it “ultra fast fashion.” Fashion Nova will now hype a cutting edge, trendy fashion design on Instagram—and have it on sale in close to one week. With a downtown Los Angeles office and a battalion of more than 1,000 local manufacturers to choose from, they can create a sample based on an image within a day. Then, they pull from the city’s pool of models for a photoshoot within two days. It still takes about a week for the actual product to be available, but by then they’ve built enough hype to routinely sell out the styles.

Pulling off that “ultra fast fashion” gambit takes the confluence of an aggressive approach, a high risk tolerance, a great eye for trends, and a large and ultra-loyal Instagram following. Fashion Nova has all of those things and is now able to leverage them to be a major player in the notoriously tough-to-crack fashion industry.

Key takeaways

Instagram played a pivotal role in the rapid ascent of Fashion Nova. This brand’s strength comes from a reverence for their core demographic of women with a previously unappreciated silhouette, and by listening and responding to their customers’ needs and serving them perfectly on Instagram, Fashion Nova built a legion of loyal shoppers.

► Nurture a niche audience

In competitive markets, finding an underserved audience can help companies get a slice of the pie without immediately going up against countless mainstream brands. Though their current social numbers dwarf their pre-online days, Fashion Nova built up about 60,000 followers on Instagram out of a handful of stories in a single county. As the brand grew, the silhouettes didn’t change and additional lines were created in response to requests from their core customers.

► Control your own hype

Part of Fashion Nova’s allure is the company’s ability to quickly flip designer looks. By making promotion of the sample items on Instagram the first priority, they get to build excitement around a release while it’s being mass-produced. With a streamlined production process, Fashion Nova can deliver on the hype before it dies down and many pieces sell out shortly after launch as a result.

► Don’t be afraid to post often

Fashion Nova typically posts 20 to 30 times a day on Instagram. Though it goes against common convention, anecdotal evidence shows that heavy posting increases daily brand engagement. Fashion Nova’s extremely high volume plays right into their hype machine; if you miss a new style, you may never see it again which makes dozens of daily posts reasonable to a follower.

► Use different influencer tiers

Relying on the Kylie Jenners of the world puts all of your eggs in a very expensive basket. By using a mix of a celebrity and micro-influencers, Fashion Nova gets a wider swath of recommendations for their money while insulating the brand from backlash against an individual. Their encouragement of UGC also allows them to create ambassadors out of the tiniest micro-influencers.

J. Fergus
J. Fergus writes about culture and life's vices, from alcohol to consumer technology. Their words have graced HuffPost, Foodbeast, The Manual, Tastemade, Man Repeller, and Chowhound. Their extensive food coverage has led them to sincerely believe hot dogs are sandwiches.

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