The first class of products from Stitch Fix’s Elevate grant and mentorship program is graduating, the company revealed Friday, with its inaugural Elevate collection featuring the works of six entrepreneurs of color.The program, operated in partnership with Harlem’s Fashion Row, aims to support entrepreneurship and cultivate budding talent among underrepresented Black, Indigenous and people of color. The first installment ran from January to August, and now the fruits of that labor are ready for their introduction.
The new collection traverses women’s and men’s apparel and accessories from rising stars Busayo Olupona of Busayo (recently making waves as the go-to designer for celebrities like Lupita Nyong’o and Madonna) and Diarrablu’s Diarra Bousso, in addition to emerging talent like Jamela Acheampong of Kahmune, Marcus Alexander’s Marcus Thomas, Sarep + Rose’s Robin Sirleaf and Chloe Kristyn’s Bettina Benson.
Through the program the mentees received $25,000 grants and months of sessions, individualized guidance, business advice and plenty of training on how to use the company’s data modeling, which informed everything from pricing and assortment to design. Elevate ultimately culminated in a wholesale order to carry the products through Stitch Fix’s Freestyle service or its “fix” subscription styling offering.
Not all of the products will be available as exclusives to the company, except in cases where it collaborated on the colors, prints, patterns or designs — and even then, for a limited period of time. According to Loretta Choy, general manager of Stitch Fix’s women’s business, the company isn’t looking to lock people into a long-term restrictive deal.
Stitch Fix, which describes itself as an online personal styling and shopping service, traces Elevate’s origin back to last year, when racial justice protests put issues of inequality into painful focus. The program was the the company’s response, taken through a retail lens and oriented toward ways to cultivate opportunities.
“After the killing of George Floyd last year and the Black Lives Matter events, we were really focused on [questions like] what could we do to impact the retail landscape, and how can we participate in making change, driving change?” Choy told WWD. “Katrina [Lake], when she founded the company, was really interested in change overall in the retail landscape. So why not come together and really leverage our resources to imagine a program where we can help people learn and grow their businesses?”
Choy wound up spearheading the Elevate program, which included one-on-one calls with Lake, Stitch Fix’s founder and then-chief executive officer.
The intelligence-driven company decided to leverage its expertise in data, algorithmic modeling and insights to help successful applicants grow their businesses. Choy described it as an eight-month “evergreen” program, which returns every year — applications are accepted in October, with a January start date. It looks to foster long-lasting connections between the entrepreneurs and the company itself.
“I think of that as being very, very different from other programs in the marketplace,” she said.
From the new Elevate collection (left to right): Dele Dress by Busayo; Becky Pump by Kahmune; Sheena Wrap Dress by Diarrablu; Erin Blouse by Chloe Kristyn; Bayo Maxi Dress Dress by Busayo; Rectangular Crossbody by Sarep+Rose; Brennan Straight Leg Pant by Chloe Kristyn; Aida Wrap Blouse by Diarrablu; Mila Bootie by Kahmune; Barlow Sneaker by Marcus Alexander; Kearn Sneaker by Marcus Alexander; Robin Tote by Sarep+Rose
The participants can tap different areas of the company, from buying teams, marketing and finance to the algorithms group, and ongoing support is available. “[It’s] that balance of art and science,” said Choy, adding that this is key for understanding how Stitch Fix uses its data science tools.
As part of the application process Elevate generates a report for the finalists so they can see how the company uses the data tools to help them make decisions on the product, pricing or the designs within their collections. The tools are used throughout the program, allowing the grantees to run their product line through the algorithmic tool.
That allows them to see, for instance, how to create the right product, matched to the right price and customer, to drive the highest sell-through. The tool also helps them understand their positioning against other brands. Choy was quick to point out that Stitch Fix doesn’t offer identifying information about specific brands, but can paint a broader picture so the participants can understand the landscape.
“When we worked with DiarraBlu and leveraged the tools, we talked a lot about color printing pattern. And as we were deciding, you know, which prints, what colors for the time of season, the time of year, that we were going to be introducing this product to our clients, we made adjustments together.”
Diarra Bousso, founder of the DiarraBlu brand, is no stranger to mentorship programs. The Stanford-educated Senegalese mathematician, known for size inclusivity and algorithm-fueled designs, is an alum of Macy’s-backed Fashion Incubator of San Francisco.
Still, she gushed about the Elevate experience and how much she learned from Stitch Fix.
DiarraBlu might have seemed like a brand that didn’t need help: The business received plenty of press coverage and saw major growth over the course of the pandemic, by a factor of 20 times. The momentum was partly due to the rush across e-commerce, as well as more attention on Black-owned brands with the amplification of the Black Lives Matter movement last year. There is also the fundamental nature of Bousso’s eye-catching designs.
But buying cycles are wont to fluctuate, leaving Bousso trying to staff up and grow the business through the changes. Then she learned that she was accepted into Stitch Fix’s program.
“For me, that was important, because I’ve always admired Stitch Fix, in terms of a company that beautifully marries technology with fashion and with art. That aligns a lot with what I’m trying to do with DiarraBlu — using technology in a way that that solves problems,” she told WWD. “So being able to be part of that program was like, ‘Oh, my God, if these people believe in me, it means this is serious! Like, this is really cool.’”
She grew a lot from the personal interactions, she said, finding camaraderie with her fellow participants. She also spoke to different people across Stitch Fix, which was an experience she found invaluable.
In her retelling, she’s still blown away by her experience with chief algorithms officer Eric Colson, who was once a vice president of data science and engineering at Netflix.
“He did that at Stitch Fix and oversaw all the data science teams,” she said. “We talked so much about my work, and he gave me so much help and advice. I spoke to people in marketing and PR, in product development, accessories — like any single thing that I wanted to get support on, there was someone who would be there.”
In her conversation with Lake, she asked about marketing and how to scale it on a budget. According to Bousso, the Stitch Fix founder told her to go slow and pressed upon her how important it is to have an organic love for rich storytelling.
“I was very surprised when she said that, in the first four and a half years at Stitch Fix, they didn’t spend $1 on marketing at all. And they said they didn’t spend $1 on marketing until they reach $250,000 in sales,” she said. “I was mind-blown to hear that.”
Another mentor helped her figure out the nuances of rolling out shoes, bags, jewelry and accessories next year. “She literally sat down with me and shared every single thing, from price points, to materials, to finishes, to the way to shoot it, to how to present it [and] how many bags to release at once,” said Bousso. ”I showed her my digital designs and drawings, and she literally looked at every bag and told me how much that would be worth based on which material I use.”
Similarly, Stitch Fix worked with Kahmune on its line of luxury footwear and accessories. For the line, which is available in 10 different skin tones, Evelate helped her understand what the gaps are within the range.
Stitch Fix is, of course, invested in the success of Bousso and her peers in the program — not just as a feel-good measure but, according to the company, because equality has always mattered to its founder.
To back that up, Stitch Fix offered a few numbers: Lake intentionally focused on pay equity and ensuring that women are well represented in roles that are typically male-dominated — with women accounting for 42 percent of technical employees, 58 percent of leadership and 55 percent of the board, not including Lake herself and current CEO Elizabeth Spaulding.
The business has also expanded the roster of Black-owned brands it carries, with 15 percent more added this year, including Autumn Adeigbo, The Label, Rockridge, Miles and Milan and Creavalle. Considering it offers some 1,000 brands or so across the U.S. and the U.K., there’s clearly room to grow.
Speaking broadly about the market, Choy — a 15-year veteran of retail with stints at Old Navy, Levi’s, Warnaco (Ocean Pacific) and Banana Republic — said, “What I have observed is kind of a slow pace of change, and there really isn’t product that is as diverse as it should be in the marketplace. It’s hard to find, you really have to comb for it. Things can get quite homogeneous quite fast….
“It’s about time for us to be able to show more diversity in design and show more diversity in product for all clients.”