What is Everlane? Is it another retail site trying to ride the wave of easy sales the Internet can bring? A startup with a kitschy angle or a daily deal flash site that forces you to buy that piece you can't live without right now? No and no. It's the startup of former venture capital investor Michael Preysman who decided he'd had enough of the typical retail game. He didn't understand (and has the cojones to admit as much) why so many products and pieces in traditional retail stores were priced so high and then sold at steep markdowns. He didn't get why online stores seemed to expect the consumers to field through their wares at random, instead of keeping things simple and easy to find. So he decided to do something about it.
He married a love for design, timeless style and respect for his fellow consumers into the brand Everlane. Built from the ground up, he's keeping things transparent and beautiful. And he's definitely poised to be your next go-to for the pieces you really can't live without. Oh, and did we mention they're the pieces you can actually afford without gimmicks, coupons and discount codes? Future entrepreneurs take note, you could learn a thing or two about the startup biz. And fashionistas, be still your beating hearts, this is legit.
theFashionSpot: What led you into venture capital work?
Michael Preysman: It started in college. I wanted to sort of see how companies were built, see what sort of sparked people to venture out on their own and build something; it seemed like a great opportunity outside of school to really get exposed to a lot of different companies. And we got to work with Pandora [and] Facebook, so we really got insights into a lot of different companies and the entrepreneurs behind them. And that was really the spark for it. I learned so much the three years I was there; it was a lot of fun. You saw how they had basically nothing into something and what that something looked like and what they were thinking about day-to-day and you know how they saw the future.
tFS: When did you first feel an entrepreneurial itch?
MP: I definitely always had it. I grew up in a family of entrepreneur people. My dad started a couple of companies here in the Bay area. So I always knew I wanted to start something. I just didn't know when it would happen.
tFS: Your site says you were frustrated with the lack of innovation in the retail space, can you elaborate on that?
MP: The online world was really just, "Hey, let's just take everything we're offering and just dump it on the site and leave it there and let people search for it." There wasn't really a thought process for how we could build products or design clothes specifically for the web. So when we design something we think a lot about the return rate, how to make people understand how it fits, and how to make sure that what they see is what they get — or if they see something, what they get is even better than what they expected. And that just requires a different type of thinking. So we spent a lot of time talking to customers and seeing, what did they expect, what did they get? How would you rate this product? How would you improve it? And it's just this constant cycle of enrichment and improvement.
And another thing that was a big frustration for me, someone who grew up on the Internet, was the lack of transparency. You know, a T-shirt costs $60 and then all of a sudden you saw one at Barneys that costs $180 — I don't understand why these things cost what they do. And sometimes you get this thing on sale and it's 90% off and you're wondering what happened to it, is there something wrong with it? It's so confusing! And so we just tried to keep it simple. We don't really do sales. And we give both transparency to our products and tell people what the costs are and where they're made.
We're much more "buy now, wear now," so we'll really think swimwear in May when people are actually starting to use it. We don't mind being sold out. We always underbuy inventory so we don't have stuff left over. Because that just means it's waste. There's a lot of ways we've approached it because we don't have retailers, we don't have partners, we don't have anyone to rely on — we get to run it the way we want to run it. We can run what we call a very clean retail experience. It's very consistent.
tFS:What was the process like and how long did it take to come up with the idea of Everlane?
MP: It's been very organic, and I think that's what we like the most about it. It wasn't like we looked at the industry and saw this opportunity to sell the following set of items because people are doing this and that and we're going to attack the market from this angle.
It's been a lot of learn as you go. It started with us making 1,500 T-shirts in Los Angeles in a really high-end factory. And then 60,000 people signed up and we were like, "Holy shit! 1500 T-shirts and 60,000 people does not add up." Literally, the first year we had no idea, we made so many mistakes. But for us, it's always been about being very honest and transparent with the consumer. And always trying to create the best possible product and that sort of pushed us to keep improving and improving.
tFS: Though you never expected to work in fashion, did you have a personal interest in dressing and fashion for yourself?
MP: I think we think of ourselves as less of a fashion company and more of a design company. Fashion is just one thing we design. For me personally, it wasn't necessarily an interest in fashion per se, although I like fashion. But it's more an interest in design and creating things and making them beautifully-designed products and fashion just happened to be what we started with because there was a real opportunity to build something there.
tFS: Your items are very minimalist, is that something you see going forward as the hallmark aesthetic of Everlane? How would you describe its style?
MP: It's definitely an aspect of who we are. A big foundation of the company is to recognize that there's so much choice in the world and figure out how to help people with these choices. We also decided that if we're going to go out there and create sweatshirts, we wanted to make the perfect set of sweatshirts. So we spent a lot of time trying to design different things and figuring out what's going to keep things timeless. So for us, minimalism is timeless because we want our pieces to exist in 10 years. So that minimalism creates a lasting look for us across the brand.
tFS: How do you vet your manufacturers?
MP: You're always looking 100%. The way we start out is, let's say we're entering a new category like silks; we want to know who out there makes the best silk that we know of. We put together a set of the brands we think are producing great quality at prices that are an 8-times markup, so they're playing the old traditional retail game. There's a real opportunity for us to take that markup and collapse it so, if they sold it for $200, we could sell it for $80. Then we talk to industry sources, look up online; you can't imagine how much you can find on Google. And it's generally a two-month process to find three to five factories that are working with different brands at the time.
From there, it's really important for us to meet the owners of the factories and make sure there's that entrepreneur spirit and the person has been there for 10 to 15 years and really cares about the product they're building and the people that work for them. We only work with factories that work with reputable brands. At the end of the day, unless the owner is someone you really respect and you sort of align with on a vision level, you're never going to be guaranteed anything. If you can find alignment with the people that start the factory and sort of have a similar view of life, I think it goes a lot further than any audit you could do.
tFS: What has been or is now one of your biggest challenges as a business owner?
MP: I think about it more as a company like, and it's changed as we've evolved. When it first started, it was very much production. You know, I didn't know anything about production. I've learned a lot, pattern making and all of this stuff. But I didn't know anything. And the team here was very young and so we had to build up a team and now we have a lot of experienced people. As an example, somewhere in Los Angeles there's $50,000 of fabric that someone stole from us from a warehouse, but we have no idea where [the fabric is]. It's one of these things that I'm just like, "Don't get me started!" We made a lot of mistakes! (It's gotten a lot better.) And that was production.
And then there was managing all of the finance stuff and I come from a finance background, so I could do it, but it was a huge challenge. Now it's marketing. OK, we've built this set of products, how do we get as many people to hear about it as possible? As you grow the company, it's different stuff along the process; the breaking points are the things you need to work on at that time.
tFS: If you could give one piece of advice to someone who wants to start an online retail business, what would it be?
MP: I'm trying to figure out a way to say this appropriately. A lot of people go out there and they come up with a solid plan and they start buying and they try to scale too quickly. I think the piece of advice I would give would be to be thoughtful about how you grow and be patient. That doesn't mean not working hard and just letting things come to you. It means you have to make your own success, like there are no rules. But you do have to push and let them come. You can't force them to come.
tFS: What's next for Everlane?
MP: For us, it's two things. Continuing to improve the products and create new products. This year we're going to get into outerwear and shoes. And we're going to do it by creating just one piece of outerwear for women and one piece of outerwear for men. And shoes, we touched on sandals last year for women, but we're going to develop a shoe for women. And the goal for our products will always be how can we create that essential piece that you'll have in your closet for 10 years.
Or if it's something like a T-shirt, you're not going to have our T-shirt for the next 10 years because in order for us to make a T-shirt that lasts 10 years, it's going to be a very heavy duty T-shirt that's not going to be that elegant or beautiful. But it's still the set of styles that can last that long if you don't wear it every day. So we really think a lot about how we create those products that everyone can own and have for a long time. Another big thing for us is just to continue to build out the brand exposure. This year we're really pushing transparency and cost, because I think it's something consumers really care about and deserve to know.