With Fashion Startups, Success Is More Than Just a Popularity Contest

Hand in glove with social media, fashion startups can't live off followers alone.

Mr. Morton.

For an industry based entirely on trends, fashion is having a social media moment.

Designers and retailers have their own social media accounts, using Twitter, Facebook and other sites to hawk their goods to people who enjoy spending their time quantifying their friends through a number on a webpage. Fashion-centric startups are increasingly en vogue. There is even a blog to keep track of them all: FashInvest, “where fashion meets finance.”

Among the stream of startups of varying degrees of success is New York and London-based Lyst, which first piqued our interest at Fashion Week, when a friendly publicist pitched the site to us with a wide smile.

Lyst is sort of like Twitter, kinda like Tumblr, comparable to Pinterest and described as a fashion version of Pandora or Last.fm. Basically, it’s a fancy digital catalog. Fashionistas can sign-up through their Twitter or Facebook accounts, and after a few questions are directed to their “Stylefeed,” which is an endlessly scrollable display of curated items. Connecting with one’s friends via social networks, or following fashion bloggers affiliated through the site, will tailor the content on users’ feeds.

CEO and co-founder Chris Morton describes the site as a tool for “fashion discovery,” cutting through the white noise of the behemoth fashion industry.

Lyst was born in 2010 with a seed round which raised close to a million pounds from various investment companies, including Accel, Ventrex and angels in New York and London. Mr. Morton and his co-founder and CTO Sebastjan Trepca had no prior business experience or knowledge of fashion prior to Lyst.

“We had more of a personal interest in fashion,” said Mr. Morton, calling the fashion industry a puzzle he finds, “perfectly interesting.”

Mr. Morton is a former investor and business manager who graduated from Cambridge and speaks with the expected accent. Mr. Morton is quite young; in the photo that accompanies his interview on the blog Fashion We Like, he strikes a dashing pose in a stylish suit, with his dark hair in a Don Draper-like coif.

Mr. Trepca studied computer science and was previously the VP of Engineering at Noovo, a content discovery startup.

Lyst has already put down roots, with 500 global affiliates, relationships with tens of thousands of designers (displaying merchandise directly from individuals and major houses, who get the bulk of the profits after Lyst takes its cut) and hundreds of thousands of users.

If you use the site to connect with your friends, you’ll likely get a lot out of it–provided you have friends with good taste and style. If your friends have no style, well, you’re going to have a tacky feed. Regardless, Lyst needs lots of users in devoted social circles to be an effective “social media” fashion website, much less a purveyor of goods.

Lyst has money riding on its success as a social media website. Because it is a pure affiliate model, it only gets money if its users buy items after seeing them on Lyst. So the people sharing and Tweeting, blogging and Pinning, need to buy enough clothes to keep the website afloat. Vice-versa, serious shoppers who prefer the site for the personalized shopping experience, need to purchase enough goods to power the thousands of users who use it purely for gawking at fashion and social networking. But how many of those members are buying? And will they buy enough?

Though Mr. Morton touts the social media experience of the site, it like many of the other fashion affiliate websites uses an algorithm as the basis for its shopping recommendations. While the algorithms may be influenced by your interactions with friends, ultimately the items that pop up on your Lyst page are churned out by software that generates suggestions based on the info you type in.

The website is easy to navigate, with a classic (or cliched?) fashion-y black and white color scheme and slick serif fonts. Tags across the top of the site take you to the designers, stores and categories in Lyst’s stable. Users can be ultra-specific with their queries with the sidebar running up the left side of the page, with categories including gender, price, sales, colors, designers and stores. Whittling down the general site to find the perfect pair of shoes (to use an obvious example) is fast and easy, especially for a determined shopper.

For strict research purposes, I decided to look for women’s loafers, something I had been seeing around on the street–and also because the cost of the strappy heels and platforms showing up on the unfiltered shoe category made me do a mental spit-take. Not everyone can be a Carrie Bradshaw; a girl’s got rent to pay.

It was pretty easy to find options. Obviously, there are more choices the higher your budget, but in many categories Lyst has cheaper items. Still, it hurt to scroll lazily through my Stylefeed and see gorgeous Marchesa dresses retailing for the same amount as a semester’s tuition.

Fashion is a fickle creature, both on the runway and on the web, which has claimed startups before Lyst (ToVieFor, Catwalk Genius, MyNines, Tote). Fashion designers have publicly aired frustrations with Tumblr, which has become insanely popular with fashionistas but hasn’t been as successful with fashion houses. While the concept of a fashion site integrating social media is very “now,” it is ultimately the business of fashion which will decide the website’s fate.

There will never be a lack of authoritative voices guiding the consumer toward trends. Fashion is a top-down business that requires tastemakers to function. Consider the success that individual fashion bloggers like Bryanboy and the teenaged Tavi Gevinson have had making a dent on the upper echelons of fashion. But how many of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers are hardly Bryanboys and Tavis? Fashion craves critics and abhors a popular vote. Unlike the industry, many fashion startups are bottom-up—and that’s why they, well, go bottom up.

Lyst says it has hundreds of thousands of registered users. But how many of those users are there to compare their taste with their friends, and how many are there to shell out big money on designer labels, especially when there are similar fashion startups, online luxury retailer Net-a-Porter, department store websites and designers themselves?

Lyst functions both as a diversion and a shopping resource. It needs enough people using it for the latter to survive, though the social media appeal of the site draws what is doubtlessly a more youthful contingent of shoppers with smaller disposable incomes. Ultimately, Lyst needs money to run, which depends upon volume of sales and revenue from their affiliates.

The company is going to have to pull massive sales to stay afloat in the fashion business online (if its large funding round is any indication) and there are definitely a few holes in Lyst’s seams. But can Lyst buck the trend of failed fashion startups? Mr. Morton thinks so, and he’s convinced more than a few fashionistas. With Fashion Startups, Success Is More Than Just a Popularity Contest