The moment their home page popped up, we knew we’d be reaching out for an interview. It’s immediately evident that there’s someone with a deep understanding of aesthetics behind the site, Cut On Your Bias. After further investigation, the fashion design/technology fusion confirms it–not to mention the utterly genius name for a crowd-sourced design site. It’s truly a mutualistic community–designers get to watch their styles be resurrected in a fresh way; users get to be involved in the creation of the pieces they will eventually purchase; and founder Louis Monoyudis gets to bask in it all.
We sat down with Louis to talk about where this idea came from–and where he sees it going.
Third Wave Fashion: We love the process of entrepreneurs refining their elevator pitches. What is yours?
Louis Monoyudis: Cut on Your Bias is a social shopping and e-commerce platform that allows consumers to interact on design decisions, preproduction.
TWF: When did the idea of Cut On Your Bias occur to you, and tell us how you began to execute it?
LM: So, a bit of background: I went to Harvard for undergrad, which was great, and I ended up doing a kind of odd major called Folklore Mythology–which is all about the power of the narrative. It looks at culture through non-written relics–so it can be food, it can be dance, it can be clothing, etc. I was able to parlay that into a career in advertising and I worked at a big agency in Chicago called Leo Burnett doing brand strategy. There, it was all about what the customer wants; we were the voice of the customer and we did a lot of focus groups and infographics and all of that.
I realized I really wanted to be in New York, and to be in fashion, so I kind of threw caution to the wind and moved here in 2001. I went to Parsons where I got a degree in fashion design, then spent almost the past ten years as a menswear designer. I was at Calvin Klein for five years, John Varvatos for two, and then at Tommy Hilfiger. What I found odd was that within the world of fashion–which was essentially a consumer packaged good–there is no quantitative analysis that happens with a customer until you actually have something on the floor. If you want to test, for example, if a denim shirt is going to be a trend, you put it on the floor and see if it sells. This is obviously where Zara and H&M have been able to close the gap because if it’s working on the floor, they can immediately replenish that stock. Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, well, they just can’t.
It was also frustrating to see that the predictive analytics they were using were based on what was selling last year to predict what was going to sell next year. I was like, that doesn’t make any sense–it’s fashion, what was selling three months ago is not going to sell now, let alone what was selling 18 months ago.
At Calvin, one of the areas I was overseeing was the graphic tees, and I found myself doing a lot of inspiration searching on Threadless. I thought, this is such a cool idea. I started to make little internal contests with our freelance graphic designers–it didn’t really go anywhere, but the idea stuck with me.
So leaving the world of corporate fashion, what do you do? You start your own company! I was like, okay cool I’m going to start my own collection. As a fashion designer, you’re always keeping your sketches and swatches because you always have to keep your portfolio up to date. I decided I wasn’t going to start from scratch; I knew I had enough ideas from over the previous 10 years and that it was highly likely that I could create a collection out of those ideas. So I threw everything on the floor–sketches and swatches and mood boards and tears and samples and tons of stuff–I had this mountain of things. I went out to get a coffee and when I came back, I found myself completely paralyzed by choice–there were so many good ideas yet I didn’t even know where to start.
I called over some friends who I thought could be my target customers and some people from design school; we had some wine and we were going through everything and I was like, you know what? I really want to focus my business–from the beginning–online. I want to maybe do the world’s first crowd-sourced collection. Obviously I want to provide the options, like the site does now, but why don’t I let my customers tell me what they want before I go through the process of sampling and paying for it–that’s where so much of the lost money goes. As I was building this idea, I realized, wow there’s actually a bigger concept in here for other brands. And that’s how Cut on Your Bias was born! Sadly, my own collection is now on the back burner haha.
TWF: When did this start coming together?
LM: It was November 2010. I remember I was home for Thanksgiving–I was talking to my parents and my family–what am I going to do with my life? Where am I going to go next? I’m going to do my own collection but I think I’m going to do it in a really interesting way… so that’s when the idea started to percolate. I started to concept it out, to do some competitive analysis to see who was doing what, to see if it was a viable business model. I really put the pedal to the metal and started interviewing developers in January of 2011.
TWF: Can you tell us about your team and how you all came together?
LM: I’m working on this full time–I’ve been doing it since November 2009. Flavio was the first partnership; he has a digital agency called 10012 and they built out the website for Project Runway and Bravo. I had been talking to a lot of programmers and developers, but they either wanted something that was way technically insane (seemingly to really prove their merit) or they were interested in it but they had no idea what the taste level needed to be. Flavio got it right away.
Monika is our production person–we’re trying not to get too involved in the production cycle because the designers obviously have their own factories and fabric sources. However, if they do need help–because obviously this is an additional order for them–we have Monika who can work with the factories. She’s also working on more macro aspects, such as costing analysis. Edward is our buyer; he was at Gap, Abercrombie, and Design Within Reach, so he’s doing a lot of designer outreach with us and figuring out how we’re merchandising the collections. Megan is working with us as an assistant buyer. Alex is a friend of mine from Harvard who was at Google for about four years and now he has his own SEO/SEM consultancy–he’s doing all of our optimization. Marcella is our marketing associate and she does a lot of research and blogger outreach. We also have a PR firm that is doing more of the fashion outreach; then Mike is our numbers guy, and Lisa is coming on to work with us on business development.
TWF: What best describes your model?
LM: We’re a traditional wholesaler to retailer model, so in the same way that the designers sell to Bergdorf’s or Barneys or Shopbop–we’re the same revenue model.
TWF: We love the idea of crowd-sourced fashion–how you select what designers you want to partner with and how does that revenue model work?
LM: Luckily, the design community is fairly small and, having been in it for a decade, I started with the people that I knew–and with whom I knew I could make a few mistakes in the process, which was great. And luckily, a lot of those people are a part of the CFDA Vogue fashion fund, like Carlos Campos, and we’re going to work with Timo Weiland coming up. I didn’t exactly want to focus on emerging designers. There is Lookk and Muse over in Europe, who work with crowd-sourced fashion–anybody can submit a sketch, and if it gets enough votes, it goes into production. I wanted to work with designers who have more brand recognition and market penetration, so that’s where the CFDA-type designers came in. We definitely plan to expand our designer portfolio–we’ve got it pretty ironed down now. We know what the process is, and what the timeline is, and when we need the different deliverables from the designer on our end–but you have to go through a few stages before you get everything buttoned up.
TWF: How many designers are you working with now?
LM: We try to do a new one every week; eventually, we’d love to do one a day–right now, we have men’s, women’s, and home and it’d be great if every week we had one for each.
TWF: How about funding?
LM: We have our seed funding, which was enough to get the initial model created–this is essentially a prototype. We’re currently working on our next round. There are all kinds of things, now that it’s out that I would love to improve on and change, as you always do.
TWF: How has the process of funding been for you?
LM: It’s my first time going through the process so there is definitely a learning curve–part of what has been so exciting about it, for me personally, is that I never want to be bored; doing corporate fashion, at a certain point, there are only so many sketches of a polo shirt you can do before you can’t reinvent it anymore in your head. I wanted a new challenge and that’s why this is so great. You just have to put yourself out there. Get the warm leads, find out who knows who, and who’s actually a strategic investor versus a money investor.
TWF: What’s your target market?
LM: Obviously, as we start, we’re going for people who really want to be involved in the design process. However, there are two elements to the site: there’s the design interaction and then there’s the purchase. What’s nice about the design interaction is, say you have a boyfriend who might not be interested in fashion but still wants to look good. If all of his friends, and the fashionable people, are voting on a certain combination, then that’s more social credibility about the style. There’s an opportunity for people who don’t really want to play a hand in the voting–they can say, enough people think this is cool so I can’t really go wrong, I’m going to go for it. Truly though, our target market right now is people interested in fashion design and in having their voices heard–and the social credibility that surrounds that.
TWF: What kind of response have you been getting?
LM: Good… really good. Looking at our site metrics, it’s a very sticky site. People come and they want to play around, they’re going through a lot of pages, they’re spending a lot of time on the site, and we’re getting a lot of referrals from Facebook. The site is fully integrated with Facebook and Pinterest so as you design, you can immediately pin it to Pinterest; then you can sign in and connect to Facebook and every time you cast a vote you have the opportunity to publish it to your timeline.
TWF: What are some of your future plans?
LM: We’d like to build out the scale of the designers–that’s really important to us. Working on more interactivity modules–so, ways for people to be more active in the design process. Also, more marketing efforts such as a referral program and doing some more exciting contests on Facebook.
TWF: How about mobile?
LM: So we built the site without flash and everything is completely mobile-compatible so you can interact on the whole site through your mobile device. Obviously having a dedicated app would be really amazing.
TWF: And that’s something you think you might look into in the future?
LM: Totally. You have to. We had a bit of a debate if we were going to launch with mobile first, or the web–I wanted to do the web because it was a bit more robust and you can test more functionality on it.
TWF: What’s the site built on?
LM: It’s all HTML5 and PHP with a little bit of Java.
TWF: What inspires you, whether in business or in life?
LM: Right now, entrepreneurs who are successful! And also ones who–well, I hate to say that an entrepreneur isn’t successful because I think that anyone who has the courage to throw caution to the wind and to say, you know what? I have this idea and I’m going to pursue it, is truly inspirational. So there are companies that get acquired or that maybe don’t reach their goals or fold into something else and I think those stories are just as interesting, if not more interesting because you can look at what they did and learn from it.
I mean, obviously everyone wants to be an overnight success–but even Pinterest wasn’t an overnight success! It takes time to build an audience, especially if you’re creating and using a disruptive technology. This is a new shopping experience so people have to kind of learn–okay so I vote, then it has to win, then I have to wait, and then I make the purchase and it’s not going to be shipped the next day because it’s not existing inventory–but there’s value to all of that.
TWF: Has that been an obstacle?
LM: We have the video on the homepage that hopefully kind of explains the process. Additionally, we do make sure to say that if production issues should arise you’ll get a full refund–there’s a million and one reasons why production issues occur so you just have to be clear about the fact that it’s not just sitting here–we don’t have it. So after you purchase, it should get to you within eight weeks.
TWF: What was one of your most successful designs so far?
LM: Not surprisingly, and I could have told you this before I launched the site, our best-selling item was the men’s blue polo. Women can buy it for their boyfriends, their brothers–it’s a safe piece. Every single design house I have worked at, the number one best selling categories in menswear are always the polo–and it’s always in a shade of blue. And if you’re doing a woven shirt, it’s always blue-based. They always sell out, regardless of price point.
TWF: It’s a staple.
TWF: What about the images on the site?
LM: In the design section, we wanted to keep it sketchy–like in the creative process, in the designer’s mood boards.
But when we get to the actual shop, what we are doing is working with images that we’re tweaking in Photoshop. Originally, we were selling it from sketches and we noticed a higher purchase rate with the actual photos–you want to see how it drapes. But we can’t actually take a picture of it because it’s not in production yet.
TWF: Can you explain the origin of the style options?
LM: A pain point for designers–because the buying environment is conservative right now–is that the more interesting pieces tend not to be purchased by the retailers. So designers go through the entire sampling process, photograph it, lookbook it, and it gets sent out for editorial, but there’s nowhere to buy those styles. What we’re doing is saying, don’t waste your time creating new styles for us because then you have to go through having it fit and graded, etc. Let’s take those pieces that essentially would just be thrown away because the buyers didn’t buy them and let’s give them new life.
Talking with Louis about Cut On Your Bias was an absolute pleasure. He’s personable, intelligent, adorable–and the man knows his audience. It’s safe to say, we have a major crush–and we’re not even biased. (Yeah. We went there.)
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