The past few months have left few retail brands unscathed, but apparel has been especially hard hit. In April, spending on clothes and accessories was down over 50% year over year. June numbers indicated that sales are beginning to recover, but still, it hardly seemed an optimal time to launch a new clothing brand.
Arielle Charnas, the influencer also known by her online moniker Something Navy, however, proved retail trends wrong—at least for her direct-to-consumer brand, which launched last week. According to a spokesperson for the brand, Something Navy, named for the blog Charnas started in 2009, sold $1 million worth of product in the first 30 minutes.
For those who have followed Charnas over the past few years, her success is likely not a surprise. Her first brush with the world of products came in 2017, when she collaborated with Treasure & Bond, Nordstrom’s in-house label, on a 30-piece collection. After that trial run, the Seattle-based retailer moved forward with a longer-term licensing deal, debuting a standalone Something Navy collection that was so successful, the web traffic it drove crashed Nordstrom.com.
A rare success among influencer-led brands
Charnas has over 1 million Instagram followers and a brand she’s built over 10 years; she is one of the earliest influencers to turn a hobby into a full-fledged business.
With her new DTC business, she’s become a trailblazer in a different way. As other influencers of her caliber, such as Julia Berolzheimer, are shuttering their brands due to clashes with wholesale partners, Charnas is perhaps paving the way for a new kind of influencer-led brand: one without a powerful retail partner that allows an influencer to captain their own ship, so to speak.
“I wanted to have full control,” Charnas told Adweek of her decision to launch a Something Navy product line on her own, which she’s doing with the help of the brand’s newly minted CEO, Matt Scanlan (he holds the same role at DTC cashmere brand Naadam).
Full control, of course, comes at a cost. In her partnership with Nordstrom, the retailer handled the logistics of manufacturing and the supply chain. Now, those jobs—and the associated costs—are on Charnas’ shoulders. So last year, Charnas also became one of the first influencers to raise venture capital for their brand, completing a $10 million funding round last August that valued Something Navy at $45 million and included the participation of Hong Kong billionaire Silas Chou, who has invested in the likes of Michael Kors and Tommy Hilfiger in the early days of their brands, too.
Striking out on her own (and seeking venture capital to do so) wasn’t something Charnas originally planned to do—even after the success of her Nordstrom collaborations.
“Before all of this, I was just doing Something Navy as a fun hobby,” she said. “I loved what I was doing, putting looks together and working with awesome brands. And then Nordstrom happened, and I saw the power then, but I didn’t really think much about the big picture.”
Building a community before the brand
Charnas said teaming up with Scanlan and, in particular, meeting with investors who saw the promise of Something Navy, made her grasp the possibilities for the brand. According to Scanlan, he wanted to work with Charnas after they collaborated on a sponsored post for Naadam, which led to an instant uptick in sales unlike anything he had seen before.
Scanlan found that Charnas had a unique proposition as an influencer: Not only did she have a huge audience (she currently has over 1.3 million followers), but they shopped, too.
“The engagement within this audience is massive,” he said. “It wasn’t just a random act of conversion. What had been built over a 10-year period was a brand, a community. And that community was engaged at a degree that few on the brand side or on the media side really ever experienced.”
What that audience means for Something Navy is that it’s able to avoid one of the biggest burdens that new DTC brands face: steep marketing costs. For most DTC brands in their early days, no one knows their name outside of Silicon Valley. Marketing is how they build that awareness; Something Navy already has it. As such, Something Navy has yet to spend a dime on advertising.
There’s no denying that as an influencer, Charnas attracts strong opinions; those who love her, love her. But this year, Charnas has become better acquainted than ever with those who don’t. In March, she came under fire on social media after decamping from her New York City apartment to the Hamptons eight days after she tested positive for Covid-19, as well as receiving a Covid-19 test when they were still scarce in the U.S.
After the backlash, Charnas took nearly a month off from social media, something she hadn’t done for years, and set her account to private, a move that she said made her feel “comfortable again” on the platform.
“I took that time to just think about what I want to represent, what I want to share with my followers, what I want on my platform,” she said. “It’s very much about focusing on the community that I built and that love me for me, my family and genuinely enjoy escaping by going to my account. I want to focus on those people.”
The risk for an influencer-led brand is that even when said brand has a team of 30 people on board, it’s still the influencer in question that the public associates with it. That means that influencer’s actions are irrevocably tied to the brand’s perception, a lesson that was driven home for Charnas this year. As Something Navy has continued to shift from one-woman operation to full-fledged business, she said she’s also strived to be more intentional in her own social media content.
“It’s tough, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “Finding that happy middle ground is not easy. I’m still trying to figure it out. My intentions are good. I never want to hurt anyone or upset my community, but it’s really hard to do right right now.”
From clothing line to lifestyle brand
After pushing Something Navy’s DTC launch date from March to July, Charnas’ focus is now on building her brand. Plans for an NYC brick-and-mortar store have been postponed, though she hopes to open a retail location soon. The content side of Something Navy will live on, now under the header Something Else on the website.
“The objective is really to build a lifestyle media brand, and like any good media brand, you blend the development of your own product with the development of your own content,” Scanlan said.
As the team continues to develop that product, it will be with the input of Charnas’ followers, coming out of the “two-way conversation” she’s had with them for years. As she put it: “What I create, what I’m creating, is for them.”
With this launch, Charnas has checked off nearly every avenue for an influencer entering the product space: a collaboration with an already-existing brand, a licensing deal, and now, direct to consumer. And even as other influencers question whether to launch or continue with an apparel brand, Charnas feels more excited about the prospect than ever (crediting her confidence, in large part, to her partnership with Scanlan).
“The dream for me was to always have a clothing brand,” she said. “I love posting and partnering with brands, but at the end of the day, I want to promote my own stuff.”
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