With an ecommerce empire of influencers, $1bn of millennial-fuelled sales, and a strong bond with the Instagram-friendly music festival, US etailer Revolve is ready to make an impact on the UK market.
Palm leaves and ostrich feathers fill the usually conservative ballroom at London’s Hotel Café Royal, where lights flash and loud, pounding music rocks the dark room. Expertly made-up women in sky-high heels are posing for selfies, capturing the event for Instagram followers. Above them all, the logo for influencer-favoured ecommerce brand Revolve blazes in pink neon. The site is coming to the UK, and it wants to make an impact.
Hours before, in a calmer, wood-panelled room, Drapers meets chief brand officer, Raissa Gerona, and co-CEO and co-founder, Michael Mente, who have made the trip from LA to promote the UK push. And indeed, both are very “LA” – warm, charming and friendly, but unfailingly professional. They are brimming with excitement as they tell Drapers details of the expansion, which Mente says is “long overdue”.
Launched in LA in 2003 by Mente and co-founder Mike Karanikolas, Revolve is a leading name in US ecommerce. It focuses on the female millennial market, and offers more than 500 brands, a mixture of third-party and its own 16 labels. Top sellers include the boho For Love & Lemons and Revolve’s playful, feminine brands such as Tularosa and Lovers & Friends. It also offers a smaller menswear selection.
Pricing is on the higher end of the market. Most dresses cost between £100 and £200, and a piece from a luxury brand can reach £2,000. This is considerably higher than UK fast fashion competitors such as Boohoo and Asos, which target a similar, social-media-savvy female customer.
The word that will set us apart from the competitors is ‘aspirational’
“We operate in a unique space,” explains Mente. “You do get the special feeling that would come from a luxury brand, in terms of product quality, the emotional connection and marketing. But we are a little more accessible than true luxury, like Net-a-Porter, and also more premium than the fast-fashion, mass market.”
“The word that will set us apart from the competitors is ’aspirational’,” says Gerona. “[A lot of] the 500 brands we carry are really hard to find. You can’t really get them anywhere else.”
It is this aspirational aesthetic and exclusivity that Revolve banks on to ensure customers are prepared to pay slightly higher prices.
“I think there is room for Revolve in the UK marketplace,” says Emily Gordon-Smith, head of fashion at research agency Stylus, who argues that the overall brand image sets it apart from lower-priced competitors.“Revolve offers a really aspirational brand mix on the designer side and in terms of that lifestyle message, which is so key to its vision. ’Work hard, play hard’ and wellbeing are key to Revolve beyond just selling merchandise.
”It is heavily A-lister and influencer-approved, which will resonate massively with its UK target. Plus it plays on this sort of aspirational LA lifestyle look that is likewise really appealing.”
Revolve is equally known for its impressive influencer network, and it runs lavish events for top social stars. The night before its London launch party, for example, around 20 influencers had a “sleepover” at Cliveden House hotel, the stately home the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, stayed at the night before her wedding to Prince Harry.
While Revolve declines to give profit growth figures, it hit $1bn (£754m) in annual sales for the first time in the year to 2017. It has 900 employees worldwide and offices in LA and Shanghai.
Revolve’s origins lie in the world of data and tech. Mente and Karanikolas met working for a California-based software company, spotted the emerging trend for online shopping and launched the site.
“Through analytical search engine tools and digital research, we were able to identify millions of people searching for fashion product,” says Mente. “We also saw a big gap in the marketplace where a lot of the brands people were searching for literally had zero product available online. We saw that as somewhere to experiment.”
“We knew next to nothing about fashion,” he laughs. “Especially women’s fashion.”
To begin with the site focused on making LA denim brands accessible over the internet.
Mente says Revolve has developed a sophisticated operational, logistical and technological focus: “That’s one thing we really pride ourselves on, and it is essential for us to be successful.”
He describes the technology aspect of the business as the “easier” aspect of running Revolve, and has ambitious plans to keep the business ahead of competitors. “The entire system we operate on, including international business and managing international distribution, is all our internal home-grown systems. It has been built like that from day one, which has been an operational advantage for us.”
“We’re integrating this system with all of our factories, [which are mainly US based] and making sure our supply chain is entirely connected with one system so we can track, manage and gather data on everything. We’re always trying to innovate and keep an edge in everything we do.”
At one point the site stocked more than 1,000 brands. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, Mente says Revolve reached a turning point.
“That was the moment we really owned who we were from a consumer perspective, which ultimately led to us being able to market in an entirely different way,” he explains.
“Our merchandising mix really evolved. In the early days, it was about getting the bigger names that people knew and were searching for, but we really saw that the millennial female was looking for something very special. It was really about individuality and expressing their own fashion taste.”
Both Gerona and Mente describe the Revolve core customer as if she is a close, personal friend.
“She’s really active and social, and she always has a very full schedule with of her social life, but is also glued to social media,” says Gerona. “She’s sexy, which comes with being from LA,” she grins.
Revolve has developed a laser-like focus on its customer, using data and analytics to find out where she is and what she is doing, so they can slot seamlessly into her lifestyle, says Gerona: “Really knowing our customer and where and how she likes to spend her time has been instrumental for us figuring out how to communicate with her.”
“Revolve really caters to all the different aspects of her life, whether that’s working out or going for brunch or a bachelorette party. It’s a place where she can find everything she needs for every occasion.”
Revolve’s 16 own brands include House of Harlow 1960, Raye and Majorelle. It uses the customer data it gathers to respond to demand and trends directly and quickly by creating product for these lines. The price range across the brands is in line with the site as a whole, and dresses are priced at around £200.
“With our own brands, we’re able to adapt faster and have a lot more flexibility and control to react to the consumer and give them product that we know they want,” adds Mente.
Now Revolve is aiming to giving its model of responsive fashion a big push in the UK.
Head of international Kai Li explains that it wants UK customer experience to be almost parallel to that in the US: “Our goal really is to provide a native experience when people shop,” he says.
To achieve this the brand launched free shipping, free returns and “inclusive pricing” in the UK. This means that the price displayed under the item is the price the customer will pay – including any taxes or duties. Delivery times have also sped up considerably, thanks to a new European distribution centre based in London.
The UK has long been one of Revolve’s top five markets, and London is its third-biggest city, behind LA and New York, even though Mente admits to the consumer experience being sub-par. Before the new measures, which came into effect on 31 May, UK delivery times were long, returns were not free, and customers had to pay additional import duty and taxes on top of the ticket price, which were added at the checkout.
With delivery still taking three days, compared with Asos and Boohoo which offer next day or even same-day delivery, the UK Revolve experience may still fall short of young UK customers’ expectations.
Tiffany Hogan, senior analyst at Kantar Consulting, warns that Revolve will need to continue improving its offer for the UK market: “Revolve will need to compete on a higher level of convenience and service. Click and collect is expected of nearly every retailer, so they may need to start looking for partners to offer this service to shoppers.”
Mente counters: “We have supreme confidence that what customers want in London is nearly identical to the US. That’s really exciting, because it means that the core of the Revolve brand really resonates with the UK customer.”
He says Revolve’s network of influencers has helped to drive its popularity in the UK, where customers see US influencers wearing its clothes on Instagram. The platform is core to Revolve’s success.
The brand’s own Instagram page boasts 2.3 million followers, and it works with models and influencers such as Chanel Iman (1.6 million), Olivia Culpo (2.8 million), Winnie Harlow (3.4 million), Lily Maymac (3.6 million) who epitomise its LA-cool vibe. Influencers are also often featured on the brand’s homepage, modelling the latest seasonal stock on holidays to Macedonia or desert spa retreats. They are woven completely into how the business functions.
“With the rise of Instagram, we’ve seen a lot of our consumers shifting their time and attention there,” says Mente. “They look to that as a source of inspiration and a place to spend time. Because we’ve been working with influencers from the early days, we’ve been fortunate enough to develop deeper and longer lasting relationships with a number of people. That closeness is authentic and the collaborations we do are very natural.”
Revolve is a retailer that really delivers for the fashion-loving Instagram generation
Emily Bendell, Bluebella
The impact of its influencer programme is huge, and Revolve attributes $650m-$700m (£499m-£527m) of its annual sales to influencer marketing and events. Although it does not make use of the Instagram Shop function to allow followers to purchase items directly from the app, this integration makes it an appealing stockist for brands.
“Revolve is a retailer that really delivers for the fashion-loving Instagram generation – which is very much our target market,” says Emily Bendell, CEO and founder of lingerie brand Bluebella, which is stocked on the site. “Revolve’s fresh and exciting marketing approach, such as sponsorship of [California music festival] Coachella, perfectly targets this audience and complements our own creative and social-focused marketing strategy.”
Coachella has become a key event for Revolve. Last year, it dressed 416 influencers for the event, and booked an entire hotel for a weekend of Instagram-recorded partying. Over the weekend, the brand generated 4.4 billion social media impressions, five times more than the festival’s official sponsor, H&M.
“Coachella is a very important time for us. It’s in our backyard and it is core to LA. It has become this super global event that has a very important fashion element,” explains Gerona. “We joke that it rivals fashion week now.”
The UK ecommerce market is hugely competitive, but Revolve has marketing prowess and data analytics to rely on it as it turns its attentions this side of the Atlantic. However, it must make good on its “native” ecommerce ambitions and ensure its social media appeal translates to the UK, or risk losing some of its sway with the fickle millennial market.