How to set up an online fashion business

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Stylist Team
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From being a sub-editor at The Times website to launching one of the most popular online luxury retailers in April 2006, Sarah Curran is famed for her online savviness and entrepreneurial flair. Her website offers over 200 of the world’s most covetable designer brands to 1.4 million global visitors every month. Needless to say, we could all learn from such an inspiring story.

Sarah recently joined Stylist for a live web chat where she shared some of her best tips and tricks on how to launch your own online fashion business. See what she had to say on investment, branding, social media and more, below...

Starting Out

How did you set up your online business, did you have investment? How long did it take you to earn a living from your business?

I launched in April 2006 and it's been an incredible journey. I started the business with my own personal money and then went through three rounds of investment to really drive the growth of the business and the international expansion. As an entrepreneur you have to make the decision of whether you will have a large piece of a small pie, or a small piece of a big pie and I always believed could be a global brand. I have always had that inner belief and attitude that you can create your own luck.

Did you always know my wardrobe would be very successful eventually?

I always knew there was a gap in the market for and the belief that I could make it a global brand drove me on.

What advice would you give to a recent graduate looking into working in fashion buying?

Experience is key and many retailers and brands offer work experience placements, where you can get great on the ground experience. Luck is An Attitude - if you have the right attitude you can make your own luck and succeed. It's definitely been how I have got my career from working at News International to launching If you believe in yourself as a buyer and have the passion and determination, you can do anything.

How do you go about hiring people for Do you look for fashion copywriters?

We are always looking for good talent. The business is growing very fast especially with our focus on international expansion. We have an area on our site with current vacancies and contacts to send a CV.

What would you say the most important thing is in running an online business? What's the greatest lesson you have learnt?

There are a few statements that always stay with me and they are "never say never", "never give up how ever hard it gets" and "you can do anything that you put your mind to". I have always believed in each one of them and it's amazing how true to life they are. The most important thing with running your own online business is understanding your product, your market and target audience and putting your customer at the heart of everything you do.

When you went for funding, did you have the right team in place? It is very challenging to find the right people if you are budget is very tight. Do you advice to give away equity to your employees?

First and foremost we invested in people and believe me that's a challenge as an entrepreneur as you have to give away control to experts in their field and often pay them more than you pay yourself. I always believed that if I was going to grow to be a global brand I would need to bring in experts in each field to ensure that every department could be the best it could be. I'm very proud to say that those original members of the management team are all still here today.

I know what I want to do. I know I can do it. I know it can be successful. But I have no idea where to start, eg: a plan, tax all those kinda things. Its a minefield. Any advice?

It's incredible how many seminars you can go to, how many conferences there are. I wish that when I launched all those years ago I could have had access to so much information that's out there now. I would attend as many events that focus on your area of business, so you can gather as much insight and information as possible. Even the ones that I speak at today I still learn so much.

How would you raise investment to get a fashion retail business off the ground if you were doing it now?

I would do it exactly the same way today as I did it all of those years ago, but what I did might not be right for you and your business. You need to do what adds value to you business and will help it to grow.

Branding And Marketing

How do you make sure that you differentiate yourself in today's very competitive environment?

Back when I launched in 2006, it was a very different market place and now the competition is fierce. We carved out a niche for ourselves in the middle of the market offering accessible luxury contemporary designers with exceptional customer service. There is a wearability to every piece that we buy that fits into your everyday lifestyle and everything from the tone on the site, to the personal approach, from the customer service team to the styling sets us apart.

With so much information and content online, how do you make seem more humanised and in touch with consumers?

A key part of the brand DNA has been the friend-to-friend tone. I have always wanted shoppers to feel part of a community and we have delivered that through a friend-to-friend editorial tone, to the wearability in the styling and the marketing initiatives such as the Fashion Forecast, which gives helpful hints on what to wear based on the weather forecast and our Loyalty programme with lets you earn fashionable rewards as you shop.

Have you any advice for new brands for example, which magazines/ companies to approach with new products ?

Understand what each editor writes about and what products they look for before you contact them and present them in the right way. Have complete belief in your product and let your passion show through.

Do you consider events to be an effective means of engaging with new customers, reaching out to an audience for your brand in particular?

Events are an ideal way to build brand awareness. Speaking engagements, conferences, trade shows, networking events have enabled us to present to new audiences.

How do you ensure that your company maintains their place as a market leader, in the ever changing world of fashion, and not a retailer who becomes lost in the dust of competitors?

Keeping your customer at the heart of everything that you do is the key. Everything from ensuring that you keep surprising and delighting with exceptional product and customer service to driving innovation through new ways to browse and shop must come back to the customer and improving their experience online. We have always put the customer first.

What's your plan for the future - can you give us an idea of how you'll continue to expand my-wardrobe - will there always be an appetite for it do you think?

We have huge plans for and we are currently working on our international expansion of the brand. We opened our Australia, Middle East and Scandinavia offices last year and our US office will be open by the end of the year. We are continuing to focus on our mobile site and you can look forward to many exciting designer collaborations next season.


How do you make the difficult decision on what to stock? Do you always carry on with the same designer or do you ever take risks at new brands?

We look at so many international brands every season and the key is finding those new collections which are right for the customer. Does the collection bring something different to what we are already offering? Does the collection excite us? We have introduced a number of new collections this season such as MATH, a new British designer and Lucy Choi, a new shoe designer who just happens to be Jimmy Choo's niece, which just wowed us when we saw the collections

Do you have any advice on how to be successful with external funding? What are your top 3 tips. What percentage can we expect to give away?

My top tips for external funding are make sure you are in front of people who understand your business and your industry, be clear on how much equity you are willing to give up and know your numbers, your business plan needs to be completely solid as there is nothing worse than falling apart when you are questioned on your numbers.

Can you give me some advice on the best way to approach buyers? What do they look for? How can I grab their attention! I have just started up my own millinery brand and finding it really difficult to get stockists or even to get hold of buyers.

Invest in your imagery and your look books and make sure you are present at the right trade shows and showrooms, so the right buyers are introduced to your brand. Networking and PR is incredibly important, as you need to create a buzz around your brand to then engage your target buyers and retailers.

Online Presence

How did you get the word out about my wardrobe, when you first started? did it grow organically through word of mouth and referrals or did social media play a role in generating a buzz?

We built the business through PR and back then social media and blogs were very new. It was really important to gain the trust with our target customers, brands and the editors by ensuring that was featured in the right places. Still today we put a huge focus on PR and the right brand sponsored_longforms.

Is Twitter/Facebook etc. really that important in growing a business - I feel like above all, the products must speak for themselves, right?

Your product is at the centre of your business, but social media has become a hugely important marketing channel for us. As an online retailer, the online conversation and community is a key influencer and traffic driver, but you have to get it right. You have to ensure that the person running your social media completely understands your brand and the brand tone.

What advice do you have for new e-comm sites with very little budget? Gaining customers seems expensive, how could I balance getting customers and getting products?

We were in the same situation when we launched and we chose to invest our marketing budget into PR to drive the trust, word of mouth and awareness of the brand. Social media is an incredibly powerful tool, which can be done with a low level of investment and can reach a wide audience if executed well.

The industry seems to be increasingly runway to retail. Accompanying this trend is the increase of online editorial supplied direct to consumers from these e-commerce sites. Where do you think this is going and what is next?

I think e-commerce businesses such as are in a very privileged position that we can change and shape how we shop and consume fashion online. I believe that mobile is going to be one of the biggest growth areas of the next twelve months and the seamless 360 integration between mobile, print, online and a physical brand presence.

Do you think Web 3.0 will change the way you sell online?

The internet is evolving every day and new technology and innovation is enabling us as etailers to change and shape the way people shop online. Web 3.0 is going to change things again, but is only going to make it an even more exciting place to be.

Fashion Tips

If there is one item of clothing that is worth blowing the (modest) budget for, what would it be?

For me it's always been about the accessories. I have always used accessories to make the statement whether it's that pair of killer heels or a fabulous bag. This season I bought the 3.1 Phillip Lim Pashli bag, which is an absolute investment and I know I will keep it for years.

I get paid next week, should I blow it on a couple of new outfits or a expensive bag?

That's a difficult one as the collections for Autumn Winter are fabulous, but I'm always one for accessories and can never resist splurging on a new bag. I can recommend the Anya Hindmarch Ebeneezer or the 3.1 Phillip Lim Pashli from

What are you most looking forward to stock on the website from the recent S/S13 collections?

The Spring Summer 13 collections are just incredible aren't they? I'm really excited about so many of the collections launching, but I'm particularly excited about the MSGM, Jonathan Saunders, Acne, Richard Nicholl and 3.1 Phillip Lim collections launching on

Do you think that people tend to buy expensive handbags online? What is your biggest online seller - shoes, bags, dresses?

I can confirm that shoppers love to buy shoes and handbags online and they have been a huge seller this season. Dresses have been a phenomenal seller this season as has leather. The leather legging is back with a vengeance.

Picture credit: Rex Features

Sarah Curran is the international judge of the Martini Royale Casting competition alongside iconic designer Christian Louboutin.