You may have noticed a certain type of ad on Facebook or, if you take
it, the New York City subway, in which an everyday consumer item is
presented in minimalist splendor: mattresses (Casper), rolling suitcases
(Away), tampons (Lola), razors (Harry’s). Catalogue companies and the
people on infomercials have been doing direct-to-consumer marketing for
years, but these ads hail from a new generation of startups, companies
often backed by venture-capital money, that want to use the methods and
practices of Silicon Valley to “disrupt” regular old consumer goods.
Take Casper’s Web site, which explains that its mattresses were created
through an “obsessive” process involving “two dozen beta models” and
“A/B testing.” Consider also these companies’ tendency to present
everyday events—sleep, packing for a business trip, the onset of your
menstrual cycle, stubble—as time-wasters requiring only the right gadget
to be dealt with.

One of the startups to pioneer this formula was Everlane, a mostly
online clothing company that sells “modern basics,” the kind of
no-nonsense staples one associates with J. Crew and Gap. Everlane came on the market in 2011, selling cotton T-shirts. Since then, it has
expanded into everything from sweaters to accessories and has reportedly
sought to raise investment at a valuation of more than two hundred and
fifty million dollars. This month, the company launched a denim line. A
spin through the Web site reveals neutral colors and very little
patterning beyond the odd sailor stripe. Prices are moderate
(thirty-five dollars for a micro-rib turtleneck), and shapes are modern
(high-waisted pants) but not trendy. The names assigned to each item—the
City Anorak, the Cotton Turtleneck—conjure a utilitarian approach that
prioritizes efficiency over all. Here is a wardrobe you could buy on
your iPhone from the elliptical machine.

Everlane was started by Michael Preysman, who, in 2011, was a
twenty-five-year-old peon at an Internet investment firm, researching
companies like Facebook and Yelp. Preysman dreamed of starting his own
enterprise, one that made stuff rather than software, and he saw an
opportunity in retail. Clothes are cheap to make, but they’re subject to
markups after they leave the factory floor—wholesalers, retailers, and
various middlemen all take a cut. As Preysman told Business of Fashion last year, “A basic, high-end T-shirt costs about $7.50 to make, but
sells for about $50. It was like, Holy shit, there’s a real discrepancy
there.” Choosing the direct-to-consumer model, he focussed his
advertising campaign on what he called “radical transparency.” If you
click on Everlane’s Cotton Box-Cut Tee, which goes for sixteen dollars,
you’ll see that the shirt hails from a factory in Ho Chi Minh City,
Vietnam, and that it cost eight dollars to make. A photo essay documents
the inner workings of the factory and attests to its ethical practices.
A diagram breaks down the company’s costs—material, labor, transport.
Everlane’s price, therefore, represents a hundred-per-cent markup, but
the company notes that a “traditional retailer” would probably charge
forty dollars.

The T-shirts are straightforward and reasonably priced, although you
could save more money by shopping at, say, Old Navy. In some ways, the
most radical thing about Everlane was its marketing. When I met him
recently, Preysman was in no way offended by this observation.
“Marketing has a negative connotation, but I think of it as—what a
really great company does is figure out, What are the customer’s needs?
And then giving it to them. And then telling it to them,” he said.

We were at a table in the back of Everlane’s showroom in SoHo. Preysman
once swore that he would never open a physical store, but, like other
e-retailers, including Warby Parker and Amazon, the company is now
pursuing a hybrid model so that customers can try things on. (Everlane,
which aimed never to have excess stock, has also reversed its “no sales”
policy. Since 2015, it has had discounts; customers are asked to pay
what they think is fair.)

Preysman, who is now thirty-two, with a beard that gives him a
thoughtful appearance, was dressed in Everlane: jeans, white sneakers,
and a navy-blue T-shirt. The look was clean but unremarkable, which is
the point. “We’re not a fashion company,” Preysman said—nor would
Everlane want to be. “It’s really, really hard to compete in the apparel
world.” Large e-commerce companies can respond to microtrends with
increasing speed and ease. “Amazon’s going to run the price down to the
ground. Zara’s already done that.” The woes of the retail industry are
well documented—Urban Outfitters and J. Crew are among the companies failing to compete with the giants—but, even in this brutal landscape,
Preysman sees an opening. “Where people are winning is with item-driven
businesses,” he said. An item, as he defines it, is a singular,
non-interchangeable thing: a Casper mattress, a Canada Goose puffer
jacket, a classic sneaker by Vans or Adidas. “It’s a thing that you can
build an entire company around.” Is a cotton T-shirt an item? Preysman
said that it can be. “I just don’t think that’s an item that people are
necessarily looking for today.”

Instead, for the past few years, Everlane has been trying, through an
iterative process, to turn sweaters and jackets into items. We took a
spin through the showroom, which, to me, looked like a store that you
might find on any SoHo street corner: racks of dresses and shirts and
pants, tables displaying leather clutches. But Preysman explained that
there were subtle innovations. For example, a regular apparel company
like J. Crew churns out seasonal, “story-driven” collections—say, a
rocker-inspired look for fall—a process that leads to excess inventory
and selling corduroys when it’s still eighty degrees outside. Everlane,
by contrast, rolls out new pieces one at a time, hoping that each will
become a year-round classic: the Cotton Box-Cut Tee Dress ($25), the
Slouchy Chino Pant ($58). Rather than designing to evoke a look or a
feeling, Everlane creates its clothes for specific “use cases.” Walking
to a rack of women’s clothes and removing a Long Slip Dress ($88),
Preysman said, “We ask, Is she wearing it to a wedding? On the weekend?
Is it work? Is it leisure?” He acknowledged, “Outerwear companies have
been doing this for a long time. Like, Hey, you’re going rock climbing?
Here’s the thing you need for that.” Everlane’s use cases are pretty
much always daytime pursuits—errands, the office—never, say, date night
or clubbing. “Then you’re playing in shine, frills, low-cut tops,”
Preysman said. “It quickly devolves into fast fashion.” This means
leaving opportunities on the table. He shrugged. “You do not get laid in

Despite plenty of buzz, the verdict still seems to be out on Everlane.
The company has super-fans (and almost four hundred thousand Instagram
followers) and many people I spoke to expressed an appreciation for the
idea of “radical transparency.” But the clothes themselves often
generated a mixed response. A twenty-six-year-old industrial designer
told me that she’d bought a silk blouse from Everlane because “it’s
basic and not ridiculously expensive—like Theory, but cheaper.” But she
had complaints about the fit: “It didn’t fit around the chest and hips
and ass area,” she said. “If I had the money, I’d choose Theory.” I saw
what she meant when, at the showroom, I tried on the Japanese GoWeave
V-Neck Cocoon Dress ($98), which is made from the wrinkle-resistant
fabric triacetate, which Everlane calls GoWeave. The dress was sturdy
but lightweight, and would be perfect for, say, a trip to the grocery
store. But the shape was nondescript—more like a small bag than cocoon.
It’s not that I’m hoping to get laid at the grocery store—but, I
wondered, do I have to completely close off that possibility?

Part of the problem might be Everlane’s design process, which, in the
early days, the company tackled with the same Silicon Valley “question
everything” mentality that it had applied to distribution and pricing.
“I had no idea how clothes were made,” Preysman said. He and his team
employed something like the Lean Startup method, making T-shirts, and
then other clothes, through trial and error. This resulted in some
memorable mishaps: a turtleneck sweatshirt “that actually looked like a
turtle with a neck” and a rainproof jacket that trapped sweat because
the waterproof fabric was sewn inside-out. A happier accident was the
Box-Cut Tee. Due to some pattern-making confusion, the company produced
a batch of T-shirts that were two inches too short. It then decided to
cut off another two inches; the shirt is still a women’s best-seller.

For a brief period, Everlane had a creative director—in 2015, it hired
Rebekka Bay, of COS and Gap, but she left this past February. Since
then, Preysman said that Everlane has reverted to a more “democratic”
design process that includes input from every division—marketing,
merchandising, operations. Preysman described it as more
“customer-focussed.” He said that the lead designers travel to San
Francisco for regular meetings. “It’s a team sitting around the table
looking at color and fabrics and saying, ‘Hey, is this the right thing
for us to do?’ Or I’ll grab someone on the design team and say, ‘What do
you guys think of about this?’ ” His description made me wonder if, for
all of traditional retail’s woes, the process of designing basics might
have been one thing that didn’t need disruption.

Then again, perhaps originality is overrated. In the showroom, Preysman
drew my attention to a square zip wallet ($98) in a muted peach color. I
had seen one strikingly similar, made by Comme des Garçons, in electric
blue ($210). Both were made in Spain. Everlane introduced pouches and
cross-body bags last year, and they seem to be on their way to achieving
item status. Whereas fast-fashion outlets such as H&M and Zara mimic the
look of designer shoes and handbags but make the products in China with
cheaper materials, Everlane does the same thing with nice materials, and
often uses the very same European manufacturers. When I tried on another
best seller, the modest Day Heel ($145), which looks a lot like the
coveted pump made by the New York-based designer Maryam Nassir Zadeh
($385), they felt like designer shoes: the heels and soles were sturdy
and solid, and the leather was so soft that they could have been
slippers. Was it a radical reinvention—doing to work shoes what Apple
did to flip phones? No, but they were great for the office.



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