Social Engagement Boosts Quirky Clothing Line

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This story appears in the January 2013 issue of . Subscribe »

The Elope Dress, designed for the vastly underserved secret-wedding market. Gluttony Pants, featuring an expanding waistline in three size settings (piglet, sow, boar). Sock Insurance, a nifty $13 add-on for a year of single-sock replacements. These are some of the tweet-friendly products unleashed by San Francisco-based online fashion upstart Betabrand, whose founder, Chris Lindland, is on a mission to create the world's first truly social clothing company.

"My thought was if the company could be more like a blog, we'd get a lot of attention," he says. He points to Betabrand's core strategy of injecting shareable, conversational elements into every design by feeding off the news cycle and blogger communities. For example, the company's Executive Pinstripe Hoodie (part of the West Coast Workwear collection) was released to coincide with Facebook's IPO--resulting in "out of control" press coverage, Lindland says. (It still makes up 25 percent of Betabrand's total sales.) Meanwhile, the bestselling Bike to Work pants blew up thanks to support from the passionate biker blogosphere.

Since launching in August 2010, Betabrand has released nearly 200 products for men and women; it currently issues new creations at a rate of two or three per week. The plan is to launch 20 to 30 items per week by the end of 2013, with at least half designed through crowdsourcing and collaborations with outside designers.

Social engagement is critical. Betabrand customers have made it clear they don't just like to buy the latest designs--they want to be seen wearing them. The company's ongoing "Model Citizen" campaign gives customers the chance to show their love for products like Disco Pants (think mirrored disco balls, as pants) or Cordarounds (horizontal corduroy) by submitting personal photos and videos. Lindland says submissions add up to a "mad mountain" of content.

Betabrand founder Chris Lindland
Betabrand founder Chris Lindland
Photo© Eva Kolenko

The tactics are working. Betabrand's newsletters and e-mails, which boast a "99 percent fiction and 1 percent fashion" editorial policy, have a 40 percent open rate--double the industry standard. The 18-person company ended last year with $3.5 million in sales.

"The most important thing is to keep throwing ideas out there to find what resonates," Lindland says, noting that new products are sourced quickly from San Francisco sew shops in limited-edition runs, so that even Betabrand's less popular items sell out within a few months. Restocking is based on sell-through rates, and thanks to the company's domestic manufacturing partnerships, new inventory arrives in a matter of weeks, as opposed to months.

But the biggest key to Betabrand's strategy is good online content--and plenty of it. "The big idea was to create an apparel business with new ideas every day,"

Lindland says. "It's the modern way of creating a catalog--live." And as we all know, funny stuff rules on the web. Which is why, over a weekend last September, Betabrand invited a contingent of customers to its San Francisco headquarters for a "brand hackathon." The breakout project: Betabrand.xxx, a pornographic parody of the company's website involving videos of "sexy" zippers, socks and pants "getting it on" to cheesy synth music.

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