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Nasty Gal clothing company — as red-hot as its founder's lipstick

The e-seller of edgy and provocative clothing has seen phenomenal growth, even though owner Sophia Amoruso never set a spike-heeled boot in business school.

August 26, 2012|By Andrea Chang, Los Angeles Times
  • Sophia Amoruso, founder and chief executive of Nasty Gal, in the photo studio of the company's headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.
Sophia Amoruso, founder and chief executive of Nasty Gal, in the photo studio… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

Sophia Amoruso doesn't care if you're offended by the name of her company.

"If it's a big shock when you hear it," she says, "you're probably not our customer anyway."

She's earned the right to be dismissive. Amoruso, 28, is the founder and chief executive of Nasty Gal, a fast-rising e-commerce site that has managed to keep a low profile despite a cult following of young women who can't get enough of the company's edgy and provocative clothing.

Sales rocketed 10,160% from 2008 to 2011, making Nasty Gal the fastest-growing company in Los Angeles and the fastest-growing retail company period, at least according to the Inc. 5000 list released this month. After securing a $9-million investment in January from Index Ventures, which has also backed Facebook and Etsy, Nasty Gal just scored an additional $40 million from the venture capital firm.

That would be hugely impressive for any 6-year-old start-up. But Amoruso isn't your typical entrepreneur.

She's a community college dropout who has never taken a business or fashion class and admits she doesn't know how to make a PowerPoint presentation. Nasty Gal, expected to bring in more than $100 million in sales this year, is her first company. Previously, she was checking student IDs in the lobby of an art school for $13 an hour.

With slightly unkempt hair, bright red lips and a daring sense of style, Amoruso is, employees say, the ultimate nasty gal. Much of what the brand sells is a reflection of her own fashion whims.

"There is not an ounce of pretension about her," said Deborah Benton, who left Kim Kardashian's start-up ShoeDazzle in June to join Nasty Gal as president and chief operating officer. "That core value of authenticity — it comes through loud and clear in the brand."

In a predominantly male tech industry, Amoruso is gaining notice for being a young female CEO who is doing things her way, showing up for a recent interview at the company's downtown headquarters in precariously high Alexander Wang platform boots, sparkly lime-green nail polish and a strapless tie-dye leather mini dress ($368 on NastyGal.com). A small tattoo of a bird on her torso peeked out from the plunging sweetheart neckline.

Amoruso named Nasty Gal after a 1975 album and song by funk singer and style muse Betty Davis. On its website, the company calls Davis "the patron saint of badass women ... complete with lamé platform thigh-high boots."

So it should come as no surprise that Nasty Gal isn't for the prim-and-proper set. The clothes are sexy, eclectic and a bit offbeat, like a pair of black leggings with a sheer panel running from waist to ankle ($48), a white shredded knit sweater ($68), skinny jeans with lace-up corset sides ($88) and a confetti sequin bustier ($138).

Most items are under $100, with profit margins of more than 60% because of a business model that rarely includes discounts. "It's not a message we want to send," Amoruso said.

Even in this economy, shoppers don't seem to mind.

In 2009, Nasty Gal pulled in $1.1 million in sales. A year later, revenue jumped to $6.5 million, and then to $28 million in 2011. This year the company is on track to exceed $100 million in sales, a prospect that Amoruso, with her trademark candor, called "totally weird and freakish." The company, she added, is debt-free and has been profitable from the start.

Until now, Nasty Gal has sold only vintage finds or clothing from outside vendors such as Jeffrey Campbell, Shakuhachi and UNIF. But on Monday it will release its first collection, featuring tops, bottoms, dresses, sweaters, bodysuits and denim starting at $68. The e-tailer dubbed the line "Weird Science" in a nod to its digital roots.

The 26 Nasty Gal-branded products, designed by Amoruso and shot by notorious fashion photographer Terry Richardson, draw from "a scope of influences as disparate and iconic as bondage wear to the lore of the Internet," the company says.

About 70% of the collection, including all of the denim, will be made in Los Angeles — a coup for struggling apparel factory owners who have seen orders fall in recent years as clients turned to cheaper manufacturing overseas.

Nasty Gal is also releasing a lifestyle magazine, Super Nasty, in September that will feature spreads on fashion, music and culture, and will be included free in customers' orders. Amoruso is editor in chief.

The moves are part of an ambitious plan to grow the Nasty Gal business after the two rounds of funding by Index, a European venture capital firm.

Index general partner Danny Rimer said the firm saw a promising young start-up in Nasty Gal and liked that the company wasn't resorting to gimmicky retail tactics like daily deals, monthly subscriptions or Hollywood partnerships.

"Girls are really addicted to the website and the clothes," he said. "It's more challenging to build a long-term business model based not on discounting and on celebrity endorsements, but rather just the quality of your product."

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