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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

Another selling point was Amoruso.

"She has unbelievable instincts," Rimer said. "Few folks with all the degrees in the world could have built Nasty Gal into what it is today."

For all its raunch, Nasty Gal's success came the old-fashioned way.

Amoruso was born in San Diego and grew up in Sacramento, the only child in a middle-class family. When her parents divorced during her senior year of high school, she moved out and crashed with a group of friends. She briefly attended a San Francisco community college and, after jumping from job to job — including working at two photo labs, a record store and as a shoe saleswoman — began selling vintage clothing on EBay in 2006.

An amateur photographer, Amoruso shot images of the items she was selling and occasionally modeled some of the clothes herself. To gauge what was popular, she would check out other sellers' completed auctions to see what had sold and for how much.

On weekends, she'd trawl flea markets, estate sales, vintage shops and thrift stores looking for hidden treasures, such as a vintage Chanel jacket she discovered in a Salvation Army clothes bin for $8. She sold it for $1,050.

"I dug deep in really dirty places for awesome things," she said recently from her office, sparsely decorated with an orange sofa, Polaroid photos and a Vogue coffee table book. "The mall was not a place that spoke to me."

Her EBay store did so well that a year and a half later she decided to launch a stand-alone website and began touting the URL in her feedback to customers. That got her kicked off the popular auction site, she said.

For years, Amoruso boot-strapped Nasty Gal on her own from a studio in Benicia, Calif., taking a substantial risk starting a retail venture during the recession. She expanded her selection to include non-vintage items and continued packaging and shipping orders herself. Every few months she would drive six hours to Los Angeles to pick up boxes of merchandise that she'd haul back to the Bay Area.

And at a time when many retailers hadn't yet embraced social media, Amoruso was using Myspace to promote her latest items. Today the company says its growth has been driven mainly by word of mouth and its active online presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.

With business booming in early 2011, Amoruso moved Nasty Gal to Los Angeles to be closer to her vendors; she also felt L.A. better captured the company's aesthetic.

She leased a sunny office space with exposed brick near Pershing Square, where employees in tiny shorts work amid a maze of clothing racks, free-roaming dogs and Ryan Gosling posters.

Nasty Gal's typical customer is 18 to 24 years old and lives in L.A. or New York, although more than a third of the company's sales come from international markets — despite no overseas advertising budget. The site gets 5 million visits a month and has sold to more than 350,000 customers in 60 countries; half of Nasty Gal's orders come from repeat customers.

These days Amoruso lives in Los Feliz with her boyfriend and, despite being one of the most talked-about rags-to-riches tech entrepreneurs in town, rarely ventures to the Westside to mingle with what she calls the "boys club" in so-called Silicon Beach. She's made a few splurges — including a white Porsche that she paid for with cash and a pair of silver-spiked Christian Louboutin heels — but has kept her down-to-earth, modest vibe.

For a girl who never had corporate ambitions, Amoruso says managing the rapid growth of Nasty Gal has been her biggest challenge. Last year, during the height of the holiday season, a software glitch on the company's newly redesigned website allowed orders to be placed for out-of-stock items; Nasty Gal had to cancel hundreds of purchases as a result, she said.

With Index's help, Amoruso created an options pool for employees and put a formal management team in place. Today Nasty Gal has more than 150 employees — 70% of them women — including some lured away from Urban Outfitters, Zappos, Juicy Couture and Wal-Mart. It is outgrowing its L.A. headquarters already and plans to move to a new downtown space early next year.

Nasty Gal's success has led to questions about whether the company should take its brand into pop-up shops or bricks-and-mortar stores. Although nothing is on the table, Amoruso says she's not opposed to the idea. "I actually think it would be a blast," she said.

But don't expect a Nasty Guy any time soon.

"Well, it's called Nasty Gal, for one," she said. "I think one of the things that can dilute a business is when it goes in too many directions. I don't want to be everything for everyone. I just want to be something awesome for our customers."

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