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When you flip through celebrity magazines or watch award show red carpets, there's usually one pressing question on your mind: Who (or what) are these stars wearing?
Back in 2006—way before reporting on the fashion choices of famous people was the norm—Hillary Kerr and Katherine Power understood the importance of celebrity style. In fact, the two left their jobs at Elle to prove just that by launching Who What Wear. What first started as an email newsletter about celeb fashion has since morphed into a multi-site powerhouse. In addition to enjoying 4 million monthly visitors, Who What Wear is also entirely shoppable. Not to mention, the site has an impressive list of guest editors like Sarah Jessica Parker, Emma Stone, the Olsen Twins and Kerry Washington.
Racked caught up with WWW's dynamic duo to discuss the power of email, what the cost of quitting your job to start a website actually is, and how they deal with haters.
What were you doing before you started Who What Wear?
Katherine: We were both at Elle Magazine. I was the West Coast editor for Elle and Elle Girl, which was our teen magazine.
Hillary: I worked as an editor in the features department in the New York office.
Why did you decide to start the company?
Katherine: We started it in early 2006 after Elle Girl folded and turned into a website. It was a time where we saw the rise of paparazzi, and US Weekly had turned from a news publication into a tabloid. We were getting all of these immediate celebrity images, and they were all going on gossip blogs and in gossip magazines, but no one was really addressing the fashion and beauty aspect of what the girls were wearing. It was that combined with the frustration of how one had to shop a magazine. If you saw an outfit in print that you loved, you'd flip to the back of the book and see an 800 number, and you would have to call that and get a corporate receptionist and you'd never really get to the product that you wanted.
Hillary: So we left our jobs and started to build this, and it launched pretty quickly after. We just decided to take the plunge—take the risk and do it. And everyone thought we were crazy.
Were you always interested in celebrities?
Hillary: We were interested in the fact that celebrities were starting to really influence fashion trends. They offered a much more accessible way of looking at fashion because even though they were incredibly beautiful, they still had more realistic bodies than a high-fashion model. We were really interested in personal style and street style, which is usually a mix of brands. It's how real women dress, that high-low mix.
How much of your own money did you put towards the launch?
Katherine: Probably about $30,000 or $40,000. But to be honest, the biggest expense you have as an entrepreneur is the time that comes after launch, when you support yourself and don't take a salary. It goes far beyond the initial cash you put into it.
How did you get the money to move forward then?
Katherine: Very quickly, we were approached by our first angel investors. It was right around when DailyCandy was a huge success and right before they sold, so it wasn't totally out of left field for them to invest in a newsletter company. At the time, we really were just thinking about the newsletter but started to see that people wanted to go to a site and get more.
What was the hardest challenge you faced when you first started?
Hillary: The lack of knowledge about the internet! But we got to watch a lot of new businesses succeed and fail, so we could really see what would work and what wouldn't.
Why did you jump ship from print to digital?
Katherine: We were starting to see many of the teen magazines folding in favor of becoming websites. We knew those girls were going to grow up and ultimately be this demographic that reads fashion publications. But they weren't going to be looking at print magazines, they were going to need something online.
How did you get newsletter subscribers at the beginning?
Hillary: Truthfully, it really was word of mouth. We sent out an initial email to about 200 of our friends, admittedly to our connections because we'd been in publishing.
Do you think that newsletters are still relevant?
Katherine: Our data shows that people are still interested in the newsletter, but I certainly think there's a great sense of newsletter fatigue now because there are so many more and it's much more competitive.
Hillary: We've had this huge list for eight years, so we're constantly having to update and optimize. People grow up, they change their email, they become interested in different things. It's really about constantly watching the data and thinking a lot about personalization and how we can give the readers a different experience from what they're getting with other newsletters. Also, making sure it isn't just some click bait! Because then someone will click on it but bounce right off your site because they're not interested in it. You have to optimize, optimize, optimize and never assume that you've figured out the secret.
How have you gained access to all your celebrity guest editors?
Katherine: We've always maintained a positive motto of, "If we can't say anything nice about someone we don't say anything at all." I think that we've become a celebrity favorite for that reason—we never show anybody in a negative light. We're always pointing out what they did right.
Are you worried you'll be categorized with lowbrow celebrity sites?
Katherine: Absolutely. We are very mindful of that. We watch what's going on in the paparazzi business and see there are some agencies that are a little bit better than others, that are more kind to people, that will have better morals about them and really try to work with them and support them. If a celebrity is unhappy with an image that we want to publish, we would actually not publish that image and go with something else.
Hillary: Because we're focused on fashion, it's much easier. I think if we started to get into gossip or just more entertainment news, that might become an issue, but everything we do has a fashion component. The fashion angle is the point of view we try to stick with. It's not our style to post anything negative. Certainly we love a snark and gossip site, but we figured we'd stay away from it.
Do you ever feel like you're promoting a non-attainable lifestyle through celebrity coverage?
Hillary: We try to be very realistic about the coverage and about what we're actually focusing on. For every designer bag, we also have similar styles at a range of price points. We talk a lot about street style, and that's always more accessible because it's that high-low mix. It's an everyday look, it's something that women can do—it's not that we're solely focused on red carpet looks. We always knew that it was important to break things down in an easy to understand, non-condescending way. It was important to us to inspire women to do it too, to make trends work for their body type, for their personal style and for their budget. It's not about just spending tons of money or having designer things—that's not what makes someone well-dressed, that's not what makes them stylish.
· Who What Wear [Official site]
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