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Courtesy of Revolve

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When Did Revolve Become a Thing?

How the Kardashian-preferred brand reached ubiquity.

A friend forwarded me an email with a subject line that read: "So, we teamed up with Vogue." Inside, Revolve, the email’s sender, teased a sweepstakes partnership in which the company had "scored you an exclusive invite to a ‘VIP Vogue members-only program’" (boiling down to a play for more subscriptions from the magazine). "Guys," my friend wrote, "When did Revolve become a thing?"

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"When DID Revolve become a thing?" I thought to myself, realizing she’d articulated what I didn’t know I was thinking. A powerful omnipresence whose approach I hadn’t seen coming, Revolve was in my search results for "over-the-knee boots," in my Instagram Explore page; credited in the photo captions as the reason for a group of celebrities to be standing next to each other. It felt ubiquitous but sudden, like when everyone started draping coats over their shoulders and collectively forgot the original purposes of a sleeve.

I couldn’t remember a world in which there wasn’t Revolve (where did we purchase our duster coats and velvet chokers beforehand?). It wasn’t just the result of images that required clear choreography, like Kim Kardashian rolling into the brand’s party in the Hamptons this summer, but also organic ones, like when I complimented my friend’s dress on Instagram and she replied in the comments: "Thanks! It’s from Revolve!"

Photo: Courtesy of Revolve

"It’s from Revolve!" might be the calling card of the digital native customer as she enters an adulthood unprecedented in its documentation. Flip through Instagram and you find her catalogued under #revolveme in crop tops, bell sleeves, floor-length silk dresses, and irreverent bodysuits — all with that relaxed-but-provocative boho vibe, against the backdrop of a lively, art-directed life. She’s not putting on a pencil skirt for work, settling onto a bike at SoulCycle, or chasing a toddler around the floor. She’s at brunch, she’s holding a passport, she’s got an artillery of expressions ready for the photo booth. And in those vignettes there are dollars. This year, amid a fickle climate for e-commerce catering to young women — see Nasty Gal, Lucky Group, J.Crew, Gilt Groupe — Revolve is on track to pull in $600 million.

"It really was a long [time] getting to this point, I wouldn’t call it a quick change," says CEO Michael Mente, when I reach him and VP of brand marketing and strategic partnerships Raissa Gerona over the phone. "One thing that’s not super obvious is that we’ve been around for 13 and a half years, so we’ve had the opportunity to build with a long-term vision. And in that time, we’ve seen a lot of companies come and go quickly, or [become] an amazing business and then quickly unravel."

Mente started Revolve in 2003 with co-CEO Mike Karonikolas, overseeing the creative aspects of the business while Karonikolas led tech and operations. The pair met working at a software startup in the early aughts and ventured into women’s e-commerce with Revolve, observing the market’s vast potential. "We started to see that the millennial isn’t about wearing the same big brands from the old world of physical retail," explains Mente.

Photo: Courtesy of Revolve

Revolve sourced lesser-known designers from the nascent LA fashion world and was early to the observation that self-expression — not polo horses and A+F logos — was what the customer craved. As the company has grown to encompass 600 employees, 11 in-house labels it sells to competitors (thanks to a smart 2015 acquisition of Alliance Apparel, which has since flourished from three brands to 11) and FWRD, the e-commerce site for West Coast luxury boutique Elyse Walker, the emphasis on emerging brands continues to fuel buying and merchandising. "The majority of our product is small designers, stuff you may not have heard of before but that you’re looking to develop a connection with," says Mente. Buyers are empowered to take calculated risks. "We have a great buying team comprised of our customer — they live the lifestyle and they’re right at the front of the curve," he adds. Recently, the team observed that women on social media were wearing dresses with long mini-trains outside of formal occasions, like on the beach. "It’s a risk, how many people are going to buy a dress that drags on the floor?" Mente asks. "But we tried it, saw that it immediately worked, were able to find more, and we’re eventually making some of our own."

Revolve has been steadily shoring up its operations and making smart bets over more than a decade (its only outside investment is from private equity firm TSG Partners, which bought a minority stake in 2014), and engaging an assortment of brands with an attractive range of price points. What has changed is who can see what they do. "We used to have parties and it would be great among the insiders in LA, but now if we have a physical activation, we’re able to show the Revolve lifestyle to not only the attendees but the people through our social media channels," says Mente. Because they were a solid business first and a prolific Clarendon-filtered source of lifestyle content second, Revolve has the capital to, say, throw three parties with celebrity attachés and lead an influencer trip to Peru in one week, which, as it happens, was exactly the itinerary at the time that we spoke.

Photo: Courtesy of Revolve

Two nights after our conversation, the rooftop of the Revolve Social Club — the 3,500-square-foot three-story complex on Melrose Avenue the brand moved into in April — was twinkle-lit and rosé-ready for a party. "It’s designed to host the brand’s member-only space and used to connect and interact with our community on a deeper level, from influencers to stylists to celebrities, and high value customers who engage with us on social media" explained Alyssa Rara, the brand’s in-house publicist. "It’s always an amazing experience, and definitely Instagram- and Snapchat-worthy!"

This evening’s soirée was for Jessica Alba’s partnership with DL Jeans, which are sold on Revolve (they’re also sold on Shopbop, Nordstrom, and ASOS, though none have celebrated this fact with a party and passed arancini). Dior ambassador DJ Nikki Pennie blasted music from the roof and in the ground floor showroom. Tall wispy women, wearing all of the silhouettes that are happening at this very moment and may look ridiculous come April, were acting either as models or incredibly stone-faced party guests. There was a step-and-repeat and champagne chilling on the VIP table for Alba’s famous friends. Reese Witherspoon, Jhene Aiko, Rachel Zoe, and Chanel Iman made appearances. They came, they snapped.

"Physical activations are among Revolve’s greatest assets and what genuinely sets them apart from other online-based brands," notes Cassandra Napoli, assistant editor of digital media and marketing at WGSN. "Their activations are huge, carefully crafted experiences that are documented across social. Being invited to a Revolve party in the Hamptons, for example, has become testament to an influencer’s ability to digitally tell stories."

But any brand with enough capital can pay a celebrity to go to a party and post about it on social media (while Page Six reported that Kardashian received $700,000 for the Hamptons house appearance, Mente took to Instagram to refute the claim). What sets Revolve apart is a calculated distribution of resources — a decision to lay its chips across several tiers of sartorial names, from celebrities like Nicole Richie, with whom they designed a capsule collection, to Instagram stars like Chiara Ferragni, who boasts seven million followers ("They have an innovative approach that I appreciate, they’re selling a lifestyle"), and other social media notables with smaller but fervent fan bases (Chiara’s younger sister Valentina; blogger Emily Luciano).

Photo: Courtesy of Revolve

"They work with mega bloggers, like Chiara Ferragni and the Song sisters, while also nurturing micro influencer talent," observes Napoli. "Working with micro influencers not only comes at a cheaper cost, but it allows them to maximize their reach by talking to that person’s super niche and generally more engaged following. It’s clear they can support sourcing expensive talent, but they’ve also built their business on developing relationships with these [lesser-known] girls, so having them come to activation spaces is synonymous with who they are as a brand at this point." While Nasty Gal is attached to a single personality and ASOS to no one, Revolve can be linked to everyone who’s anyone.

One of those someones is Pia Arrobio, who last year partnered with Revolve to launch her own line, LPA, the origin story of which reads like a whistlestop tour of cool LA girls on Instagram. A longtime designer at Reformation, Arrobio returned from a trip to Spain where she had been offered a new job with Zara and was on her way to have a drink with model Emily Ratajowski. Ratajowski was working with Revolve on hosting an upcoming event and mentioned Arrobio’s news to Gerona. Immediately Gerona, who had never met Arrobio but followed her on Instagram, got her number from Ratajowski, set up drinks, and told Arrobio not to take the job — to come work at Revolve instead, where she could be the creative director of her own brand. "To have a built-in infrastructure that has the marketing, experience, and production tools, but also have creative freedom is incredible," Arrobio notes of her very easy decision. "They just have so much information about what has worked for which brands. And I don’t think there’s a bigger platform [on which] to showcase your clothes. How many eyes are on that website every day?"

Arrobio notes that much of the momentum for the brand stems from the fact that its leaders, like Mente and Gerona, are "some of the most fun, coolest people in the industry, and that energy trickles down to the offices, brands, and to all the events."

Photo: Courtesy of Revolve

But even though the social game is Revolve's calling card, Mente is hesitant to declare it’s the reason for Revolve’s steady growth trajectory over the last five years. "I wish it was something super cool and sexy, but the majority of the time it’s getting the fundamentals right in terms of building and structuring the business correctly. Operations are very sound, technology, and logistics. But the other thing that’s important, and it’s very basic, is that we’re very sure of who our customer is and what she likes." Gerona, who spearheads activations, leads influencer trips, and has garnered a social following of her own, agrees. "We’ve learned that we have to trust our instincts and no matter what, stay true to Revolve stands for: aspirational, sexy, fun, vibrant, and incredibly social."

The Revolve girl the company has pinned came further into focus for Arrobio when LPA launched in Paris during the fall shows (one of the five events they put on during the week, which, you’ll recall, has seven days). "I told Raissa that I wanted to do a house party, and it was insane," she says, remembering the night. "500 people came, everyone was hanging on the chandeliers and dancing to rap music until four in the morning. And it was perfect because Kendall Jenner showed up, Hailey Baldwin was there, but we didn’t pay anyone to go. They all just came because they knew it was a cool party. And in the living room there were all these kids from the outskirts of Paris that were the coolest looking kids I had ever seen. And everyone kept saying ‘Who the fuck’s party is this? This is so cool.’"

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