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Last year, direct-to-consumer was an emerging buzzword used to describe brands that “cut out the middleman” in the retail world. Now, it’s a uniform for people in the know: Warby Parker glasses, Everlane sweaters, Cuyana totes. The biggest retail trend of 2016 is what’s making it possible for you to buy a leather jacket that would normally cost over $1,000 for just a few hundred dollars, or a cashmere sweater that would normally retail for around $300 in a store.
The biggest hallmark of a direct-to-consumer brand is right there in the title: Merchandise is sold straight to shoppers via an e-commerce setup, rather than through wholesale accounts at department stores or boutiques. Most brands don’t have permanent stores, though some — like Warby Parker, the brand that put this category on the map — do.
Because of that, these brands are able to keep costs down, and offer product at a more affordable price point. “Traditional retail brands and wholesale partners have created a vicious cycle of ‘mark-up to mark-down,’ which sends a confusing message to customers, and results in an inflated or false sense of value of its products,” says Mark Lynn, one of the co-founders of the direct-to-consumer brand DSTLD.
Usually, these types of brands offer a small selection of products, often in just one or two categories. The messaging is almost always focused on owning less and shopping smarter, and they invest heavily in sleek websites and aspirational-but-attainable product photography. Good social media is a must.
“The direct model allows for brands to share their story in a more competent, meaningful way, and to provide customers with greater value. Ultimately, we think it strengthens the connection between the customer and the brand,” says Lynn.
The list of DTC brands has grown significantly since it became a thing, with a huge spike this year (you’ve likely heard at least two companies refer to themselves as the Warby Parker of X or the Everlane of Y over the past few months). To cut through the clutter, here’s a cheat sheet for the ones to know right now, beyond the obvious, and what they’re good for.
Cuyana’s tagline “fewer, better things” spells out the brand’s ethos in three words. From leather bags to silk and cashmere, the trim no-frills selection is pretty irresistible. Each piece is intentional, CEO and co-founder Karla Gallardo explains, and meant to be an investment — things you’ll keep season after season.
The fabrics and materials in Cuyana’s collections have been sourced from all over the world, though the prices are still reasonable. The new Alpaca Travel Set ($195) was crafted in Peru and features an eye mask, blanket, and monogrammed envelope for easy carrying. And the classy Saddle Bag looks like a million bucks, but is really just $295. One of the brand’s best sellers is this large carry-all tote, which retailers for a very fair $175.
Lo & Sons is a family-owned business, inspired by a mother’s post-retirement frustration with her options for smart travel bags and her son’s encouragement to make her own. With clever panels designed to easily latch on to your suitcase, designated shoe pockets, and an entire “How to Pack” video series with impressive production value on its website, this scrappy company is making travel a lot easier.
The brand is quick to clarify that, unlike others on this list, the plan wasn’t centered around being direct-to-consumer or disrupting an industry. “We didn't necessarily see ourselves in the ‘luggage’ department, and we're not a fashion or handbag company. So we felt like the best way to explain and tell our product stories and educate customers was through our own retail channel,” co-founder and vice president Derek Lo explains.
The Seville ($398 and up) is a workday tote reinvented: Swappable shells change the bag’s outer appearance; it has built-in laptop protection; and comes with a complimentary nylon shell specifically for travel. And the Catalina weekender bag ($148) has been praised as the best carry-on out there.
Coats are expensive, but The Arrivals seeks to bring “sophisticated design, fit, and quality” to (relatively) affordable luxury outerwear, with a big focus on leather. While the prices are certainly not low, the attention to detail is impressive, and the quality is unquestionable.
“We fill the gap between designer items that are built to last, but sold at a grossly inflated price point, and fast fashion that delivers on affordable price, but lacks in material and production quality,” says founder Jeff Johnson. The company’s take on a winter parka, the Halstrøm II ($695), is a particularly good investment. Its removable shell means you get two looks for one, all for less than a Canada Goose.
The 5th makes sleek, minimal watches, two simple black backpacks, and a line of newly-launched sunglasses — and they’re only available for five days every month, from the 5th to the 10th. For now, watches are the focus, though founder Alex McBride is excited for the new shades, which he says are “[inspired by] some of the most iconic sunglasses from cinematic greats.”
As for what it all has in common? “Rather than a loud statement item of clothing, we wanted to be that little touch that completes an outfit,” he says.
La Ligne is the DTC world’s answer to another set of buzzwords: “luxury basics.” As you can probably surmise from the name, the brand sources its inspiration from a classic and well-loved design: stripes. There are two collections: Essentials (the core pieces that are available every season) and Edition (the more on-trend pieces). The French Cuff Shirt ($195) is a perfect example of one of La Ligne’s classics.
Here’s where it’s key to acknowledge yet another perk of the business model, which is the ability to stray from the traditional fashion calendar and create and produce in response to customer demand. Rather than showing new collections six months before they're available for purchase in stores, La Ligne’s latest are debuted just a few days before they hit the site.
Another perk of going direct-to-consumer is that brands are able to adapt to what their customer is asking for in realtime. “We’re able to quickly respond to customer feedback and industry trends, bringing a shoe from initial concept to retail in only 60 days,” M.Gemi’s CEO Ben Fischman explains. The shoe brand releases new limited-edition styles every Monday, and they often sell out quickly.
Cheryl Kaplan, M.Gemi’s president, explains what differentiates it from the competitors: “Each piece is handmade in Italy, and we’re doing it at a pace that’s unheard of in the luxury space.” The Corsa Bootie ($348) is one of Kaplan’s top picks for fall, thanks to its “perfect heel height and '70s-inspired Santa Croce suede.”
DSTLD makes more than denim, but that’s arguably the category that needs the most quote-unquote disruption. “We found the denim business because we're in LA, the denim capital of the world,” explains co-founder Corey Epstein. “We questioned why premium denim costs so much, and saw a huge opportunity to do something unheard of in the space: deliver a premium product at value.”
DSTLD jeans begin at just $75, but the quality is on par with the big-name contemporary brands you’ll find in department stores. “We source our materials and develop our washes and finishes in the same factories as all the other premium players, but because we don’t sell to third party retailers, we’re able to keep our price point very palatable,” says Epstein.
Plain and simple, the goal behind Raden was to create the perfect piece of luggage. “To me, aside from being the most durable, most beautiful, and made from the best materials, the perfect luggage also has to have tech embedded seamlessly into it,” says CEO Josh Udashkin. With that in mind, Raden seeks to fill a gap that the luggage industry left wide open: suitcases that fall somewhere between “throwaways under $100 and premium over $600.”
To put it in Udashkin’s terms, buying a suitcase is “an extremely high-consideration and high-intent purchase” — people do often want to examine the quality of an item they don’t plan on replacing seasonally. For this holiday season, Raden is partnering with Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s on a series of pop-up shops, so seeing a bag that weighs itself and syncs up to your iPhone IRL is an option.
Naadam focuses exclusively on cashmere. “We started with cashmere because the herders we were living with in the Gobi Desert subsisted on animal husbandry that harvested cashmere,” explains Matt Scanlan, the co-founder and CEO of Naadam. (That quote alone should give you a pretty good idea of what the brand is all about.)
While a lot of brands have a philanthropic lean, Naadam’s business model is entirely dependent on it. As the website explains, “Naadam has created the largest privately funded non-profit, providing veterinary programs, livestock insurance, and breeding development. In return, Naadam is granted first access to the herder’s fleece.”
“We’ve invested $150,000 into our nonprofit to inoculate 250,000 goats, and thereby directly impact over 800 families in the region,” Scanlan adds. None of this means sacrificing on style, though. The Eterna Cashmere Rib Crewneck ($225) is perhaps the perfect fall sweater.