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"Oh ModCloth, you get me."
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How Online Fashion Copy Found Its Voice

A website with personality is the new salesperson

My alleged resemblance to Carey Mulligan once cost me the price of an ill-fitting sweater with a lobster on it from J. Crew. Casual comparisons to Michelle Williams have procured me more cocktail dresses than I care to admit to. God help me if I’m ever inexplicably in couture in a dressing room and someone tells me I look like Elizabeth Olsen. For me, a personable sales associate at the ready with a compliment or familiar pop culture reference is truly a force to be reckoned with.


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Though each shopper's Achilles' heel is different, a skilled sales associate always has an arsenal of both obscure and mainstream reference points to compliment a shopper. With this flattering knowledge in hand, they regularly help escort a "maybe" item over to the "definitely" pile. Combined with the atmospheres and aesthetics of particularly well-designed stores, customers don’t stand a chance against the charm of someone doing a retail sales job well. But as online shopping experiences replace in-store ones, clothing brands are left without opportunities to provide the reassuring and personalized service of a skilled associate to their customers. From within this context, fashion copy at online-focused brands has emerged as some of the most recognizable voices in the industry.

"You shouldn’t think about writing as writing. You should think about it as talking."

Fashion copy with a distinct personality increasingly fills the role the friendly and well-informed brand ambassadors who would normally greet shoppers and guide them through selection, fitting, and purchasing decisions, making consumers feel at home with the brand. Cristina Black is the owner C. Black Content, a firm offering a broad suite of content solutions for brands with a particular emphasis on fashion, her services range from helping brands establish their voices through web copy to writing product descriptions, blogs, and marketing emails. Black faced an uphill battle between 2009 and 2014 when fashion copywriting was not a priority for many brands, but that the past few years have seen a major uptick in brands seeking guidance for finding their voices. She says that the most common question from brands is how to get writers to write in a way that sounds natural. "I tell them, ‘You shouldn’t think about writing as writing. You should think about it as talking.’" she insists, noting that treating people like data points is a losing proposition in today’s online market.

"Now everybody’s like "E-commerce is everything, content is everything!’" Black tells me. She notes that direct-to-consumer brands that have always been online, and especially those brands that value transparency, have emerged as leaders in brand storytelling that connects with consumers. "Because they’re online only and they’re honest with their customers about what they’re selling, it’s been a natural thing for them to find authentic voices because authenticity is in their DNA," Black explains of brands like Reformation.

Enjoying the writing of a brand just seems so common. Being interested in a company’s "story" is just so naïve.

Detractors and doubters persist, of course. But the derision of brand stories more often comes from a place of presumed superior taste than from anti-capitalist concern for over-stretched consumer budgets. Enjoying the writing of a brand just seems so common. Being interested in a company’s "story" is just so naïve. But brands that have taken seriously both the story and the voice delivering it are producing more creative copy endeavors than anything you’ll likely see on a TV spot.

There are few online clothing brands with more voice-y voice than ModCloth, the vintage-inspired retailer that’s built as much of its reputation on hiring models and offering sizes that reflect the diversity of the American consumer as it has on its retro-inspired designs. "One of the early adages we went by on the writing team was, ‘We are the fashion company you’re friends with.’ That was always a big point of differentiation because fashion traditionally is such a top-down industry where if you’re not wearing this, you’re not cool enough. We were the opposite of that," says Natalie Brova, Modcloth’s Head of Writing and Social Media at ModCloth. And if there is anything that would make an upscale design house scoff more than inclusive sizing, it would be puns. Modcloth’s writers deploys puns and other forms of wordplay with reckless abandon in regular email blasts and anoint nearly every product on the site with either a play on words, a pop culture reference, or some combination of the two.

The "Truck Everlasting Top" is a white tee with trucks printed on it, as you likely imagined. The "Live to Pointelle Cardigan" is, you guessed it, made of pointelle. Marketing email headlines inquire, "Y’all ready for ‘bliss’?" and "Ready To Meet Your ‘Prints’ Charming?" But the swimsuit section is really where all hell breaks loose. Throwback references like the "Can’t Buoy Me Love" and "Some Like It Haute" one-pieces mingle with shameless two-pieces called "It’s a Shore Bet" and "Pool Your Jets!"

The thing about puns is that they’re decidedly uncool but they are also harmless. Only assholes are really committed to hating puns or think less of people who use them. Puns might not be your thing, but you have to admit when the really good ones are really good. Brova tells me that ModCloth encourages customers to eschew fashion advice in favor of what feels right. Looking through the pages of gleeful models in brightly colored dresses and patterns, you can hear the voice of a very particular and familiar friend that so many of us have: She has a posture of confidence, a ferocious loyalty to her friends, and an affinity for a particular early to mid-twentieth century female icon from literature or film. You know the type, right?

If ModCloth is the boisterous, fiery friend in patterned prints who encourages you to do karaoke and dye your hair, Reformation is the sardonic friend who reliably brings a pack of cigarettes to your mutual friends’ baby shower and has the most cutting burns about your exes. The upscale, environmentally-conscious apparel brand has copy that is decidedly more edgy but still reminds readers of a woman they know and like. It is riddled with swears and innuendo that reflect the irreverent, post-irony lifestyle of its customer base. A collection of floral print garments is titled, "Delicate f*cking flowers," a dry nod to the fact that these feminine patterns are far from dainty. "Collarbone is the new side boob," reads the description of the Solene dress, a not-quite-tacit endorsement of notable thinness.

Though women’s voices predominate in much of the space, men’s sites are hardly strongholds for bare bones copy. Hugh & Crye is a growing menswear company that prides itself on a wide selection of very particularly tailored garments, with a notable emphasis on the revolutionary idea that men’s shirts should fit and fit well. The tagline "Menswear for the Protagonist" adorns several pages, indicative of that popular storytelling impulse. "Reflected in the Manali’s superior fabric construction and brighter color, the British officer of that era maintained a dignified sense of jovial style even in rare moments of cooler leisure," reads one description. After spending only a few minutes on their site, it is difficult not to hear the words on the screen emerge in a male voice in a British accent. The voice is friendly but authoritative as it explains the particularities of a dress shirt. He is like a butler, some combination of Batman’s Alfred without all the snark and Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day without all the mid-twentieth century British stoicism.

Megan Mitzel, the brand’s Director of Content Marketing, says that there is a definite British influence but that they take special care to not be heavy-handed with it. "We don’t address anybody by saying ‘bloke’ or ‘chap.’ We want to talk to customers in a conversational way but we also want to show that we know our stuff," she says, noting that the brand weaves details into conversational copy because their consumers consistently seek out menswear with their eye toward details.

Each product is adorned not so much with a product description as a tailored product recommendation.

Of a Kind is a platform selling limited edition products from a selection of emerging designers who produce everything from men’s and women’s apparel to home goods and paper products. Though quality design is the foundational element meant to thread all of the site’s products together, that Of A Kind offers a diverse range of product types and from so many distinct designers make it an unlikely candidate for having mastered unifying and distinct brand copy. Each product is adorned not so much with a product description as a tailored product recommendation. "Chokers are back (please see Haim, both Hadids, and, um, Lemonade), but that doesn’t mean you need to go anywhere near those stretchy ones you wore in the nineties," declares the first line of a product description for the Twinkly Gold Double Choker. A description for the men’s Estacia belt reads, "This sucker—made in New England with veg-tanned leather and Argentine woven cotton—has plenty of personality but still fits into any dude’s wardrobe. Just picture it with an oxford and chinos."

This animated, casual voice is not what one might expect from a brand aimed at elevating design: the product copy speaking at a slightly different pitch than the product images often shot in airy, minimalist spaces that it shares a screen with. But apparent disconnect between the worlds of elegant design and approachable sales tactics is precisely what Of A Kind was founded to remedy. "People want to be connected to the things they’re buying and we wanted to do it in a human way. But fashion can be intimidating and design can be intimidating," Of A Kind cofounder Erica Cerulo explains, noting that the copy style emerged from conversational emails exchanged between herself and her co-founder, Claire Mazur. There is calculation in this casualness. Of A Kind has guidelines that bar overly fussy words from the site and a general principle that if you wouldn’t say it in real life, don’t put it on the site. To prevent copy chaos, editors collaborate with the designers to tell their stories on the platform but don’t grant editorial oversight over the final text. The end result is an inventory of extremely varied designer wares that live together under the curatorial guidance of a brand voice that knows her shit.

Notable in conversations with each of these brands was that no one flinched when asked who the voice behind their brand was.

Notable in conversations with each of these brands was that no one flinched when asked who the voice behind their brand was. At ModCloth, being the encouraging, true-to-herself friend was clearly top of mind. Hugh & Crye’s Megan Mitzel said that the brand sought to be not a butler, but "a trusted advisor" to their consumers. Of A Kind’s Cerulo said her brand’s copy, "… should read like it’s being written by a friend recommending something she really loves. She might be more in the know than you, but would never rub that in your face." Cristina Black notes that an effective way of developing your brand character’s voice is to imagine them at a party and to animate potential interactions they have in that setting. In a blog post on her company site walking through the questions to ask of your brand in this exercise, Black concludes that the reason brands must interrogate themselves in this way is, "Because who you absolutely don’t want to be is the awkward person standing alone on the wall, staring at your phone, looking like you wish you were at home watching Netflix with your cat. If you’re that person, why are you here even?"

Brands with a fully realized response to why they are even here are the ones thriving in today’s growing ecommerce space, regardless of naysayers dismissing all brand creativity as inherently compromised. The most compelling part of any of these brand stories is not their high-minded mission statements but the fact that they find their purposes in the products themselves. "We really believe in customers who are trying to be the protagonists of their own stories. They’re trying to live really thoughtful, well-lived lives and our clothes allow them to do that," says Mitzel of Hugh & Crye. Brova at Modcloth describes the brand’s voice as declaring, "‘Wear whatever you want! Want to wear this skirt with weird cats and birds all over it? Go for it!’" in a burst of sartorial self-expression. "We wanted to present designers as just really creative people who make really cool things who you would probably really love," says Cerulo about Of A Kind’s mission. These brands know that their clothing is not doubling as life rafts for polar bears or feeding a low income child when recycled at select locations. Their purpose is to clothe and otherwise adorn their customers to make them feel a certain way and achieve a certain look, and that is more than enough reason to exist.

Skeptics of online shopping in its early days of its existence were primarily concerned with garments not fitting properly or uncertainty about the feel and quality of the materials. As easier and more convenient return policies accompanied by size charts and detailed descriptions of garment textures and blends became the norm, people became less concerned about having an opportunity to experience items with their own hands and to fit them over the contours of their own bodies. But that does not make the experience of purchasing clothes any less intimate or exhilarating. To dismiss shopping as an overly superficial task that ought to be a strictly utilitarian one is to actively ignore the emotional lives of the intimate dimensions of our clothing. The experiences we have while accumulating these items should be guided by trustworthy voices, even when no personal guides are present. Whereas in-store consumers can touch and try on a garment, online shoppers rely on personality-driven product descriptions not just of how an items feels, but how it promises to make them feel, and the person it suggests that they might be if they own it. And who better to help a person discover the person they they might become than trusted advisors and an assortment of friends?

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