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From the first instant she walked through the doors a store clerk — what LF calls a stylist — started chatting to her about her life and fashion aspirations. Before she knew it, Dougherty was dressed head to toe in fashion-forward items like high-waisted shorts, crop tops, and cut out dresses that she never would have imagined for herself. "I liked looking different and unique from every other person in New York City," she remembers. "People looked at me and asked where I got my clothes." She started popping into the store every time she needed new clothes — before a festivals, for holiday parties, even for her brother’s graduation. She stayed in touch with the stylist who would text her when a new item arrived in the store (like a "sick new slip dress") that would look great on her.
One day the stylist decided to do a photoshoot and post and tag a picture of Dougherty on the store’s Instagram. The college student re-posted the image to her friends who promptly went into the store to find their own interesting outfits and see if they could make it onto social media. The cycle continued, generating even more buzz for the store amongst her circles. "I know a lot of people who come to New York City from Baltimore to go to LF, and they know about it through me," she said. "It’s this whole network now."
This was not a happy coincidence. LF, like other fashion brands today, will go to great lengths for even a small amount of love on Instagram. Some spend a fortune flying models across the world, in the hopes that photoshoots in exotic places will create interesting pictures that might attract attention. Others give people with large Instagram followings free clothes with the hopes they’ll wear them in their posts. LF, however, a company that now has stores in five cities across the United States (L.A., New York, Dallas, South Beach, and Boston), is turning to a different group to generate social media attention: their own clients, the majority of whom are teenagers or college students.
"This girl from high school in the city comes in, and she has 500 or 900 followers, that’s our way into that high school."
"This girl from high school in the city comes in, and she has 500 or 900 followers, that’s our way into that high school," said Tess Shapiro, the manager of LF’s New York City store in Soho where Dougherty shops. "If we post her, she posts us to her friends. And then they come in and say, ‘We want that outfit she is wearing.’ That’s so much better than a blogger who comes in, and we don’t know who that is attracting."
This strategy depends on girls loving the way they look in LF clothes, and wanting to show their look off to their friends. That is why from the moment a shopper enters an LF store, a stylist — usually close to her own age, if perhaps a few aspirational years older — will befriend her, finding out about her personality, her likes and dislikes, where she is in school. The stylist will then use that information, connection, and trust to make sure every customer walks away with incredible clothes and shareable photos of themselves wearing them.
This relationship is a long term game said Emma Bamberger, a stylist who has worked in the Soho store for two years. If the girls end up buying the clothes then or later (when they are actually financially independent) "it doesn’t matter." What matters is they trust the brand and their stylists, share themselves flaunting it on social media, and come back again and again in the future.
Suzanne Ries, a 17-year-old high school senior who lives in Pittsburgh but visits LF stores in California and New York City a few times a year (she found out about it from a beauty blogger who talked about the brand on YouTube) was amazed with all the attention she received on her first trip to a store. "The staff was so friendly," she said. "They must have spent an hour helping me create two outfits."
To keep a personal relationship going, each store has a database of every client with their preferences, their birthday, their sense of style. Stylists use the information to text the girls often, getting them back into the store. "It makes me feel special," said Dougherty. Ries feels so close to her stylist she calls the woman her role model. "If I ended up in her position in six years, I wouldn’t be upset. "
Each store has a database of every client with their preferences, their birthday, their sense of style. Stylists use the information to text the girls often, getting them back into the store.
"For us to build a sustainable business, we have to make a good experience for everybody," explains Kate Papineau, LF’s Regional Sales Director who oversees marketing. "We do special things to give them attention, get to know them, give them confidence, make them feel cooler than when they came in."
Shoppers are also inclined to post themselves in LF clothes because the items are funky and untraditional (recent pieces include a romper that can be tied in multiple ways and a sexy lace-up shirt) and help them stand out. Billie Carroll, a 24-year-old graduate student at SMU, describes going into the store as if it’s an adventure. "They definitely encourage you to take more style risks," she said. Bamberger said her clients always win the best dressed award at their high school. "They post a picture of it and tag us," she said.
The store also makes sure the girls have new looks to play with constantly. While most stores get a collection for the season, LF gets new inventory every week. "And it’s not two boxes," said Papineau. "It’s 80 boxes of new styles."
LF’s Instagram feed is so powerful — it currently has 225,000 followers, and every individual store has their own account as well — some women come into the store with the explicit intention of getting tagged. Young bloggers come in hoping for free marketing. Dougherty said every time LF posts her she gets new followers and likes, something that is particularly valuable because she is just starting off as an actress and model. "It’s a win-win," said Papineau. "We want their followers, and they want ours."
Janet Zinn, a New York City-based psychotherapist, said she understands why going into a LF store to do photoshoots is such a fun experience for women this age. "It’s a way of playing," she said. "It’s a celebration of the self to be able to say, ‘I can do this, I can look like this, I can feel good about this.’" But there are some downsides, she explains, especially in regards to self esteem. "You can feel like you are not good enough," she said. "The danger is they think that is cool and it may not be who they are."
While Ries says she loves having others push her fashion sense, she can see some of her friends having a hard time with people telling them what’s cool or what they should wear. "There are people out there that would find it difficult to be in an environment like that," she said.
One client who gets posted frequently by LF said, "It would be really cool," to get a commission, especially because she doesn’t have a job.
Another issue is these young women are essentially being used as free labor. Aside from creating a lookbook a few times a year, the store does not hire models or do official marketing. While it hasn’t seemed to be an issue yet, it’s probably only a matter of time before a customer asks for compensation for this valuable marketing. One client who gets posted frequently by LF said, "It would be really cool," to get a commission, especially because she doesn’t have a job.
And then there is the fact that even if wonderful things come from these relationships — it’s clear that many women find a sense of belonging at LF and gain confidence and style from visiting the store — they are still transactional. "It’s a conditional relationship," said Zinn. "They want them to buy clothes… and people are desperate for attention, and they might do anything to make sure this relationship is perpetuated." This might be particularly hard for women with less disposable income (the clothing is hardly cheap! One dress could set you back a few hundred dollars.)
Papineau acknowledges, "There is a bottom line here. We are a business." But to her, that means the stylists and stores work extra hard to genuinely make women feel good about themselves: "If everybody isn’t happy, the sales don’t follow."