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Photos: Diana Ascarrunz

The Internet Goes IRL at ModCloth's New Store

With personalized service and signature prints and puns, this is what it’s like to shop ModCloth live in Austin.

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The first permanent ModCloth store smells like popcorn and perfume at its grand opening in downtown Austin, and feels like a boho-lite carnival. The semi-chaotic energy that often accompanies a well-attended public event is inescapable: Women wait on line for free hair braiding, free makeup applications, free manicures, and free temporary tattoos (the assortment is replete with feathers and arrows); children and teens crowd around both the orange and white themed candy station and the five-flavor popcorn table. There’s live music and lots of curious shoppers. It’s a historic moment for the company, which has, until now, remained a digital-only mainstay of funky fashion hunters for more than a decade and a half. The line to try on clothes in one of the five velvet-curtained fitting rooms is two hours long.

“When we got started, it was so tiny,” says chief creative officer Susan Gregg Koger, who founded ModCloth in 2002. “I was 17 and just about to go off to my first year of college at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. And quite honestly, I wanted to build the type of store that I wanted to shop at.” Koger’s passion for vintage apparel and frustration with limited suburban mall offerings spurred her to create a digital store initially focused on showcasing one-of-a-kind thrift store finds, then dubbed “Affordable Mod and Emo Vintage Clothing.” But the model wasn’t sustainable.

As Koger told The New York Times in 2010, “We knew we needed to change. It was too labor intensive and capital intensive to find, photograph, and sell one-of-a-kinds. [...] Our value proposition was that we had and knew these customers who were pro-fashion and liked our point of view.”

Capital investments allowed ModCloth to source independent designers and morph into a bonafide player in the fashion retail market, offering new, vintage-y looking, and retro-inspired alternatives to more conventional fast fashion and ready-to-wear brands.

Koger emphasizes that building a conversation with ModCloth’s shoppers from the get-go proved essential as the company came of age in those early years. “If you think about launching back in 2002, that was before Facebook, before the iPhone. It’s just really amazing to think about how things have changed. But we saw this opportunity to build a brand that had not just a fashion point of view, but had a community at its center.”

ModCloth recognized social media’s value quickly, initially utilizing MySpace to engage with customers and build up its name in the pre-Facebook world. Fans followed, and the most loyal among them soon performed a fair chunk of marketing legwork for the brand. As ModCloth told Zendesk in 2010, “Many times, before we can answer a question on Facebook, one of our fans will step up to answer the question for us.”” ModCloth launched “Be the Buyer” that same year, a feature encouraging shoppers to vote for styles they’d like to see manufactured and sold; Koger noted for The New York Times that, at that time, it received an average of 2,000 votes and 100 comments for every item offered through the program.

A lot has happened since. Modern-day ModCloth offers a mobile app called Fit for Me, which launched in 2013 and culls the highest customer-rated items in user-selected body types, as well as an in-house signature collection, which launched in 2015 under the leadership of fashion director Lizz Wasserman. All the while, ModCloth has carved out its niche, not just as a procurer of quirky prints and throwback styles, but as a curator/designer for every body, too. As one Facebook fan recently put it on ModCloth’s wall, “I love the fact that you have ‘real girls’ modeling your clothes. Every size from teeny-tiny to real girl (I refuse to use the term ‘plus size’). Thank you for thinking of women who are all shapes and sizes instead of (as most clothiers do) pretending that we don't exist!”

And now, as of this past November, digital native ModCloth boasts a storefront in Austin. With e-commerce responsible for $101.3 billion of all retail sales, why would a successful online-only store expand to brick and mortar, and why now?

“There has to be a reason to open up a new store in this day and age,” says CEO Matt Kaness, who joined the company in January 2015 after serving as chief strategy officer at Urban Outfitters. “And it’s not another place to have inventory sitting for the customer to self-serve.”

If you’re looking for a solitary, brusque shopping experience, ModCloth’s brick and mortar isn’t it — and that’s the appeal of it. The company devised the “fit shop,” as ModCloth refers to its boutique framework, with its engaged community in mind. Shopping should be social, goes the ModCloth philosophy, and dedicated, one-on-one interaction between retail associates (a.k.a. “ModStylists®”) and customers is the key way that ModCloth reflects its interactive DNA within the physical store.

The model is very similar to that of most bridal shop boutiques. “The best way to experience the store is with an appointment,” the friendly stylist giving me the grand tour on opening day says, adding that an appointment guarantees a fitting room and one-hour stylist consultation, but walk-ins and same-day appointments are more than welcome based on availability.

Working with a stylist entails an introductory conversation on personal style type, goals, and budget, a detailed measurement taking, and a guided tour around the showroom (that’s heavy on fabric touch/feel encouragement) where stylists advise on the best styles and fits for the customer’s individual body type and needs. The appointments themselves are free, and there’s zero purchase obligation. Browsing the store sans appointment is a-okay too, since customers can take a very official-looking tiny clipboard to jot down item numbers of interest and sizes for stylists to retrieve from the back.

Browsing the racks elicits the first eccentricity about the store’s setup within seconds: There are only two sizes in each style out on the floor, medium and 2X. “Our showroom model [means that] the majority of the apparel and shoes are on samples,” says Kaness. “It’s not inventory like a traditional store, but samples. That allows us to bring more product into the store, which allows the ModStylist in the store to be able to have more items for [our customer] to try on and really experience a broad assortment.” Samples are not meant to be tried on; all sizes are in the back and are fitting room-ready. Anything on a wood hanger (most of the store) is part of ModCloth’s “Fit and Ship” program, which provides free express two-day shipping; a limited black hangered selection indicates the store’s ready-to-wear, “Take Me Home Today” items. The majority of the store’s pieces are from ModCloth’s signature collection, along with on-message accessories, shoes, and gifty tchotchkes.

“Our customers love signature prints, our customers love cats, and our customers love dressing up for the holidays,” says my stylist, gesturing to the mix-and-match outfitted mannequins, the “Critter Corner” display, and an array of Christmas plaid and reindeer-themed dresses, jumpers, and skirts. What she says must be true, because on opening day customers flock around each of these areas.

In sum, the ModCloth customer digs cute. And despite her online shopping habits, she wants to shop ModCloth in person.

“For the last 14 years at ModCloth, we’ve really been having a conversation with our community,” says Koger. “And this is something she’s been telling us that she’s wanted for a long time.” Starting in April 2015, ModCloth experimented with a pop-up tour called “ModCloth IRL” that started in Los Angeles and continued on in San Francisco, Washington DC, Portland, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Austin.

The process allowed the company to hear customer feedback, fine-tune the fit shop concept, and geographically survey the permanent location for “Store 001,” as Kaness calls it.

“But it turned into something much more powerful,” adds Kaness, “with this community showing up and sharing their stories, intimate information, and point of view around not just why they love ModCloth, but how they use fashion, and it turned into a social shopping experience that we thought rose to the level of what Susan had created online.”

The store is divided into “moods and moments,” explains my stylist, including work attire (blazers and blouses), dressy date night fare (lace and sparkles), and a nominal bridal assortment. When I revisit on a Friday night a month later, the centerpiece mannequin and rack display could be called “the constellation section,” showcasing a handful of different astrological and zodiac prints. The periwinkle constellation-patterned print on one skirt even matches the fabric on a rectangular, padded drop ceiling feature and harmonizes with the mirrored moon and star mobiles hung elsewhere in the store.

The interior design is painstakingly on brand, mimicking the aesthetic and attitude of its progenitor site down to its pastel color palette and go-get-’em-girl messaging. This space truly is the physical embodiment of ModCloth’s digital MO; the transition from cute online copy (like, say, “2016 has been a real kick in the high-waisted pants”) to an adorable in-store experience is so seamless that you might think that you Honey I Shrunk the Kids’d yourself and climbed into the internet. One wall features a huge daisy design in white, pale pink, and seafoam, and a neon pink, curly-scripted “Be Brilliant” sign. If you love the look, you’re in luck: You can buy a matching “Be Brilliant” and daisy canvas tote bag right in the shop.

But perhaps even more noteworthy than the complementary decor surrounding the mannequins are the mannequins themselves. For just about every mannequin decked out in a small sample size stands a mannequin styled in 1X.

Kaness calls ModCloth “the most inclusive fashion brand in America” with good reason. Over half of ModCloth’s entire catalogue is available in a full spectrum of sizes from XXS to 4X, a rarity in the fashion world. Koger’s 2002 vision for ModCloth did not necessarily dictate such an egalitarian sizing philosophy, but one quickly emerged within, you guessed it, the community.

Says Koger, “Years and years ago we heard from our community, ‘I love ModCloth, I love the style, but I need you to carry more products in my size.’” ModCloth launched its extended size collection in 2013 before introducing its signature collection last year, which is produced in the entire size range. Last October, the company opted to lose the “Plus” tab entirely from its site.

“It’s smart from a digital perspective to include that in your top nav,” says Kaness. “But as we started to evolve to do the offline, we took a hard look at ourselves and said, ‘If we’re one brand and one community, and our aspiration is to become and lead the industry as the most inclusive fashion brand, we need to really ask ourselves, is the term ‘plus’ collaborative or dismissive? Is it something that brings our community together, or is it a way that industry norms have forced parts of our community to feel like they’re othered?’”

There are not many labels that can outfit an XXS girl and a 2X girl in the exact same look. ModCloth can, and does. “[There’s] this incredible yearning for a store-based social shopping experience where women of all shapes and sizes can shop the same assortment and feel empowered and feel included,” says Kaness, adding how delighted he was to see three friends try on the same wedding dress at ModCloth’s Austin pop-up last April. “None of them were engaged to be married,” he says. “It was just this fun, joyful moment amongst girlfriends that they were never able to experience anywhere else, or that they never felt included or welcome to do in another speciality store.” My stylist on opening day tells me that stylist training includes education on dressing different body types, trans individuals, and people with disabilities.

The “why Austin?” question for ModCloth’s first permanent store reflects ModCloth’s inclusivity MO, adds Kaness, along with a host of other desirable aspects. “We just feel like Austin is one of those markets in the country where there’s a nice symmetry with our culture internally at ModCloth, about being inclusive, about having a quirky sensibility, but also being contemporary, in the know, not just liking trends but creating trends, and being young and digitally native.”

That said, Austin is almost as good a choice as any other city that went through the ModCloth pop-up process. Says Kaness, “We’re expected to ramp [expansion] out fairly rapidly, and so in some ways market one wasn’t as important as it was to just get started.”

How soon new, permanent IRL ModCloths will crop up elsewhere remains to be seen, but the company plans to roll out fit shops nationally in the coming year. There are no final plans, as of this publish, as to how many or when. The Austin fit shop is admittedly, says Kaness, a test pilot for the future.

What is clear is that ModCloth fans beyond Austin’s city limits are ready to take their online shopping into the offline world — just check out any of ModCloth’s recent posts on social media about its Austin store for a follower-generated wish list of the cities (and countries) where the community is ready and waiting.

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