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Dolls Kill, the Nasty Gal for People Too Cool for Nasty Gal, Goes Mainstream

The cult-fave startup moves its colorful style into brick and mortar

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In the age of lucrative events like Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza, the opportunity to capitalize on festival fashion is endless. It might seem like the trend of dropping money on an event-specific kitschy outfit will fizzle out — especially after the fraudulent Fyre Festival — but festival style has become ubiquitous. These days, everything from luxury brands like Moschino to fast-fashion labels like H&M and ASOS to big-box stores like Target and Kohl’s are constantly debuting collections.

Amid all the clambering to cash in on the trend, there’s one brand that was in the game way before anyone else, and its dedication has paid off: Dolls Kill, a San Francisco-based e-commerce company has quietly been making a killing by creating eccentric fashion that caters to the festival attendee, as well as reeling in shoppers craving unique clothing with an edge.

Founded in 2011 by husband-wife duo Shaudi Lynn and Bobby Farahi, Dolls Kill has built a cult following by offering clothing you quite literally couldn’t even imagine: quirky platforms in every pattern and color, whimsical rainbow sack dresses alongside little black ones with open backs and draped chains, spandex jumpsuits meant to be paired with furry vests (or perhaps just stockings), crop tops made of feathers, hand-held mirrors that read “I’d Fuck Me,” sequin booty shorts, tormented teddy bear backpacks, chokers made of barbed wire. The brand now boasts 1.3 million followers on Instagram, where dedicated fans leave comments like “Stfu.... if a shoe wasn't more me,” “Lady Gaga oh my daddy ya plz,” “Make it weirder!” and “Why do I need everything you guys post.”

Photo: Dolls Kill

If you wanted to learn more about Dolls Kill — who its shopper is, what world it belongs to — you could head to its Facebook page, but you’d just keep getting the same sass and bite that comes with the clothes. The section for the brand’s story just reads “GRUNGE TECHNO BABY” seven times in a row; the product explanation offers a mere jumble that includes “RAD STUFF! Makes you drool a bit.” The company overview does explain that it’s “inspired by the youth culture of today, yesterday and tomorrow.” It’s quick to follow that up with “Do not follow if you are easily offended.”

Farahi, the company’s 43-year-old CEO, is able to explain the Dolls Kill personality a bit better.

“The brand empowers girls to unleash [their] inner ‘I don’t give a fuck,’” says Farahi one afternoon in July from the company’s headquarters in San Francisco’s Mission District. “It allows her to express her individuality and be as loud as she wants to be. Every piece stands out and has meaning.”

The Dolls Kill space is a giant warehouse turned office bustling with employees with an outrageous range of style, including many with colorful hair, ultra-shredded jeans, and elaborate makeup. In one graffiti- and sticker-covered conference room, designers review the latest fall collection, poring over racks of electric-colored faux-fur jackets. The company’s products are photographed in an in-house studio at the back of the office, and just next to that there’s a shoe closet, filled floor to ceiling with colorful platform boots, that looks like it should really only exist in the home of a Spice Girl. Smack in the middle of the office is a decorative wall plastered with giant decals of caricatures and slogans that fit into the company’s whims, like “For Da Misfits,” “Suck it,” “Bangin’,” “STFU,” and, of course, the brand’s ultimate mantra: “Don’t Give a Fuck.”

The clothing from Dolls Kill has become a favorite among music-festival attendees; it makes collections for events like Burning Man, and the price teeters in the average range of fast fashion. Unsurprisingly given the brand’s affinity for cosplay-esque pieces, Halloween is its most profitable time of year. But beyond the elaborate fishnet kimonos, colorful clip-in dreadlocks, and tie-dye bell-bottoms, which all cater to a customer looking for extravagance or an outfit for a very specific event, Dolls Kill has found its sweet spot by also selling everyday clothing that comes with just the right amount of edge.

In a previous life, Farahi ran a broadcast monitoring service business called Multivision. After he sold the company in 2005, he found himself hanging in LA’s rave and party scenes. It was there that he met Lynn, his now-wife, who was a DJ who went by the stage name Shoddy. Farahi noticed that not only did she have an eclectic sense of style, she was also able to pick up bizarre and unique pieces from random stores and flip them on eBay.

“She always said, ‘Wouldn't it be great if there was a place where it was a combination of all these stand-out pieces?’ and we began talking,” he says. “We've taken these underground countercultures and the fashion within them and commercialized them in a way, and made them more approachable without alienating the person that's truly that person. We have the true goth shopping at Dolls Kill, but at the same time the girl that would never walk into that store.”

The company started by selling accessories like furry keychains, but eventually expanded into selling clothing from third-party vendors. Still DJing, Shoddy used her social-media following to promote the company, whose audience quickly grew. They used customers as models, and sales came flooding in. By 2014, when Recode reported that the company was pulling in as much as $15 million in sales, Dolls Kill was named by the San Francisco Business Times as the Bay Area’s fastest-growing private company of the year, after it grew 3,342 percent in three years. (Dolls Kill wouldn’t share current sales figures, but head of finance Jon Dussel says the company’s sales figure is doubling year over year.)

Photo: Dolls Kill
Photo: Dolls Kill

At the core of Dolls Kill’s quirkiness are the “dolls” it promotes, or the different iterations of styles it created based off of the moods of Shoddy and her friends. There’s Kandi, “a child of EDM, always dripping with color,” whose clothing includes plenty of rainbows, sequins, and lights; there’s Coco, a “highly active fembot” whose array is pure millennial pink and sassy novelty tees; Mercy is “dangerously dark and loves all things leather,” and her clothing is all-out goth style; Willow is the brand’s quintessential free spirit with a “laid back style and eye for the finest grass in town,” who wears festival attire year-round; punk-girl Darby will “steal your shit and shred it to bits,” and her style is grunge meets rock. The brand allows customers to browse and shop without the lens of these dolls, and there are some staples and basics on the site (it carries brands like Wildfox, Levi’s, and Dr. Martens), but Farahi says the Dolls Kill customer appreciates its weird idiosyncrasies.

“We are the only company that’s truly making clothing for her,” he says. “Our shopper might shop at a Forever 21, but she’s going home and ripping the tag off because that company doesn’t represent her. Nobody is speaking to her in an authentic way, and when brands try to, it comes off as inauthentic.”

Part of the authenticity Farahi attributes to the personality of Dolls Kill is that the company isn’t just profiting off of subcultures like goth, rave, or EDM — it’s actually embedded in them through its employees. While queen bee Shoddy paved the way for the brand as a DJ who was involved the rave scene, many of the company’s 100 employees are highly active in the music-festival scene too. This is truly what’s set the company apart in the crowded land of online shopping, according to Rebecca Kaden, a partner at venture capital firm Maveron, which is an investor in Dolls Kill.

“Dolls Kill's superpower comes in building not only a commerce platform, but a brand and community that their customers feel a part of — they've integrated into the hearts and minds of their girl,” Kaden says. “As a brand they have a deep understanding of their core customers’ desire to both express their individuality in all parts of [their lives] while at the same time feeling a part of something. Combining that consumer empathy and understanding with standout product is their secret sauce and what's propelling their growth.”

Photo: Dolls Kill

Many have compared the quirky and weird vibes of Dolls Kill to those of the early days of Nasty Gal (before the brand crashed and burned and was bailed out of bankruptcy by Boohoo). That assessment isn’t all that off, considering the buying director at Dolls Kill, Christina Ferrucci, was employee No. 1 at Nasty Gal, and Dolls Kill creative director Paul Trapani was employee No. 2. Over the last two years, Ferrucci has helped Dolls Kill create in-house brands like Current Mood, Sugar Thrillz, and Club X, pivoting it from buying wholesale to taking total control over its design business.

“What I liked about Nasty Gal at the beginning was how weird it was, how connected it was with its customer, and how it was unwilling to be anything other than authentic its itself,” says Ferrucci. “All that changed, obviously, but I feel like that’s what it’s like here.”

“All those other brands making festival style are designing for this aesthetic just because they think it exists,” she goes on. “They are just dipping their toes into the boho vibe because they feel like they need to. We're fucking basically up on, like, a diving board, jumping in full on. We decide what the trend is going to be like at Coachella, and that’s the trend, and that comes from really being dialed into this world. We say, ‘Hey, we’re just as affordable as an ASOS, but listen, we put a lot of thought into it, we curated it for you, and we have the authority.’”

For all Dolls Kill’s success as niche favorite, Ferrucci admits part of its next phase must involve growth and reaching new customers: “We've done a good job of getting it out there in front of our current customer base, who is like, ‘Oh my god, this is my dream.’ But we haven’t done a great job connecting to people who've never heard of us, or capturing their attention.”

In order to successfully grow (it is a venture capital-backed company, after all, one that raised $10.9 million in three fundraising rounds), Dolls Kill is ready to step into the mainstream, if only slightly. In July, it launched Poster Grl, a streetwear brand that looks like the styles of Kanye West and Kylie Jenner — think long, muted sweatshirts and hoodie dresses. The clothing is way more approachable to the average shopper than the erotic, Lolita-esque fashion on the rest of the site. Jumping off of the new collection, Dolls Kill will launch a sixth doll in November that aligns with this style. The doll will be named MiA, and she will be “selfie savvy and street aware,” with her aesthetic being “cool comfort, sexy street, and thoughtfully provocative.”

Ferrucci says the new direction is still in line with the anti-establishment attitude fans love about the brand: “Yes, we said, ‘Let’s make streetwear.’ But we also said, ‘Let’s make it cool. Just fuck it up and make it weird.’” Still, she admits that approachability is an inescapable step for the company.

“We don’t care about following trends, but as we grow and need to become bigger and stay in front of the business, we also have to be more reactive, which I feel fine saying this is,” she says. “But it still pushes the limits.”

The other part to Dolls Kill’s play for growth is its first steps into brick and mortar. On August 19th, the company opened its first store, in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury (because where else would it open one?). For now, the company is calling the location a pop-up that will run through Halloween, but Farahi says he sees several permanent stores in the company’s future. Even if its core customers are searching for festival gear or Halloween costumes, he believes there’s a space in the market for such an eccentric brand to have a physical location. A physical store location will also give the brand better exposure to mainstream customers.

Dolls Kill’s new Poster Grl collection.
Photo: Dolls Kill

Between Dolls Kill’s plans to expand its plus-size offerings and the coming collection from Poster Grl, the brand is sure to reach more conventional shoppers. Farahi, for one, feels like the oddities inherent to the brand’s typical shopper are actually beginning to fit into pop culture now, which certainly works to Doll Kill’s advantage.

“Ten years ago, the cool girls were all wearing the same Abercrombie logo or whatever, because there was a sense that fitting in meant you needed to look like the rest of the cool girls,” he says. “Now, being cool means expressing your individuality. Look how many girls with colored hair you see now versus five years ago. So I think that shift is continuously happening.”

But can the internet’s weirdest store ever truly go mainstream? This is a fine balancing act Dolls Kill will have to play. Reaching more people is necessary, but reaching a point where their core customers feel alienated by the brand “selling out” won’t go over too well. As Ferrucci points out, “our customers can smell bullshit,” not to mention the fact that they come with plenty of bite.

For now, Farahi isn’t too worried. At the end of the day, Dolls Kill isn’t going to be for everyone. The sequins, platforms, and leather might be a bit much for some, and others probably won’t come close to understanding the half of it. And frankly, everyone at the company is fine with that. Or, to put it in more accurate terms, they truthfully “just don’t give a fuck.”

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