Back in 2006, Nasty Gal was a small eBay vintage shop on eBay curated and run by a community college dropout with a predilection for dumpster-diving and a minimum-wage day job. Today, it’s a 300-employee-strong fashion empire that pulls in over $100 million per year—and founder, CEO and creative director Sophia Amoruso is redefining what it means to be a boss.
Amoruso’s first book, aptly titled #GIRLBOSS, charts her epic rise in the cutthroat world of online retail and is packed with tidbits of unexpected business wisdom. On the eve of the volume’s release, I chatted with Nasty Gal’s head honcho and asked her all about her company’s small-time beginnings (which involved flipping vintage Chanel jackets for incredible profits), how she harnessed the power of Instagram to grow her following and the best thing about being a #GIRLBOSS. Read on!
Lucky: You famously started your business on eBay. What made you initially decide to set up shop online?
Sophia Amoruso: I was working at the lobby of an art school in San Francisco, checking student IDs for $12/hour, which I thought was a lot of money at the time. I had plenty of time to blow, and I was on Myspace getting friend requests from eBay sellers who were selling their vintage clothing and marketing their businesses on Myspace. Their auctions were going crazy. I thought, “Hey, I could do that!” I wore entirely vintage at the time, and I knew where to find it and that if I did a good job, I could make a bit of money. So I quit that job, bought an eBay for Dummies book and figured out how to launch my first auction and how to do graphic design to make a funny logo (which we’ve since evolved past). I did all the photography, all of the styling, the buying, the shipping, and I took great care in everything that I did. If something didn’t work, I didn’t do it again—I just made it better and better every day.
Once I found two Chanel jackets in the same shopping cart; I paid $8 for each of those and listed them at a starting bid of $9.99. They eventually sold for over $1,500. I didn’t know what a gross margin was back then, but I did know I was on to something.
Why the name "Nasty Gal?"
The name was inspired by the song and album “Nasty Gal” by Betty Davis, the patron saint of badass women. She was an ex-runway model who was super-stylish and outspoken; she wore lingerie onstage with thigh-high boots. She was married to Miles Davis for a while. To me, a Nasty Gal is an ambitious and confident young woman, comfortable with her body, and a fashion risk-taker who doesn’t really care what other people think. She had a lyric like, “If you don’t like me, I don’t care.” That pretty much says it all.
Back in those early days, what were some of your biggest obstacles?
I had to be an expert at all aspects of the business— from selecting the pieces to getting the item to the customer’s home. To be a successful online business, you also need to be an expert on fulfillment and logistics, production, global, sourcing—and of course, design. When I first started the business, I had do all of these things by myself. Now I have a great team with everything under one roof. There are still challenges, but it’s a lot easier to be good at all the facets of the business when you’re surrounded by experts.
What made you decide to leave eBay and set up your own site?
I outgrew eBay. I wanted more control and flexibility over my brand, and how I marketed my designs. The thumbnails on eBay are the only real estate you have on that website to get people’s attention. That’s not a lot, and I knew I could do better if I was doing it my way. It turned out to be the best decision career-wise. I guess you could say it was very #GIRLBOSS of me.
Tell us a bit about the role social media has played in your expansion.
Put it this way: Thanks to my Instagram followes, I have access to the best focus group any time I need one. I can ask them anything and they will be truly honest, which is invaluable. They want to participate and be a part of the decision-making for the brand. Basically, my engaged social media followers are the people that I want to work for my brand. There’s no greater compliment than having a brand people care about so much that they aspire to be a part of it. That’s one of the reasons I wrote this book. Practically every girl on my Instagram is begging for a job, and I wish I could hire them all. The best I can do is tell them how to get a job or create their own business, to tell them the kind of person that I’d like to hire. Maybe they can be a great employee or start something awesome on their own and be a great boss for themselves.
A lot of people in the industry are now arguing that social media is taking away from the magic of fashion as it once was. What are your thoughts on that?
Social media enhances fashion the way it enhances just about every other aspect of life. There’s this incredible community (you might call it market research) at our fingertips if we’re smart about it. But it’s important to know you also have to give a lot in return. Engage. Converse. Show your personality. I want to be able to dress a girl in every part of her life. To do that, I have to get to know her and social media makes that a lot easier.
What’s one piece of advice you wish you could’ve given your circa-2006 self?
I would say to myself, "Stay on your path and keep following your instincts." I would be very happy that I survived and that the #GIRLBOSS in me survived, because I was very close to exterminating myself with all the stupid things that I was doing. I would say, "Trust that you will emerge stronger and more informed with an understanding of the world that you don’t have now—you just need to learn a few lessons along the way."
What’s the best thing about being a boss? How about the most challenging?
The best part is surrounding yourself with really bright people all working toward the same goal, and watching your idea grow into many ideas. When you get to be a large company, you have to stay true to who you are and stay connected to the essence of your brand. You don’t want to be stuck in meetings most of the time. You want to have time to be creative and forward-thinking and be looking up and out. You need time to nurture all the facets of a business, and that can be challenging. When you have a team of 300 kickass people, things run more systemically, and you learn from all the smart people you hire. When we first started out and had four employees, if someone called in sick, that meant 25 percent of the workforce would be down. So, bigger can be better in many ways.
How does Nasty Gal’s target shopper today compare to your target customer back in the mid-aughts, when you first got started? Is she essentially the same, or has she evolved?
Many of the girls that were with us in the beginning are still shopping with us today. While their taste and style may have changed, they still retain an affection for the spirit and personality of the brand. She’s the same Nasty Gal at heart. Now, there’s so much more to choose from on the site so I’d say we’ve really evolved together. Nasty Gal is as much about a style as it is about the spirit. The spirit of Nasty Gal is not one that can possibly be outdated. I am never going to grow up in the sense that I lose my sense of humor or my desire to try new things or to take risks. I don’t think I will ever be a wallflower, so Nasty Gal is more of a spirit that guides everything we do.
You recently announced plans to launch a brick-and-mortar Nasty Gal store in L.A. Why Los Angeles? What made you decide to go beyond online retail?
We decided first on L.A. because L.A. is a part of our brand’s culture. I’ve always seen Nasty Gal as a brand that embodies a New York edge with a West Coast vibe, and being headquartered downtown works well for that balance. We want our customers to be able to try the clothes on and feel the quality of what we’re making and come in and shop with their friends. In the past, we’ve had good success with pop-up shops, and so this gives another way to deepen our connection with customers.
What’s next for Nasty Gal? Where would you like your company to be in, say, five years?
We’ll launch more categories and offer more pieces that we think our girls will be really excited about. Plus we have our L.A. brick-and-mortar store location on the horizon. In five years, I see us as being more of an international brand with an amazing online experience that keeps evolving. Ultimately, I want us to have a great company culture and move towards being a billion-dollar business.
#GIRLBOSS hits stores tomorrow, May 6. Order your copy now at NastyGal.com!