Dress on sale at Gilt Groupe

While the fashion world is abuzz with the impending launch of Victoria Beckham’s e-commerce fashion site, MBA graduates are also scaling up their involvement in this type of online venture. In some cases, they consider themselves to be among the first there.

“When we started there were not a lot of female founded [online] consumer retail companies,” says Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, co-founder of Gilt Groupe, an online shopping site that currently has more than 7m members.

Together with her Harvard MBA classmate, Alexis Maybank, Ms Wilkis Wilson launched Gilt in November 2007, initially focusing on women’s clothing. In 2009, the pair expanded into Japan, believing they had first mover advantage. The country’s outlet businesses were booming and the Japanese consumer was already very tech-savvy so they built a free-standing website tailored to the Japanese consumer and dedicated time to meeting distributors and making sure infrastructures were correctly in place.

Today, the company is active in 100 countries and offers a range of goods, including men’s fashion and discounted travel.

Fold dress
Model wearing The Fold Bond Dress in black leather

Other MBA partners who have since joined the e-commerce fashion industry include The Fold and Quincy Apparel. The former was set up in January 2011 by Cheryl Mainland and Polly McMaster, graduates of London Business School, who bonded after finding themselves the only two women in their study group. Quincy Apparel was launched in September 2012 by Harvard graduates, Alex Nelson and Christina Wallace.

Both these companies specialise in professional clothing for women; providing affordable, appropriate and stylish designs to combat frustrations with existing work outfits.

“Cheryl and I really loved fashion but found it [difficult] dressing for work – it felt really stodgy,” says Ms McMaster, who worked in finance after studying for a PhD in molecular biology at Cambridge University, while Ms Mainland worked for Procter and Gamble after graduating from Harvard University. “Men’s suits have made history for years but women’s suits have always been an afterthought.”

Ms Nelson and Ms Wallace, who both come from consulting backgrounds, agree. “We had to get dressed for consulting roles every day and hated what we were wearing,” says Ms Nelson, emphasising how unaffordable they found tailored outfits to be.

After doing market research to ensure other businesswomen felt the same, both partners took the plunge to set up their businesses, hiring in-house designers to create collections that could be worn for any professional occasion. Prices at The Fold range from $400 - $600, while prices at Quincy start at $128. The Harvard duo have also used algorithms to invent new sizing standards and tailor clothing for customers.

As MBA students, Ms Mainland and Ms McMaster made use of their classes to write their business plan. They also enrolled onto the school’s entrepreneurship summer school, which allowed them to road test their ideas, meet customers outside the classroom and present to investors ‘dragons-den style.’

“We were really thrown in the deep end,” says Ms McMaster. The business school network was a great source of support to them during this time however, as well as mentors from Gieves & Hawkes, the men’s tailoring company, and the London College of Fashion. The pair went on to graduate in the top 10 per cent of their class. “You feel this momentum behind you [which creates] a strong community you use for the rest of your life,” says Ms McMaster.

Ms Nelson and Ms Wallace equally value their business school experience, saying it gave them the confidence and knowledge to believe in themselves and put ideas into action. They also appreciate the progress already made by the likes of Gilt. “There now seems to be a path to follow,” says Ms Wallace.

Like Gilt, both The Fold and Quincy have focused on establishing strong membership bases. Hosting pop-up events throughout the year, Ms Mainland and Ms McMaster invite women to try on their designs while networking.

At Quincy, women are invited to a New York showroom. The founders have also worked closely with MBA Moms, a US social network, and participated in women’s events at Harvard. They believe the next generation of business school students are a key market. “We want to teach [them] how to get a polished appearance and step forward in their careers,” says Ms Wallace.

This philosophy resonates with The Fold founders: “As a businesswoman, it is important to look a certain way - it makes a difference,” says Ms Mainland. “You are going to stand out because you are a woman, [so] might as well do it on the best foot.”

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