Everlane: Cult or commerce?

Their undying mission, shared with anyone willing to listen, is to “Change the world.” They promote rigid, hive-minded groupthink. They push blind optimism and dabble dangerously in doublespeak. They recruit young, since older recruits tend to be harder (and pricier) to convert. Behind closed doors, they render swift, draconian penalties to those who veer from the party line. Yes, their approach to the world can be downright Orwellian. And goodness, do they know how generate revenues.

In a recent tell-all about spammy marketing startup, Hubspot, veteran tech writer and former Hubspot employee, Dan Lyons, observed in his book, Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Startup Bubble, a common, disturbing trait among many Silicon Valley-backed operations: Internally they tend to behave like cults. Doing so serves as a way to dress up a practice or product that, stripped of its altruistic cloak, might ultimately be dull at best, perhaps even unsavory at its worst. This is a technique not unfamiliar to the modern luxury space, and in a report at the Business of Fashion, it is clear that Everlane, for one, has gleefully gulped a cup of its own Kool-Aid.

Founder Michael Preysman sounds absolutely convinced that customers flock to the company because of its golden gospel. The brand’s “radical” form of transparency, he says, where all is bared, pricing markups and profit margins included, is what keeps people coming back — not, simply, because Everlane churns out well-designed, affordable, and practical basics that tap into the minimalist look of the moment. No — that certainly would not be exciting, let alone inspirational. To wit: “I think there’s much more to Everlane than just product — it’s a mission,” he pontificates to BoF, in, one would assume, a straight face, before getting to the main thrust of it: “I think there’s a spiritual lifestyle alignment that people have with what we’re doing, which makes the product in someway much more relevant to their lives than just a basic t-shirt.”

Once you venture beyond Everlane’s product, once you start to listen more carefully to what it has to say and observe how the brand behaves — its no-shoes policy for its popups, for example, causes some consternation — Everlane can come off as preachy, overly zealous, a little icky, in the way that, say, Jim Jones would have. But while there’s no hiding this publication’s tickled-pink amusement with Everlane’s silly evangelism, far be it for Lean Luxe to deny that Mr. Preysman’s company is one of the smartest modern luxury operations out there. As the conversation between him and BoF reporter, Vikram Alexei Kansara, makes clear, this is a business that is intensely methodical, and, despite its obvious flaws, deeply thoughtful and deliberate on several fronts.

“I think there’s a spiritual lifestyle alignment that people have with what we’re doing, which makes the product in someway much more relevant to their lives than just a basic t-shirt.”

First, and likely most well-known, is Everlane’s policy of avoiding seasonal collections. Products are released individually, on something of an “as-needed” basis, and only after careful consideration, testing, and development. This level of purposeful execution will always win a nod of approval here at Lean Luxe, and Mr. Preysman’s thinking behind it is made quite clear at BoF:

“Everlane really started with this idea that if you had a blank slate, how would you do it? Our blank slate was ‘Why don’t we create that t-shirt at an affordable price point?’ Well, if we want to do that, we can’t have an entire selection, we really need to focus on a t-shirt and do that well. Plus, we need volume, because we’re a small brand, so we need to just do one thing and have volume against that, instead of being spread across 20 things. So we started with a t-shirt and then we were like, ‘Okay, the t-shirt is working, why don’t we add another product?’ And, so, out of that was born this idea of not doing collections, not being fashion focused, but really trying to create the best products possible, one at a time.”

Second, Mr. Preysman has grand plans to build a large and lasting business that solves a specific problem as each new product is released. He also understands the power of a properly assembled team. Product comes first at Everlane, but there are some areas, particularly in design, where Mr. Preysman admits he is lacking. To offset his limitations, he installed someone who could give life to his vision, former Gap Creative Director, Rebecca Bay, who brings design expertise and a skill set that complements his own:

“You know, I’m a bit of a fashion industry outsider. I love product, but I’m not a designer. And in a lot of ways, the brand was a couple of steps ahead of the product. We had our core tenets, but we weren’t really able to manifest them from a design perspective, so bringing in Rebekka was about bringing the product up to speed with the brand and aligning the ethos and the aesthetic together as one.

She’s very much aligned with the way we think about things from a quality and fit perspective. It’s this idea of definitive pieces that you’re going to keep for a long time and, then, once in awhile, you throw in fashion elements — we call it the fun moments in your wardrobe. Things that add spark to your life. I think that’s really important. So, of course, we have basics, but we also have just nice beautiful things. Just nice beautiful things are really an important part of life. So we’re sort of complementing our basics with a bit of that. Rebekka has brought that to Everlane.”

Lastly, it is clear that Mr. Preysman knows what Everlane is not. Currently it is not ready to open multiple permanent brick-and-mortar locations, as its web-based peers, Warby Parker, Bonobos, and Kit and Ace have all done. Everlane, said Mr. Preysman, is centered on developing product; it is not (yet) in the business of building out a dedicated retail network across the United States. “Is there a store in the future?” he asked rhetorically at the time. “Not at this time, no. We spend a lot more time thinking about new product categories than distribution, because, to date, that has been the way Everlane has built itself.” He has since loosened his grip in that regard. But even with Everlane opening its first dedicated location in San Francisco in August 2016, it would appear that this logic is still firmly in play.

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