Self-expression is the crux of individuality, and in this city, in this day and age, when everyone's looking for a way to set themselves apart, individuality is often the root of success. Perched on the 4th floor of an East Village office building, sitting in a glass-cased conference room, looking out onto Cooper Square, I begin to understand what Justin Stefano, 32, and Philippe von Borries, 33, best friends and co-founders of Refinery29, had discerned long before anyone else: It was early in their careers, early in the New York tech movement, when they'd recognized the importance of independent designers and boutiques in the modern era.
Now, through Refinery29, their rapidly growing fashion and design startup, they're exposing fashion-forward independents to an insatiable audience of readers and consumers seeking to define their style. Make it your own. That's the most important thing, says von Borries, describing the ethos of Refinery29 and the changing role of fashion industry brands. [Our company] is all about empowering personal style.
In the process of doing that the pair also became part of the changing of the guard, the democratization of fashion as von Borries describes it. Refinery29, through its various arms, sought to shed light on that radical shift. The company became an entire fashion ecosystem--something that had never been done before. Over its five-year lifespan, the brand would highlight the changing relationship between designers and consumers.
The company's rise to fashion-industry prominence started in the summer of 2006, when Stefano and von Borries first made a commitment to building an internet company, long before venture-capital money was being pumped into the New York startup scene, long before a New York startup scene even existed. At that time, it was just two friends with a shared vision. Von Borries, transplanted from Germany, had a background in digital media. Stefano, a native New Yorker, had experience in law. The two had met in boarding school, all the way back in 1996, and they remained friends ever since.
They were in their late 20s, and had just reunited in New York City. That's when they decided to build something they felt was missing in the digital domain. Stefano and von Borreis honed in on the desire for self-expression and its growing importance in the fashion universe, while the shift was still taking place on the street-level of New York. When they'd started Refinery29, it was just a city guide, more of a map and listings site than a full-fledged online fashion ecosystem. At the time, they were going door-to-door, snapping photographs of beautiful clothing and products to help readers understand the growing number of independent designers.
Readers loved it, and the two entrepreneurs began to build editorial content around the merchandise they'd been highlighting. Later, the company added a commerce component and became an entire online universe dedicated to fashion and design. Refinery29 would become a discovery tool and commerce tool. It not only helps readers find all the best new merchandise, but it also gives the best independent designers exposure. We were always about discovery, says Stefano. At the time, few companies were really doing that. We were just focused on helping people find incredible things.
Von Borries agrees and adds to that thought: We're reaching out to the consumer that's creative, that cares about self-expression, he says. They don't want something that's cookie-cutter. We want to show them a product and [allow them to] to make it their own.
The value of self-expression complemented New York City's insatiable hunger for something new and unique. I think it would have been impossible to start this business anywhere else, says Stefano, noting the density of independent retailers and creative people they've been able to collaborate with in the city.
Over time, they've been able to translate the New York City success elsewhere. Refinery29 has grown to six other markets and hopes to branch out overseas in the near future. The swift growth has been an enjoyable ride for both men, but they're quick to dismiss the ease of building a prominent fashion brand. Our growth didn't happen over night, says von Borries. The hardest thing is to build an audience. It's getting people to come to you every day, to trust you, to spend time on something you put out there. It's incredibly difficult, and it doesn't happen overnight.
What wasn't overnight was how long it took for the New York startup scene to emerge. Not only was Refinery29 paving the way for forward fashion and design companies, it was also paving the way for New York startups. We've seen companies come and go. In 2005, none of this was happening, says von Borries, referring to the recent influx of startup companies in New York. There was nothing around. We totally bootstrapped our company until very recently. We have a firm understanding of what it takes to take a company from point A to point B.
While the online fashion market is now dense with competition, Stefano and von Borries have stayed ahead by putting their emphasis of developing a long-term, unique approach to fashion, and to a company style. What makes us really excited is building a great brand, says von Borries, one with true longevity. He envisions Refinery29 products that consumers desire, because they appreciate our point of view, which is all about access, curation and personal style service. It's not about creating a company with the sole intention of just flipping it.
Adds Stefano, It's a pretty amazing feeling, taking something from dust and making it into something that's concrete.