When I first discovered Modern Citizen, a minimalist e-commerce platform, I was struck by how well priced its curation of elegant basics was. How have I never heard of this site before? I wondered, almost annoyed—as if everyone had been keeping a secret from me. But it turns out the secret was all mine—having been around for only a year, the site was news to many. Judging from the reactions of those I introduced it to, that won’t be the case for long.
I was determined to find out who was behind this genius venture, and quickly discovered that it was Jess Lee, an alum of Gap Inc. where she worked on strategy and business development for their e-commerce division. While there, she covered not just Gap.com, but the websites for Banana Republic, Piperlime and Athleta—not exactly small potatoes. Obviously this was a woman who knew a thing or two about retail, so I jumped at the opportunity to pick her brain further about the modern woman’s relationship to shopping and how she hopes to make it easier on us with her new site. Despite the fact that she’s getting married this weekend, she dropped everything to fill me in.
Scroll down to find out how Emma Watson helps inspire the site and why the Modern Citizen team is currently women-only!
Can you tell me a bit about what inspired you to launch Modern Citizen in the first place?
Before starting the site I had worked for Gap Inc. as part of the strategy and business development group in the e-commerce division. My main focus was competitive analysis, which meant maintaining a pulse on the other women’s businesses in the online space. This was in 2010, and two sites that really stood out to me in terms of their size and impact on customers were ModCloth and Nasty Gal (both borne entirely online with very specific aesthetics and a great sense of their customers lifestyles). I found that concept of creating an online community to be really inspiring. It also made me realise that that sort of business didn’t yet exist for women whose aesthetic was different than theirs—more similar to my own and my peers.
How would you describe that aesthetic?
Well the name Modern Citizen is actually a really good way to look at it. Our customer is a woman who’s really ambitious, probably a white-collar professional leading a really busy life, and her aesthetic tends to be more polished. She’s thinking a lot about dressing for work and wearing things that are really versatile. She’s educated, really interested in the world, and travels a lot—which is how the name came about.
Is there a woman in Hollywood who you look to to inspire the company overall?
Yes, totally. I think the girl that our entire team thinks of is Emma Watson. What’s interesting about her—just based off of what I’ve read about her in the media—is that she’s very well-educated and she cares about issues that have a lot of meaning to women specifically, which is part of our conversation too. “By women, for women” is definitely the internal mantra of our company. It’s a quality and characteristic that we think our customer really admires—women helping other women—and that happens to be one of her biggest causes.
On top of that, she has great taste. She might work with a stylist for the red carpet, I’m not sure, but even so, she seems to have a very consistent aesthetic herself. It’s polished and refined but still fashion-forward—it’s not boring.
She’s fairly young (25), so I’m curious as to whether or not you envision an age range for the Modern Citizen customer?
Absolutely. I think she’s our entry-level age, but because her cause [transcends] her age it still translates really well with the rest of our customers. I’m 29 and our customer base is largely in their late twenties/early thirties so I would say that’s where we’re most focused, which is unique for a fast-fashion brand, as they tend to focus on the early twenties. There are so many women I could name that we look to for inspiration, but she’s definitely the girl that our younger customers admire.
I’ve heard that you’re a women-only team right now. Was that a conscious decision on your part or did it just happen that way?
I think it was honestly a bit of both. On the one hand, it’s important for us that women are in more positions of leadership [than they have been in the past]. My co-founder Lizzie Agnew and I were really keen on that because we’ve both worked in retail for years and, while there are definitely a lot of women dominating jobs [in that space], they aren’t dominating the leadership positions, especially in more corporate environments. You’ll see women at the VP level or the director level, for sure, but it’s more rare to find them in the C-suite.
We don’t say “we’ll never hire men,” but I do think that women have more empathy for other women, especially when it comes to design. We’re offering a product and a service to women so having female leadership is something we’re committed to because they can probably serve our customers in the best way.
Right now the site has a very tightly curated selection, do you plan to keep it that way?
Well the answer is twofold. Part of the reason it’s so curated is because our customer gets inundated with choice all the time and we want to make the shopping experience easier for her to navigate. If we’re going to introduce a specific trend or silhouette, we don’t need to give her 70 million versions of it—she does not want to scroll through hundreds of pages to find what she’s looking for. So whenever we deliver new arrivals (every 3—5 weeks), we want to make sure it’s the best 30-50 products we can give her so that she’s less overwhelmed.
But, over time, we want to expand the part of the site that’s not our own brand, so that we can introduce her to more emerging brands or brands that have less distribution. We’re basically looking for brands that are not on Shopbop, because we’re not competing in that contemporary price point, we’re looking for brands that retail under $200 because we think that’s a segment of the market that’s more underserved. You know it’s really easy to buy great clothes if you’re spending $600—you can just walk into Barneys and buy everything if that’s something that’s easy for you, but it’s certainly not accessible to me or my team, so our goal is to make sure we’re giving her a variety of brands that meet the same criteria as our own product: accessible price point, great quality, and [inherent] value.
For the women who can’t just walk into Barneys and buy a million things, are there any items that you would tell them to spend a bit more money on?
I personally invest in things when they’re on sale. I’m that Net-a-Porter customer who’s like stalking their bi-annual sales, because I think they do such an amazing job of curating trends. On top of that, I definitely spend more for special occasions—if you’re looking for a dress that you want to feel special in and you find the exact one you want, then I think it’s worth the extra money.
But I think when it comes to general shopping, the best tip I can give is that tailoring can make such a huge difference in how expensive your clothes look—if clothes are ill-fitting, no matter how expensive they are, they’ll look cheap. So just being aware of when a small tweak is necessary helps—even if the piece itself wasn’t very pricey. That extra five minutes, and five dollars, will give you a lot more wear out of your clothes.
So you’re 29 now and seem to have a very clear aesthetic. I’m curious as to when you think your style really hit its stride?
I think it honestly happened when I hit my late twenties—like 27/28. At that stage, you have more disposable income to invest in clothes that are more than just a $20 top. I mean, once I hit 25 I just stopped shopping at the super fast-fashion stores because both the in-store and online experiences are so overwhelming. The older you get, the less time you have to really spend on shopping—you want to spend that time where it’s most valuable: at work and with your family and friends. That forces you to edit and narrow down the places you go to and the sites you visit, which is one reason why we ourselves are so curated—it shouldn’t have to be this 3-hour process. We had a focus group last month where one of our customers joked that for certain sites she literally has to have a glass of wine first just to brace herself for the shopping experience [laughs].
It’s fascinating though because our oldest customer—that we know of from e-mailing with her—is 78, and she’s bought a bunch of the things that I’ve bought myself. I just think it’s so cool because it showcases the longevity and the timelessness of what we’re offering.
Comfort became so important to me, too, when I hit my late twenties—I just didn’t want to feel awkward [anymore], I think it takes away from your ability to be confident, not just in how you look, but in what you’re saying and doing. So we actually test all of the product ourselves to make sure it’s something we feel comfortable in and that will allow the best parts of a person to shine.
Is there any advice that you would give young entrepreneurs trying to get their own fashion business off the ground?
Well, quite frankly, fashion is one of the hardest businesses to be successful in—it’s just so competitive and fragmented. We’re still obviously very early in our journey, so I wouldn’t call us a success story yet—we’re still burgeoning. But what has helped us so much to get to where we are after only a year is just hustling: everybody being willing to put the actual work in. Fashion, as you know, is not really a glamorous business at all—there’s so much hard work that goes into it.
The reason we admire businesses like ModCloth and Nasty Gal so much is because they didn’t have venture capital funding in year one to just help them create a brand over night—their businesses were built brick by brick, customer by customer. You can tell that they made such a deep connection with their customers, and that’s why they’re so successful. At the end of the day, how the brand looks on the outside is not the most important part—the customer relationship is.
What do you envision for the future of Modern Citizen?
We believe Modern Citizen can be the next Nasty Gal—so, a big business, but one that focuses on a very specific customer and has a lot of impact on women overall. We’ve also been omnichannel from day one, which means that along with our e-commerce platform, we sell through other channels like these in-office pop-up shops we’ve been doing called Desk to Dinner. We go to companies and create little stores in their offices so that people can shop throughout the day—I mean a lot of girls I know are shopping online at their desks anyways [laughs] so this allows them to actually try things on and not have to deal with tons of returns. Since we’re based in San Francisco, we’ve been going to Facebook, Sephora, One Kings Lane, Twitter, etc., but we do think it can be a much larger program.
Related to that, we have a personal styling program for our VIPs, where people can send in requests and, based off of what they’ve previously purchased, we send them five free items to try on at home, and then they can pay for what they want and send back the rest. I feel very strongly that e-commerce is still a one size fits all experience—most people are getting the same experience on these sites, regardless of who they are—and I think that should change over time, where shopping is oriented around the individual and not solely the brand message. We want to be able to tailor our point-of-view to what works for the customer, and personal styling is a real-world way for us to test that, but there’s still a lot of technology we can implement to make it more seamless.