Growing up in the greater LA area and working later as a television reporter in New York City, Ellie Williams prided herself on her sense of style and ability to find the kind of clothes she both loved and needed for her professional life.
Then, a few years back, she went to work at a smaller market TV station in Eugene, Oregon, a city with far fewer clothes-shopping options.
“The only place in town that sold real designer’s clothes was Ashley Jude’s small shop,” recalls Williams. “It was a little slice of the big city in Eugene.”
But in 2008, as the economy deteriorated, Jude told Williams she could no longer afford the overhead of keeping her shop open and was going to have to shut it down.
Hold on, because that’s hardly the end of this story.
Jude assured Williams and her other top clients that she would continue to acquire and send them the latest styles through the mail.
“After trying this for three months I decided it was even better than visiting her store,” says Williams. “Late in 2009 my husband and I decided to invest in her company, and I joined with her as a business partner and co-founder in 2010.”
Meet Tog+Porter, the online company that brings you the luxury of a personal stylist for free, and ships you a box of stylish clothes that fits your taste and budget.
“I started Tog + Porter to solve the problem that so many women face every day: We all want to look impeccably stylish, but at the end of the day just don’t have time nor the patience to shop for clothes,” Jude explains on her website.
The company consists of Jude, Williams (now based in San Francisco) and four stylists, who provide a free consultation via video conferencing to get to know more about your lifestyle, tastes, current wardrobe and budget.
Then, the stylist puts together a box filled with a range of options and sends it to your address. There is a flat shipping fee of $10 per box, which includes a prepaid return-shipping label.
You buy the clothes you like and ship the rest back. The prices are competitive with what you’d pay at a boutique because Tog+Porter buys wholesale directly from some 300 designers, most based on Jude’s relationships and those of Williams’ father, who’s a 30-year veteran of the apparel industry.
“Personal style is so individualized,” notes Williams. “It runs the gamut from classic to quirky, extra edgy, hand crafted, professional…Our rock star stylists can find the right clothes for you.”
Jude and Williams initially thought their target demographic would be young women right out of college, but it turns out most of their customers are older.
One of the surprise groups is new Moms.
“They are a big group for us, and when you think about it, it makes sense,” says Williams. “First they need maternity clothes that only work for a few months, then many of them stay at home for up to two or more years. They gain a lot of weight and then want to lose it so they constantly need to find new clothes.
“They can feel lost when they start going out again. Some deal with post-partum depression also. Overall, helping new Moms is one of the most rewarding things we do. They tell us, ‘I rediscovered that piece of me I thought I'd lost.' “
Another important clientele is women aged 45+, who want to dress stylishly.
The other big group is young professionals in their late 20s and 30s.
“We try to help you rethink your style,” says Williams. “Before talking to us, clients often are attracted to the lowest price. They buy at a discount and then wear it once. Say a shirt costs $30 and you wear it only once – that costs you $30 per wear. But if you buy one for $100 that you wear ten times – that costs only $10 per wear.
“Hyper-promoted bargains and flash sales can confuse shoppers – they see a brand name at a low price. But usually there’s a reason these slow sellers are discounted so much.”
Tog+Porter says it has an 80 percent retention rate among its clients, and is signing up new clients at a 300 percent increase on a quarterly basis.
“We try to teach customers to shop smarter,” says Williams. “And to be versatile, so they can dress up and dress down with the same outfits.
“It sounds indulgent to have a stylist but it actually saves them money. The average woman has only one hour of downtime per day. Even online shopping takes more time than working with us. Plus our costs are reasonable. We have the skill set to help you become a smarter shopper.”
Although Tog+Porter only caters to women at present, that could change in the future. The company is bootstrapped, and among its designers are a number of San Franciscans, particularly indie jewelry designers.