Two weeks ago, self-appointed “Girl Boss” Sophia Amoruso surprised retail industry hawks when she left her CEO post at Nasty Gal, the e-commerce company she founded in 2006.
Amoruso’s abdication of her self-built throne was all the more surprising because Amoruso made herself a household name when she authored the leadership tome #GirlBoss. (It’s a bit like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, but with a Barbie pink cover and millennial-flavored prose.)
I’ve never bought anything from NastyGal — and you’ll see why later — but I still read #GirlBoss in its entirety during a flight to Madrid last year. As I read the book, I was enchanted with her rags-to-riches story.
Here’s the nutshell version: After a half-hearted career in shoplifting, Amoruso began flipping and re-selling vintage clothes on eBay. Amoruso discovered she could command higher premiums if she styled the secondhand clothes with fresh accessories on hip, young models. Suddenly, a cult following was born, sparking frantic eBay in-fighting and bidding wars. Some items would go for $500 or more. (Did I mentioned these items were non-designer?)
In 2008, Amoruso left eBay to create her own e-commerce shop, which quickly mushroomed into a $10M business. After a $40M Series B round, Nasty Gal seemed poised to take over the world. But with huge growth comes the inevitable threat of a potential downfall. After Amoruso’s abrupt announcement, I did some research.
Turns out, things aren’t as rosy as the book cover. Let’s look at some key indicators:
NastyGal corporate is in turmoil. Last year, the company’s meteoric growth flattened and 10% of its employees were laid off. I took a look at the company’s Glassdoor employee reviews — and it clocked in at a miserable 2.2 stars (out of 5). Compare that to 3.8 at Zappos and 3.4 at Amazon. Here’s a sample review:
NastyGal’s suppliers continuously pump out egregious fakes. Nasty Gal has long stopped selling vintage clothes exclusively. Nowadays, the company focuses on new merchandise. But while Amoruso was fantastic at curating vintage treasures, her company has a lot to learn about carving its own identity in a competitive market. The Fashion Law blog has repeatedly caught Nasty Gal selling blatant designer copies, like these Celine earring knockoffs:
To be fair, mega-retailers like Zara sell copies all the time — but unlike Zara, NastyGal’s “brand story” isn’t about fast fashion; the brand bills itself as a bastion of iconoclasm and originality.
My temper flared when I learned Nasty Gal shows no sign of policing its pirating suppliers or in-house designers. Pilfered products include a Sophia Webster handbag and a seemingly innocuous charm bracelet. (When the bracelet’s original designer confronted Amoruso on Instagram, Amoruso called the designer a “single mom of an Etsy scrapbooker” and declared that being copied “was a rite of passage.” Uhhh, YIKES.)
But nothing prepared me for this last bombshell.
Amoruso has a skeleton in her eBay closet. When I was researching this post, I stumbled upon some VERY angry Nasty Gal observers who felt that shoppers had been hoodwinked by Amoruso. Back in her eBay days, Amoruso was embroiled in a scandal I’ll call FlapperGate. It all started with this purple “vintage” dress.
The dress was advertised as rare and vintage and sold for hundreds of dollars. The problem? Some intrepid eBay users discovered that the dress was actually a $30 flapper Halloween costume — AND that Amoruso had purchased several identical dresses from a manufacturer in China.
It gets worse.
According to the GOMI forums: “[Amoruso] contacted the next couple of people who bid on the dress but didn’t win it. She tells them, ‘The winning bidder never paid, so I’m giving you the chance to buy it for your highest bid.’ And BOOM, she sells like, 3 of them on one listing and makes almost a grand in sales. And the buyers have no idea.”
Misrepresenting your product AND lying direct to your customers? That’s a retailer’s Pearl Harbor.
Look, I’m not expecting CEOs to be angels. Creative geniuses can be unpredictable, and they take no prisoners. Steve Jobs was a famously difficult boss, for example — but he never sold a mousetrap with earphones and called it an iPod.
I will give Amoruso credit for her talents — back in the mid-aughts, the woman sniffed out some great vintage pieces AND styled them beautifully. But when you compound FlapperGate with employees’ unhappiness AND an immature approach to design piracy, it seems that Amoruso’s resignation couldn’t come soon enough.
You tell me: What type of behavior do you expect from your fashion CEOs? I’d love to hear your thoughts.