How Two Men Who Knew Nothing About Fashion Have Altered Its Online Landscape

PSFK chats with the co-founder of Refinery29, Philippe Von Borries, about how two men started the one of the biggest trends in the world of women’s fashion.

If you’ve been following fashion or retail over the last five years, chances are you too have been converted to the cult of Refinery29. Part traditional editorial site, part interactive blogging community, mixed together with a healthy dose of  e-commerce, R29 has set an incomparable (and utterly addictive) template for what to watch in contemporary high and street fashion. Since its creation in 2006, it has become beloved by style enthusiasts across the globe, so it came as a surprise to us when we learned that the masterminds behind R29 (one of the most prominent drivers behind women’s fashion and trendspotting), are not only not women but never worked in the fashion industry prior to launching the site.

Steering the ship from port is Justin Stefano and Philippe Von Borries, two entrepreneurial friends involved in the finance field who saw a growing market, and decided to use their business skills to create one of the most successful sites on the web. A testament to its unique appeal and ethos, in the years since its creation there has yet to be rival start-up with the same forceful mixture of buzz and industry popularity to be a true competitor. Part of this knowledge of the online fashion world came through Philippe and Justin’s smart editorial choices for the masthead, and later letting their writers guide the tone of the site rather than steering it themselves in an inorganic attempt to lure prospective advertisers.

The result is a unique gathering of voices, which one day could be showing you how to apply the perfect smokey eye, and the next on how to land your dream job. Out of our own genuine curiosity, we sat down with Philippe to ask him a little bit about how the site was conceived:

What made both of you decide you wanted to start Refinery29?

When we first launched R29, the idea was to curate the most amazing independent boutiques in cities like New York, LA and London into one easily searchable and accessible destination where consumers could not only discover but also shop the world’s very best stores, brands and designers.

For those very same brands, Refinery29 has been a platform since the very beginning to market themselves to a huge and qualified audience of passionate consumers.

How did you figure out who it would appeal to, and what the focus should be on?

In many ways Refinery29’s launch coincided with the emergence of many new faces in fashion: indie designers, boutiques that would become globally known, bloggers, etc and Refinery29 early on became the go-to destination to find out who was at the cutting edge of fashion. This new trend in fashion also very much originated in New York which allowed Refinery29 to channel emerging fashion in a totally new way.

Back then, our focus was extremely niche (buyers from every major department store would follow R29), and it served us well in establishing huge credibility and authenticity with a core group of early adopters. As with any start-up, your focus is malleable to a degree and we became firmly a fashion site when we saw the greatest feedback from fashion trendsetters.

How do you think that focus has changed over time?

I think one of the critical pieces of our success has been the fact that our focus is still very much where it was early on:

1) Building a destination to search and discover the best fashion trends, stores, designers and products. In the simplest terms, to entertain and to curate.

2) Servicing brands in meaningful ways that would also appeal to our readers. Clearly as we have grown our content has become broader. Early on, R29 was very industry-focused. Today, our reader base has expanded tremendously and we are covering categories–like beauty–that we didn’t before.

Refinery can boat many recent additions (Reserve, multiple city editions, etc.). Was the plan all along to broaden the reach, or did it happen organically?

Local and e-commerce have always been critical components of our DNA. We are expanding both areas through new product launches in 2012, and we see local and commerce remaining very important.

On the local side, we have always considered our place in the community as very organic, and being local allows us to connect to our readers (as well as with local designers, stores and brands) in a much more meaningful way. On the commerce side, we have always believed that content and commerce belong together. Users come to R29 to be entertained, inspired and to shop and as such offering opportunities to discover and shop amazing curated things is firmly part of who we are.

Would you like to see Refinery move more towards retail and discovering new trends, or is the focus these days more on editorial content?

We are undisputedly a fashion media brand. Our heartbeat is amazing content. That’s what has always allowed us to grow and build such a loyal fanbase. Our focus is solidly on continuing the evolution of R29 as a media brand. However, the future of digital fashion and publishing sees the convergence of content and commerce grow stronger by the day and R29 is going to play a leading role here.

What are some of the more interesting trends you’ve been seeing develop in the fashion website/blog world, seeing as how Refinery29 was one of the major pioneers of the movement?

We’ve been at this for quite some time. Having launched in 2006, we’ve seen many media and digital fashion and shopping trends emerge. People have been speaking about the democratization of fashion for years now but over the span of the past year and with the powerful emergence of Pinterest and rapid growth of platforms like Tumblr, we are now seeing everyday consumers become editors in their own rights. A few years ago, individual fashion bloggers shook up the world and changed the landscape of providing authority on fashion trends. Now everyday individuals are becoming their own Anna Wintours.

Another trend that’s been at the heart of our own evolution is the convergence of content, community and commerce. It’s a loaded subject and every major digital fashion and shopping brand is trying to crack this nut. No one has executed really well on this yet and in 2012 we are going to break serious ground here.

Which traditional media outlets do you see Refinery most in- line with? Do you think you’d ever see yourself branching into a Teen Refinery29 (like a Teen Vogue)?

Ultimately, there’s a strong lifestyle current (of personal style) running through Refinery29 which lends itself to many adjacent categories and teen is definitely among them. As we’re scaling our media footprint, you’re likely to see other R29 content verticals starting to appear.

What are some of the ongoing ideas brewing in the office? Do you see yourself expanding even further in the coming years?

Many ideas and lots of product launches in 2012. We’re actively working on a bunch of products that are going to give R29’s community as well as brands more of a stake in contributing content as well as interacting with the content in fun ways and the opportunity to be inspired by curated influencers. We are also gearing up for a big launch of R29’s commerce platform in June.

How do you think you’re unique backgrounds have helped contribute to Refinery 29’s vision and growth?

Both Justin and I lacked a fashion background when we started Refinery29. I think generally that this has been a huge advantage. While we brought amazing talent on board that allowed R29 to truly establish its point of view in the fashion world, Justin and I have always made it a core objective to look at other industries beyond just fashion and media for inspiration and an understanding of the larger trends in digital, mobile, video, online shopping etc.

What is your favorite piece or photo spread you’ve ever seen appear on the site?

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Thanks Phillipe!  

Refinery29

Image credit: Mark Iantosca

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