Flesh, Drugs and Instagram: How Dolls Kill Built a Breakout Online Fashion Brand
DH Kong for Dolls Kill
“Holy shit! Bobbbyyyyyyyyyyy!!!”
Shoddy Lynn’s scream pierced the afternoon calm one spring Friday at Dolls Kill’s San Francisco warehouse.
Just a few minutes earlier, Shaudi Lynn, who goes by her DJ name Shoddy Lynn, and Bobby Farahi, the husband-and-wife co-founders of Dolls Kill, were describing the rapid growth of their three-year-old e-commerce apparel company that has become a magnet for teen and young adult women drawn to its edgy style.
We were sitting at a long wooden table inside their warehouse, when one of the company’s employees burst into the meeting room. Shoddy Lynn excused herself.
Bobby followed her out of the meeting room when he heard her scream.
Did a model collapse? Pass out? O.D.?
We were at the edge of San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood at a warehouse that wasn’t just an office and storage facility. It was the embodiment of the Dolls Kill lifestyle, where goth, punk rock and glam — and with a hint of Lolita — were on display. A rail-thin, sparsely dressed model — or “doll” as the company refers to them — strutted for the cameras in photo and video shoots.
Bobby returned to the room and flopped into a chair.
“Our Instagram got hacked,” he explained. “Fuck.”
A hacker defaced Dolls Kill’s Instagram account, renaming it DollsKKK and sent out photos of a man’s genitals, a log of human feces floating in a toilet bowl, and an image of hooded Ku Klux Klan members.
“At least they are posting funny stuff,” Shoddy Lynn said, after the initial shock wore off. “Well, except for the KKK.”
Breaking into Dolls Kill’s Instagram account was likely a strategic move by the hacker. After all, the photo-sharing network is perhaps the most critical medium for the fast-growing, get-the-fuck-out-of-my-way online fashion brand.
Founded in 2011, Dolls Kill represents a new kind of digital-first retailer that has sprouted up amid the weed-like growth of social networking sites. Like women’s clothing e-tailers Nasty Gal and Modcloth before it, Dolls Kill leans heavily on services such as Instagram and Facebook to build relationships with customers and those who aspire to be. The company eschews print and TV ads and has only dabbled in digital advertising, paying for some promoted posts on Facebook and testing out some cost-per-click ads on Google.
At the time of the hack in early April, Dolls Kill had just over 100,000 followers. A few thousand followers left in the immediate aftermath of the hack, but the brand quickly rebounded. Within three months, it had doubled its follower count to 200,000. Now, four months after the hack, it has grown its following to more than 230,000 people.
Scan Dolls Kill’s Instagram photos and you’ll be greeted with a whole lot of bare midriffs, psychedelic colors and the occasional “Fuck you” purse. The stars of the Instagram feed are the Dolls, four models who embody the different subcultures that the company targets with its clothing: From punk rock and goth to hippie and Boho.
The styles are an extension of Shoddy Lynn’s experience as a globetrotting electronic dance music DJ. The creative director of Dolls Kill first started selling second-hand clothing on eBay.
“I spent a lot of time in clubs around the world and you’re around these various kinds of underground cultures that have amazing unique styles and looks,” she said.
The company will soon unveil a fifth Doll, who will model nightclub-inspired clothing. Her Doll name? Molly, naturally, named after the drug that has taken the electronic dance music scene by storm.
The women who play the roles of Dolls have in many ways become the brand. And it’s not a coincidence. Three out of the four weren’t models by profession, but instead Dolls Kill fans who earned the job through photo contests the company organized.
“It’s a real girl. It’s authentic,” Farahi, the company’s CEO, said. “We give the reins to these people to be themselves, whether in videos or the way we shoot product or editorial. At Coachella, we’ll do a photo shoot and the next thing you know fans are partying with them and doing drugs with them and getting in the pictures.”
The strategy seems to be working. Every Instagram photo gets thousands of likes and some variation of the words “need” and “want” are commonplace in the comments section.
“When a girl follows Dolls Kill on social media, they don’t feel like they’re following a brand,” Farahi said, “but instead a friend of theirs.”
The 51st White Guy
Still, for a young e-commerce company, getting love on social networks is no guarantee of success. Dolls Kill appears to be handling the conversion of popularity into sales rather well.
With minimal paid marketing, the site recorded $3.5 million in sales in 2012 and $7.5 million the next year. This year, the company is projecting to at least double sales again and bring in revenue of at least $15 million. With less than $1 million in seed funding — mostly from Farahi, who sold his first company for a small fortune — Dolls Kill has been profitable since its launch, he said.
Investors have started to notice. Dolls Kill just closed a $5 million Series A investment, with the vast majority of the funding coming from Seattle-based venture capital firm Maveron. Maveron is the brainchild of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and former investment banker Dan Levitan. The firm has invested in big e-commerce companies such as Groupon and Zulily, which went public in the fall and is currently valued at $4.6 billion, as well as upstarts Julep and Everlane.
In Dolls Kill, the venture firm sees an online retailer that’s unafraid to take chances while cultivating a rabid fan base. As for the brand’s edge, how do buttoned-down investors feel about a company built, in part, on plenty of drug talk and a predilection for dropping f-bombs whenever possible?
“If it makes 50 white guys uncomfortable, it usually means you’re onto something,” said Maveron’s Jason Stoffer, white guy No. 51. “If you want to invest on the edge, you have to be comfortable with that.”
Other investors showed interest in investing with better financial terms, Farahi said, but many wanted Dolls Kill to soften some of its sharp corners.
“They’d say, ‘Hey, can you tone it down a bit? We don’t think you should have marijuana leaves on the clothing,” Farahi said. “I’m like, ‘Fuck you, man. Get out of here.’ Maveron came in and were so supportive of our vision and said, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing.’”
“Creating big enduring brands is really hard,” Stoffer said. “The keys to successful vertically integrated brands over the last decade is that they start with an insane cauldron of passion and their initial consumers are just absolutely rabid about the brand.”
Stoffer cited the success stories of sports brand Under Armour and lifestyle brand Lululemon as examples of the model. The former first appealed to athletes while the latter originally made its name by selling high-priced workout pants to yoga enthusiasts.
Then, over time, each began to attract more mainstream audiences while still holding onto their original core customer base. Such an expansion will pose a challenge for Dolls Kill, which currently appeals to a comparatively narrow and fickle audience.
“I think these businesses are highly international and very social in nature. I look at the fashion and wonder who wears this stuff — not anyone I know,” Sucharitu Mulpuru, a retail industry analyst at Forrester Research, said in an email. “But I think it’s people most of us don’t know because they’re in Brazil, Australia and other [big] places for club wear.”
About 50 percent of Dolls Kill’s sales come from overseas. While the founders are proud of their global reach, they are working hard to attract new customers in the U.S. without alienating the girls and young women who helped carry Dolls Kill to its current heights.
To help them navigate that transition, they’re turning to a veteran of this type of expansion. Betsy McLaughlin, the longtime former CEO of goth and grunge retail chain Hot Topic, is joining the board. If Hot Topic was the go-to brand for subculture fashion in the 1990s and oughts, Dolls Kill is looking to grab the mantle in this decade and beyond.
“Are we an edgier Nasty Gal? A grown-up Hot Topic?” Farahi said. “It’s so hard to say. We’re not going after an existing market; we’re creating a market.”
Control the Narrative
In the immediate aftermath of the Instagram hack, the co-founders had two major concerns: Wresting back control of their account and uncovering who carried out the attack. They suspected the culprit was most likely a former employee, though they couldn’t decide on who.
“This is the first time this has happened,” Shoddy Lynn said. “I think we’ve been pretty lucky so far.”
Then she glanced down at her phone and saw the brand’s follower count plummeting. Her tone changed.
“We are going to lose so many followers because of this,” she said.
She grabbed a black marker and started scribbling directly on the meeting room table. She then snapped a photo of the message and uploaded to it Instagram.