How I Did It: From International Fashion Model to Founder of a Top Fashion Startup in Asia

Apr 30 2014, 10:40pm CDT | by

Lisa Crosswhite is the Founder and Director of online fashion retailer, Gnossem.com, and is regarded as one of Singapore’s style icons.

Crosswhite initially built Gnossem after realizing that professionals in Asia-Pacific were increasingly turning to online shopping, yet were nevertheless worried about purchasing something they had not yet felt or seen in person. A supporter of independent designer fashion, Gnossem has evolved into a formidable platform that provides users with access to unique independent labels, without having to travel the world over for the designer’s one boutique.

Crosswhite has since appeared in Singapore’s top fashion magazines for her style advice, and has made Louis Vuitton’s “Top Ten Most Stylish Women of 2012″ list as published in STYLE: magazine, among other annual “Best Dressed” lists in Singapore. Her support for “niche fashion” has led her to speak at the TEDx Talks in Hong Kong. Prior to Gnossem, Crosswhite worked as a Brand Strategist at Ogilvy & Mather as well as an International Fashion Model.

I spoke with Crosswhite to learn more about her unique journey through the fashion world and what obstacles she overcame in launching one of Asia’s top online fashion retailers.

Tiffany PhamWhat inspired your move from being an international fashion model for luxury brands, such as BALLY and Ports 1961, to ultimately founding Gnossem.com?

Lisa Crosswhite: Modeling across Asia opened up my world to the many designers in the region that are high quality, and critically acclaimed in their home cities, but too small to be known abroad. I always knew I’d end up in fashion, but wasn’t sure in what long-term capacity. Building relationships with designers of different locales seemed like a natural extension of my passion and curiosity at the time, but ended up seeding the idea to build a solution to the problem of inaccessibility when it comes to niche, high quality independent fashion. I saw a category of fashion that had so much potential and demand, but was being held back by an inability to widely reach customers. The idea for Gnossem actually came while I was researching online shopping behaviour for a client, Estee Lauder, at my past job as a strategist at Ogilvy & Mather Singapore. The idea to focus on independent fashion, for my future online store, was deeply rooted in my experiences engaging with these designers when I was still modeling.

Pham: What was your plan of action once you decided to launch your own company?

Crosswhite: My plan of action for the development of Gnossem, was to first test my hypothesis that independent fashion could build strong traction in a developed cosmopolitan market, while building the foundations for an eCommerce platform and Retail Brand that could eventually be worthy of worldwide appreciation. After a beta market, the plan was to launch in a top online retail market, such as the US, as our first stop for worldwide expansion.

Singapore proved a natural testing zone, with its 50:50 ratio of foreigners to locals, sophisticated business environment, and prevalence of modern working women with high disposable incomes. Its regarded as a prime place for an expat to live in Asia, due to the fact that its predominantly English-speaking, growing at a dazzling pace, and as culturally diverse as New York. I also liked that Singapore was small. With 5 million people, it was the right size to run a contained test, and get quick feedback from our countless iterations in the development process.

Pham: What were some of the tactics you used to get Gnossem off the ground fast, and have it be named one of the top online retailers by Women’s Weekly and Harper’s BAZAAR within 6 months of going live?

Crosswhite: We grew fast, and gained critical acclaim through very solid product curation and earnest story-telling. It certainly wasn’t a generous marketing budget. We’ve been covered 70 times in Singapore since going live, with our PR department comprised of myself and my marketing colleague. And we don’t spend on press. The with our product selection, and sharing our story with industry folks that we knew would get (almost) as excited as we were about it.

For people who love fashion, it doesn’t take long to notice that Gnossem is more than just another fashion eCommerce startup. I built a brand that my team and I could really stand behind; and its led to firm support from Singapore’s fashion community as well as benevolent collaborations with established ‘big sisters’ such as Anthropologie (Gnossem-curated collection launching later this year), Maserati of Manhattan (sponsored our pop-up fashion event in New York this past spring), Antipodium (flew in to co-host a Gnossem-exclusive launch in Singapore), and more. In short, we’re doing what we should be doing; and getting the right people to notice it.

Pham: What were some of the personal and professional challenges you faced, once you transitioned to founder?

Crosswhite: The biggest challenges I faced in founding a company were more personal than professional. I really welcomed the additional workload and still do. It’s hard to complain about professional challenges… maybe because there’s been so many of them, that I’ve just habituated to a high level of problem solving all the time.

The greatest struggle for me was actually coming to an equilibrium with what my body could physically handle in terms of work hours, how to communicate and manage my team on a frugal budget and keep them motivated, and how to prioritise the essential parts of my personal life./>/>

My first year working on Gnossem, I ended up in the ER 3 times due to bland things such as fainting and dehydration. It took awhile to find the right lifestyle that both maintained a high level of productivity, but also generated wellbeing in my life overall. The Rat Race Culture glorifies constantly being busy and overwhelmed; and I soon realised that to sustain in developing Gnossem over the long-run, I couldn’t get away with ignoring my health, spirit, and emotions.

A bit personal maybe, but so is work. I found when I re-centred my lifestyle, I actually had more energy. I was also able to deepen my relationships with each member on my team, and really get in tune with what kind of communication extracted the best, most inspired work from them. There’s a nice exchange of positive energy we have going on at Gnossem, and its fundamental to how well we do our work.

Pham: Tell me about your TED talk. What do you see as the future of online retail?

Crosswhite: At TEDx Hong Kong in November of 2012, I spoke in front of a crowd of 1000 after the ex GM of Zynga, and a world reknown robotics engineer, and somehow did not breakdown into apocalyptic seizures. (I was terrified).

My talk was about the polarization of the Fashion World between Disposable Fashion — mass market, cheap, everyone has the same thing, and Unattainable Luxury — high end luxury items that most of us can’t afford to buy as often as we’d like. I mentioned how I grew up flipping through VOGUE and dreaming of Balmain rocker pants, while wearing a rip-off by H&M; and how this mentality of “some day I’ll be able to get $$$, but for now I’ll just wear XYZ” actually robs us of the joy and meaning in dressing.

The polarised view of fashion, supported in large by advertising spend by big companies on either end of the spectrum, forgets about all the incredible (and affordable) local designers, artisans, and bespoke designers around the world. I call this category of quality, unique fashion – Independent Fashion. But in the same frame of thought, you can include vintage items, gems from your mom’s closet in the 60′s, 70′s, 80′s, etc. And its at a loss to us, as there are millions of products that are within reach, that are uniquely made by passionate designers, and perhaps closer to something you’d find meaningful in your every day dressing.

I touched on how I find it a bit sad that anyone would feel that a ‘status logo’ could ever add anything of value to one’s overall appearance; and that at the end of the day, its about quality, and really feeling good and ‘you’. I also spoke about how finding fashion items that are special to you is not just valuable for fashionistas, but anyone who dresses up each morning, and undresses each night. My point was that we all wear clothes, why not wear ones that have personal significance to us?

My idea with Gnossem was largely driven by the desire to give people affordable options that had the quality and design standards to be cherished forever. Its a nice feeling dressing for yourself, and having tons of unique options at your fingertips.

Pham: What successes have you achieved so far at Gnossem, in line with your perspective on the future of online retail? What new opportunities are you working towards?

Crosswhite: The future of online retail is curation; whether it be small elusive labels or an intelligent edit of the big guys. It use to be all about the marketplace. Buy anything and everything here! But options are ballooning, and the time-sensitive and sophisticated individual appreciates a level of QC and style curation. We’ve succeeded in proving that there is a demand for highly curated Independent Fashion, with sales growing at 25% month on month since our launch out of beta last September. I also throw pop-up sales regularly and get a very appreciated chance to talk with my customers, and see what kind of people they are… what kind of things they like and look for. Our largest success has been proving traction, and already holding a loyal fan base, with exceptional retention and LTV.

The new opportunities we’re working toward involve a shift from the ‘user account’ model of handling customers, to a ‘social profile’ which will enable and incentivise our customers to become advocates along with us. We’re also working on channel partnerships with some leading US retailers, such as Anthropologie, and trading our acclaimed curation of unique labels for a wonderful reach out to new potential fans. I’m also very excited about the new technologies we are testing to speed up the designer acquisition and publishing process.

The goal for Gnossem is to be at the forefront of this trend toward unique, curated fashion; with the most labels found online, and excellent intelligent merchandising. I want us to be more than just an online store, but rather a community to explore these incredibly special products. We are a team of very individual, unique people; and we love promoting independent choice when it comes to fashion.

Pham: Do you have any advice for other creative professionals aspiring to start their own companies?

Crosswhite: Don’t get bogged down with fear. People often see the upside as more irrational than the downside; while its really about seeing things in balance, and testing your assumptions. Hard work, a well-researched plan, and the humility and self-compassion to keep (quickly) testing to get to that sweet spot, will get you a long way. It’s been proven.

 
 
 

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