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Forget Building Brands. Retailers See Dollar Signs with Instagram Influencers.

Influencer collaborations are a dime a dozen in fashion today, but when Something Navy’s Arielle Charnas launched her line with Nordstrom in September, it was a significant leap for the retailer.

Nordstrom had worked with Charnas before, collaborating with her on a capsule collection for its private label Treasure & Bond in 2017, but it had never before undertaken a full-scale, multi-year licensing partnership with a blogger. The initial collaboration, though, had been an enormously successful trial run—the collection reportedly drove more than $1 million in sales in its first 24 hours online—so if the retailer were going to launch a brand with anyone, it was Charnas.

Since then, the decision has paid off in spades: in an Instagram Live video, Pete Nordstrom, the department store’s co-president, called the Something Navy collections the “two most successful launches for any brand” it has carried to date. Blake Nordstrom, also co-president, called out the brand by name on the company’s November earnings call, saying it “outperformed our expectations.” The surge of traffic to on the day the line launched even crashed the retailer’s site.

The deal isn’t just a winner for Nordstrom, though: it also gives Charnas access to a level of design and production infrastructure and distribution that’s generally out of reach for upstart brands. As with the retailer’s other private labels, Something Navy has a design director and a team responsible for developing new products each season and, in this case, translating Charnas’ aesthetic into a cohesive collection.

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With the brand up and running, it’s likely we’ll see more where it came from—Nordstrom also launched blogger Chriselle Lim’s standalone label this fall, and recently debuted a multi-category collaboration with Atlantic-Pacific’s Blair Eadie under its Halogen label, a possible sign it’s gauging interest for a licensed brand down the road. The retailer also carries several blogger brands that it doesn’t design in house, including Gal Meets Glam Collection (produced by NYC dress brand Maggy London) and Cupcakes & Cashmere (the product of a licensing deal with BB Dakota).

Nordstrom isn’t the only business that’s lending top influencers a hand in parlaying their blogging careers into apparel brands, however.

LA Collective is a vertically-integrated brand incubator that has developed a stable of popular athleisure lines in partnership with influencers like model Alexis Ren (Ren Active), TV personality Morgan Stewart (TLA by Morgan Stewart), and fitness trainer Anna Victoria (VITA LA by Anna Victoria). Before launching the company in 2015, co-founder Karl Singer worked in private-label apparel manufacturing, and he and his wife Jaynee hit upon the idea to work with digital talent on online-first brands just as more traditional distribution channels were growing scarcer.

“A lot of these middle-market retail chains were going out of business, and I was looking at ways to pivot on what we were doing using the infrastructure we had in place,” said Singer, crediting his wife for spinning their manufacturing, fulfillment, and operations infrastructure in a new direction.

Stewart, fresh off a star-making role on E!’s “Rich Kids of Beverly Hills,” was their first collaborator. “It was really a gamble at that point,” Singer said. “Not a lot of people were doing it like they are now.” Fortunately, it was a good bet, he said, and “profitable honestly from day one,” encouraging them to build out the line into a standalone brand.

Key to their success, the founders noted, is the ability to produce everything under one roof at the company’s Los Angeles factory, which affords them more flexibility, faster speed-to-market and better quality control.

“I can walk 20 yards or 50 yards to our factory floor and make sure the product we want to launch in four weeks is coming out, the quality is correct and everything is kind of a seamless transition for the launch date,” Singer explained. “We run a very lean inventory model and if we sell out of something, we can restock it within a week or two weeks just because we have the infrastructure to do that.”

The company finances all of the lines it develops, and the deals it signs with its roster of talent are mostly profit-share and equity-share. Going the licensing route wouldn’t have provided the kind of longevity they wanted, Singer said, and their model ensures that the influencers they work with are genuinely behind the brands, so any promotion they do on social media is as authentic as possible.

Both Ren Active and TLA by Morgan Stewart have robust wholesale businesses with retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue, Revolve and Bloomingdale’s, but it’s not uncommon for influencers to opt strictly for the direct-to-consumer channel, particularly at first.

Los Angeles-based Instaco, a division of the Chinese apparel manufacturing company Dragon Crowd, specializes in bringing these kinds of digital-first brands to life for YouTube creators like The Merrell Twins (True IMG) and Jenn Im (Eggie), lifestyle bloggers like Nicolette Mason and Gabi Gregg (Premme), and celebrity-adjacent social media stars like Jordyn Woods (SECNDNTRE).

Like LA Collective, Instaco has its own manufacturing facilities, both in LA and in China, and also employs teams in charge of design, production, e-commerce and marketing. Stella Park, Instaco’s chief brand officer, said the company approaches some influencers after researching them and determining that they could be a good fit for a brand, while others come to them through agents or managers.

From there, she said, “We delve into an influencer’s data to see how they might fit into the marketplace, and make our decisions from there. We come up with an initial category for them, but more often than not the influencer already has a vision of where they belong in the industry.” While she declined to comment on how the lines are financed, she said the talent the company works with co-own their brands, which Instaco incubates “for at least a year before we start exploring additional partnerships and sales avenues.”

Still, while influencer-helmed brands are on the rise, it takes more than a massive following to make one a success. Even some of the top fashion bloggers don’t necessarily drive blockbuster sales, while others (the “converters,” as they’re sometimes called) can move hundreds of thousands dollars worth of product off a single post.

Plus, unlike one-off collaborations, which can take just a few months of work, a standalone brand means you’re in it for the long haul.

“Capsules are good for design experience, PR, and to see if the influencer wants to even enter the marketplace themselves,” said Jennifer Powell, a talent manager and consultant who works with top names like Danielle Bernstein of We Wore What and Rumi Neely of Fashion Toast. “You don’t understand the intricacies of creating product until you have experience doing it.”

Both Bernstein and Neely own their own brands—Second Skin Overalls and Are You Am I, respectively—which Powell said were self-funded initially, adding “when it comes time to scale, we entertain funding.”

Launching the brands wasn’t a decision anyone took lightly, Powell said.

“It’s truly starting another entire business in addition to what they have going on already with their social and/or blog platform,” she said. “So there has to be careful thought put into who is going to run operations and how to grow a new business without neglecting the growth of their personal platform, as one needs the other to survive—at least in the beginning.”