DTC brands founded by influencers: The future is now
Charli and Dixie D’Amelio’s apparel brand, Social Tourist, recently took over a Glossier storefront in West Hollywood. This is just one example of many of how influencer-founded DTCs are now taking the lead in the retail landscape.
From mega-influencer celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, and Gwen Stefani to creators like Emma Chamberlain and the D’Amelio sisters—influencer-founded DTC brands are the next big thing in ecommerce.
The reason: Influencers and creators have realized how to convert their fame into lucrative business opportunities. They can further use the DTC brands they found to grow their following to newer heights—a feedback loop of sorts.
In a nutshell: Influencers are pivoting from being advertisers and content creators into entrepreneurs.
Should existing DTC brands view this as an emerging threat or a novel opportunity? Let’s unpack the reasons behind the trend to understand how you can adapt to the new competition.
What’s behind the boom in influencer-founded DTCs?
This shift was inevitable as creators were bound to leverage their personal brands to capture larger monetization opportunities via ecommerce brands. The success of fashion and television celebs in this space paved the way for the next wave of influencers to attempt to replicate similar success.
The existing DTC ecommerce market is already hyper-competitive, with total sales reaching $111.5 billion USD in 2020 alone. With the added competition from established influencers who have a strong following, the competition increases.
The growth in brands using influencer marketing has been steady over the years, with around 75% of US marketers set to use it in 2022. Brands quickly realized the benefits of partnering with social media creators—highly engaged communities, authentic promotions, and reduced advertising costs.
These same benefits are the exact reasons creators are branching out into starting their own DTC brands. After all, why not cut out the middleman and connect with your audience directly?
1. More creative control
Influencers can exercise absolute control over product development, content creation, and marketing when developing and promoting their own brand. They no longer need to adhere to strict brand guidelines.
Without any intermediaries between them and their audience, they can form more significant and long-lasting connections through products that are an extension of their unique and authentic personal brand.
Influencers can also unlock powerful collaboration opportunities with their influencer peers, similar to what La Veste did. Founded in 2018 by Spanish stylist Blanca Miro and designer Maria de la Orden, the apparel brand roped in influencers like Sabine Getty and Angela Scanlon to promote their new line of school blouses.
They were able to create a buzz around their brand using hyper-engaged communities—both their own and those of their creator friends.
2. Deeper connection with followers
People feel special when they’re able to own a piece of a celebrity and become part of the glamorous world they adore.
When it comes to social media followers, this feeling is intensified as influencers appear both larger-than-life and human at the same time. This makes owning a favorite influencer’s creation more special and valuable.
For instance, model Emily Ratajkowski, after building a massive following (29 million and growing on Instagram) owing to her music video debut, magazine covers, and movie roles, launched Inamorata, her swimwear brand, in 2017. She later went on to author ‘My Body’, a book chronicling her life in the fashion industry.
People generally perceive influencers as more authentic, especially because they enjoy a peek into their real lives through their social media handles. Followers no longer feel being sold to—the trust that they already have over the influencer carries over to the brand. Hence, an influencer-founded brand can command deeper loyalty than a brand starting with no such fan base.
3. Expansion of Revenue Streams
As opposed to promoting third-party brands, sometimes through inauthentic promotions, influencers are now reaping the rewards of launching and promoting their own products.
They’re not only exploring entrepreneurship as an additional revenue stream but also using it to hedge against the unpredictable space of the influencer economy.
Take the example of Kayla Itsines, personal trainer and influencer, who launched her own fitness app ‘Sweat’ after 6 years as an Instagram influencer. In 2016, one year after its launch, Sweat generated more revenue than any other fitness app.
Other examples of influencer-founded brands finding success
Here are five more brands founded by influencers that have seen huge success.
1. Song of Style by Aimee Song
Aimee Song had started her fashion journey with a blog which she pursued as a hobby. She worked on it as a passion project while working two part-time jobs during her time as an interior architecture freshman.
She gradually built her online following with a website and a YouTube channel and later hopped onto Instagram where she has 6.5 million followers today.
She launched her clothing line under her long-running ‘Song of Style’ brand in 2019. What was a dream years in the making (before influencers had brands), became an overnight success.
Many products were sold out in minutes and some of the world’s most popular influencers descended onto Portugal to celebrate the launch.
2. Social Tourist by Charli and Dixie D’Amelio
Charli D’Amelio and Dixie D’Amelio were known most commonly as TikTok stars before they launched Social Tourist in 2021. Both the sisters grew up learning the ins and outs of the apparel industry from their father Marc D’Amelio who had a long-running apparel business.
Inspired by designing clothes, closing sales calls, and being part of design meetings, the sisters wanted to create a line of their own to make people feel confident in their outfits.
The name ‘Social Tourist’, Charli explained, came from the belief that people are social tourists online and trying to express themselves in different ways for others to see.
The line launched as a standalone brand under the Abercrombie & Fitch Co. portfolio and was made available exclusively in Hollister stores and online. Recently, Social Tourist opened a new store in West Hollywood, home to another popular influencer-founded DTC brand, Glossier.
3. SKIMS by Kim Kardashian
American media star Kim Kardashian is no stranger to the business world, having launched many ventures during her long-running career. For SKIMS, the shapewear brand, she teamed up with Swedish entrepreneur Jens Grede and launched the brand in 2019, initially called Kimono, as a play on Kim’s name.
The name faced backlash due to inappropriate appropriation of the Japanese garment and was swiftly changed to SKIMS, as Kardashian wanted a name that was true to her personal brand—SKIMS contains “Kim”, while also managing to represent a shapewear brand.
SKIMS grew out of Kim’s frustration with the lack of options available for women’s shapewear. She used her decade-long experimentation with underwear to create a brand that offered a great fit when it comes to innerwear solutions for women.
SKIMS proved a success and is currently valued at $3.2 billion.
4. GXVE Beauty by Gwen Stefani
Popular singer Gwen Stefani dabbled in entrepreneurship as far back as 2003 when she launched her fashion label L.A.M.B. (that now focuses on sunglasses). She also launched a fragrance brand Harajuku Lovers in 2005 and an affordable optical frames brand GX by Gwen Stefani in 2014.
Leaning on her experience as a makeup artist, Stefani launched GXVE (pronounced ‘give’), a vegan and cruelty-free cosmetics brand in 2022. It translates her love of old-Hollywood style into a brand that she cares deeply about. GXVE comprises lipsticks sporting Stefani’s signature red and waterproof eyeliners.
5. Chamberlain Coffee by Emma Chamberlain
Emma Chamberlain started as a YouTube celebrity and later expanded her internet following through collaborations with Snapchat, Vogue, and her Instagram presence where she now has 15.8 million followers.
In 2018, she launched Chamberlain Coffee, a DTC coffee, jars, and coffee-themed apparel brand. Chamberlain managed to translate her online persona and her genuine love for coffee into a demand for her own coffee brand.
Chamberlain Coffee is an eco-conscious brand that offers coffee in sustainable packaging, sourced from coffee-farming communities, and produced responsibly.
How should DTC brands adapt?
While influencers explore additional income streams and DTC empires, their paid partnerships with brands aren’t going away anytime soon.
Additionally, many influencers aren’t comfortable with assuming full risks of starting wholly-owned brands. They’ll require assistance from DTC manufacturers for licensing their name to an existing or newly-formed third-party brand, or entering into a unique partnership where they can share some of the financial risks with established brands.
For instance, Chiara Ferragni, the Italian blogger and fashion designer, lent her name and hence, her personal brand to other brands like Champion and Nespresso.
Even without such partnerships, influencers will need third parties to do all the work behind the scenes while they assume the face of the brand. This can include brand consultancy, manufacturing, and distribution.
Brands can also explore collaborative partnerships with creators or bring them on board in an official capacity. In fact, brands have already explored such collaborations to utilize the tremendous engagement offered by influencer communities and create buzz around their brand.
Brands are even getting comfortable with handing over creative control to creators and putting them at the core of the strategic think tank. The recent appointment of Kendall Jenner as creative director at luxury fashion brand FWRD and Molly-Mae Hague as creative director at fast-fashion brand Pretty Little Thing shows brands have created a new model of influencer marketing.
DTC brands founded by influencers: The future is now
As the influencer industry evolves, it’ll create new and exciting avenues not just for creators, but for established DTC brands too.
Influencers will continue to partner with brands with paid content, brand collaborations, brand appointments, and in more as-yet-unknown ways.
The rising tide of the creator economy will benefit DTC brands as well as they adapt to the changing landscape and leverage the growing influence of creators. Brands need not view the boom in influencer-led brands as competition but rather as an exciting white space.