Dontaya Bobb was less than two hours away from the midnight launch of Inkloo, her fashion marketplace exclusively stocking emerging Black-owned brands, when disaster struck. One of the four labels she had secured for the site’s debut pulled out.
The news threw months of meticulous planning into disarray. With the clock ticking, Bobb rushed through alterations to Inkloo’s inventory, product imagery and social media rollout.
“I was very stressed, but I knew this was an important moment,” Bobb said. “Because this was just the beginning of everything that I wanted to do.”
The November launch was a success in the end, she said. An Instagram Live party with the site’s featured designers and multiple giveaways helped to generate buzz. Sales continue to grow, and Inkloo recently released its latest capsule collection, from the designer Nicole Shante.
Inkloo is one of the newest members in a growing class of online fashion and beauty marketplaces that primarily sell products from Black-owned brands. Founders of beauty sites like Geenie and AMP Beauty LA, and fashion stops such as Black Fashion Fair and Black Owned Everything say they have a purpose beyond profits: to give a platform to designers and entrepreneurs who in many cases have struggled for shelf space with mainstream retailers.
Some of the new online stores were inspired by the wave of support for Black-owned brands that came out of the protests last summer. Others were years in the making. They are part of a wider movement to open up the fashion and beauty industries to more diverse talent, including Aurora James’s 15 Percent Pledge, which asks companies to devote more space to Black-owned brands.
The new crop of retailers also see a market opportunity.
Why do we have to wait for the larger retailers to validate us, to support us and then stop?
Websites like Inkloo or Black Fashion Fair have a deep well of talent to draw from as they curate their selection. Many Black-owned brands have found critical success and established loyal followings even without a coveted wholesale partnership with Sephora or Saks. By constructing their businesses around Black-owned brands from the start, these marketplaces also have an instant credibility with consumers, who are often sceptical of retailers and brands that only stepped up their support of Black designers last year.
“Why do we have to wait for the larger retailers to validate us, to support us and then stop? They do one season or two seasons and then stop,” said Zerina Akers, who launched The Black Owned Everything marketplace on Feb. 12. “Why do we have to wait for that validation? People often try to break that door down. But why not build your own place?”
An Evolving Model
Akers started curating a list of Black-owned brands she came across in her work as a costume designer and stylist for clients including Beyoncé and Chloe X Halle. She began sharing her finds on a new, dedicated Instagram account last June, at the height of the protests. Akers said she could see that Black-owned businesses were receiving an unprecedented amount of attention from mainstream media and retailers, but feared that interest would quickly fade. Within three days, her new account had 10,000 followers.
The marketplace came later. As her following grew – it’s at 230,000 today – Akers could see which beauty products, clothes and home goods she featured attracted the most attention. She sees e-commerce as a way to ensure Black-owned brands have a permanent outlet, and consumers have a way to “simplify the discovery process.”
Antoine Gregory always envisioned Black Fashion Fair, a website that sells apparel and accessories from designers such as Phlemuns and The Nu Bamboo, as a marketplace. Only before the pandemic, he saw it as a physical one.
“The idea was to have this outer space where you could shop Black designers, meet them and just have an experience within your own community,” he said. “But then with Covid-19, it pushed everything back … and then we just did it virtually.”
He stocks a mix of luxury and less-pricey pieces, as well as exclusive collaborations from brands like Johnny Nelson, Fe Noel and Theophilio. Black Fashion Fair has an educational component as well, hosting a directory of Black-owned designers.
On Black Fashion Fair’s launch day in September, the site sold out of all its Theophilio stock and restock. Theophilio was their top seller at launch while the brand’s Phlemuns exclusive is its current top seller.
Many founders of new marketplaces say they have the same problem as many of the Black-owned businesses they feature: a lack of access to start-up capital.
Black entrepreneurs have faced a historic disparity in lending opportunities, and Black Americans have far less generational wealth to tap compared with white founders. Over half of Black-owned businesses are turned down for loans, nearly two times the rate of white-owned businesses, the Federal Reserve reported last year.
As a result, many Black business owners rely on personal savings or support from friends and family. Gregory self-funded Black Fashion Fair, for instance. For Inkloo, Bobb received a loan from a family member and raised money through a crowdfunding campaign via IFundWomen, a funding marketplace for women-owned businesses.
I’d rather take the risk and spend my own money and see how far I could go.
Limited start-up funding can affect the early trajectory of a business, forcing it to scale slower, and make do with a smaller team and limited marketing and advertising resources.
When funding is available, it can come at a steep cost. Black entrepreneurs are more than two times as likely to be negatively impacted by the cost of capital, such as higher interest rates, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s annual survey of entrepreneurs.
Akers chose to self-fund Black Owned Everything in part to sidestep future financial issues.
“I had a few people that wanted to talk about [investing]. But I didn’t see the value in giving away equity for something like $100,000,” she said. “I’d rather take the risk and spend my own money and see how far I could go.”
Starting a business under those circumstances isn’t easy – especially when many of these sites’ founders are still working other jobs. Gregory and Akers continue to work as stylists even as their marketplaces take off, for instance.
“There is no balance right now. I’m married to this right now. Anything else is a mistress,” Akers said. “This is my time.”
AMP Beauty LA, which carries over 35 Black-owned brands across skincare, hair care and makeup, leans heavily on the expertise of its founders, Angel Lenise, Phyllicia Phillips and Montré Moore. Lenise is supervising video producer for Elle, while Phillips is a paralegal and Moore has retail management experience with Neiman Marcus and Revolve.
Chana Ginelle Ewing, who used her own funds for the initial launch of the Geenie beauty marketplace, closed her first round of outside funding in January. She pitched to people close to her network and prospective investors who were already aware of her company, or at least knew the beauty space.
“I was a complete novice,” she said. “It was definitely learning as I was going along and seeing what was working, what wasn’t, and trusting the process.” With no full time members, she’s relied on a handful of independent contractors to launch and maintain the site, which pivoted from a subscription box to marketplace model in July.
A Larger Mission
The new wave of Black-owned online marketplaces are an extension of the Black-owned boutiques, hair salons, barbershops, flea market booths, and other retail venues that have long featured Black brands. They are building on this history of Black entrepreneurship by creating authentic spaces that champion Black-owned brands and expand their exposure to the consumers who value them most.
Many of the new marketplaces have found other ways to support Black-owned brands. Black Fashion Fair doesn’t charge vendors to be featured on the site, asking instead that they donate 15 percent of sales toward a fund for scholarships and community initiatives. Ewing’s Greenie emphasises intersectionality, featuring beauty products from BIPOC, queer and women-owned brands in the marketplace.
Finding partners and communities that have shared values… is something that is not inherent in the fashion industry.
A shared mission was what convinced Morgan Johnson, founder of Leigh New York, to feature her line on Inkloo.
“I chose to partner with a Black-owned marketplace to be amongst a family of brands with designers who reflect my own image,” she said. “Finding partners and communities that have shared values of inclusion and uplifting the voices of Black designers is something that is not inherent in the fashion industry. So I always love to be a part of opportunities that bring us together.”
Akers sees a limitless future for Black Owned Everything and what the site can be for Black-owned businesses and Black creatives.
“I’m hoping that we will become the premiere destination for finding cool things that happened to be Black-owned,” said Akers. “Not only will we be focusing on the brands, but also the photographers, the models, and we get to hopefully develop this ecosystem of creativity and support for all of our creators.”
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