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Maria Borromeo Launches Gender Neutral Brand

ClHu is the former Thakoon chief executive’s bid to capture Gen-Z and stir change in patterns of fashion consumption.
Looks from ClHu's debut collection.
Looks from ClHu's debut collection. (Ben Grieme)

Growing up, Maria Borromeo’s daughter couldn’t find clothes that made her feel comfortable in her own skin. She was female but presented masculine and pushed back strongly against gender norms. Buying clothes was frustrating, even “shame-inducing” — boys’ clothes weren’t cut for her body and girls’ clothes were too feminine.

Borromeo, who has had leadership roles at Alexander McQueen, Thakoon and Hudson Jeans, had customers like her daughter in mind as she planned to launch a label of her own.

On March 7, ClHu, an all-gender, direct-to-consumer brand and resale platform, goes live.

ClHu stands for “Clothes for Humans” and is pronounced like “clue.” The brand’s initial offerings include 28 clothing items priced from $55 to $165 that use a sizing system based on colours and preference rather than numbers and need-to-fit. ClHu embeds a QR-code powered digital ID in each garment for consumers to add content such as selfies and texts unique to each item they own and may eventually resell, in partnership with consumer tech company Sharp End and integrated resale service Recurate. The idea is to promote “deconsumption” with a circular model that forefronts consumer creation and storytelling to boost participation in resale.

“I have the tools to actually make a difference … I could just dig deep and use these tools and create a platform and a business model that meets this generation where they expect to be met,” said Borromeo.

Borromeo is best known for leading business development at Thakoon — the namesake brand by Thakoon Panichgul. A member of the early 2000s New York class of “fashion darlings,” the business flourished initially, but like many American contemporary brands suffered from the decline of department stores and rise of fast fashion. She was chief executive prior to its acquisition by Silas Chou’s Bright Fame Fashion in 2015 and shift to a direct-to-consumer model. Thakoon put the brand on pause in 2017 and Borromeo departed. It relaunched in 2019 with a lower price range under a new owner in Naadam.

Leading Thakoon and working with Chou offered Borromeo some valuable lessons she’s applying to ClHu: slow growth, a holistic business model and targeting of future-focused retail partners and investors.

“We are literally not going to run before we walk,” said Borromeo.

Though ClHu is launching as direct-to-consumer, working with retail partners is part of the plan. Borromeo said stripping away physical touchpoints and visibility created challenges for Thakoon, and she wants to see ClHu in multiple distribution channels.

Another lesson: listen to your target customer. For Borromeo, that’s Gen-Z.

“You don’t have a lot of room to make mistakes,” she said. “Understanding who your customer is and what they want is critical — whether that be data-driven or you’re actually out there talking to them on Discord.”

Early in ClHu’s development, she sent out surveys and created an advisory board of Gen-Zers. She’s even shared her deck with them for feedback. Gen-Z doesn’t just want to buy from a brand, it wants to be part of it, she says, so she’s betting her model that allows consumers to add stories and personalised digital content to shirts and shorts will beget emotional attachments.

ClHu’s apparel is produced with longevity in mind. Borromeo anticipates items will be either kept forever or resold an estimated four or five times over. She said the unique digital content attached to each piece will help them maintain their value.

“Where I see this business going and where we want to take this is for the community to actually be creators,” said Borromeo. “We want to have what they’re creating add value to the garment.”

Further Reading

Designer Telfar Clemens today launched his first sportswear range, the Liberia Collection, after debuting the pieces as the uniform for the Liberian team competing at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

About the author
Joan Kennedy
Joan Kennedy

Joan Kennedy is Editorial Associate at The Business of Fashion. She is based in New York and covers beauty and marketing.

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