Something Navy, the fashion brand founded by the influencer Arielle Charnas, has major plans for 2021, including seven new stores and a recently launched partnership with Revolve.
Charnas herself, however, won’t be as big a part of them. Going forward, the brand, which took on outside investors in 2019, will rely less on its famous founder to drive sales, as its backers look to grow beyond the influencer’s fan base, said chief executive Matt Scanlan. Charnas will retain her title as chief creative officer — helping to dream up the brand’s trendy skorts, slouchy sweaters, dresses and swimwear as well as offer art direction and approve editorial content — but the days of relying so heavily on the influencer’s Instagram feed to launch new products appear to be over.
“There’s a lot of low hanging fruit with Arielle’s audience and with the platform she has — you can drive a lot of revenue just by having her take very specific actions like putting her face on an email,” Scanlan said. “But that is actually not a sustainable business strategy.”
For digital brands, in particular, it’s become something of a rite of passage to create a bit of distance from their famous founders — especially after a brand takes on new investors. Often that process happens during an exit, with new owners bringing in seasoned executives to manage a bigger, more complex business. Other founders step back only when forced; last year, leaders at Away and Outdoor Voices left amid claims of mismanagement and fostering toxic workplaces (both later returned, though Away’s Steph Korey has since departed again).
“The brands that go from being a $10 million or $50 million company and hit $100 million or potentially a billion have to be able to scale [their business] and not rely on a specific person to be the face of everything,” said Caroline Wright Turnipseed, founder of marketing agency CWT Consulting Group. “You have to really figure out what is the secret sauce of that influencer and how you can scale it in [various] areas of the business.”
Something Navy faces some unique challenges. The brand is synonymous with its famous founder, who has blogged, and later Instagrammed, under the name since 2009. Charnas is among the most successful in a wave of influencers who have transitioned from pitching other brands’ products to selling their own. As she negotiated deals with department stores and launched collections, Charnas chronicled her life as a mogul alongside vacations and family milestones, building a loyal following along the way that has driven millions of dollars in sales for Something Navy apparel.
But her fame has also proven a liability at times. In March 2020, Charnas drew international attention when she posted videos of herself receiving a Covid test, which showed she had the virus. On social media, users accused Charnas of using her wealth and fame to secure the test, which at the time was in short supply. Soon after, Charnas sparked fresh ire when she took her family to the Hamptons to quarantine, this time drawing criticism for potentially exposing others to Covid-19.
Scanlan said “no image rehab was necessary” for Charnas or the brand, though, and that Something Navy recorded $12 million in sales in the six months following a July relaunch. He said sales are on track to reach $33 million this year.
But the March 2020 incidents helped clarify the need to “accelerate our timelines” to implement a new strategy for the business, Scanlan said.
“The only way the brand is successful long term is if you’re walking into a store and you see the clothing hanging on a rack, and you go, ‘I want that,’ — regardless of if you’ve ever heard of Arielle or not,” he said. “That’s a winning solution for any apparel brand. And that was always our goal.”
Something Navy’s investors have said from the start they want to create a direct-to-consumer lifestyle empire, with Charnas as its face. The brand raised $10 million in a 2019 funding round that included billionaire Silas Chou’s Vanterra Capital, Box Group, M3 Ventures, Silas Capital, Third Kind Ventures and Rent the Runway co-founder Jennifer Fleiss. Scanlan, who founded the cashmere brand Naadam, was brought in as chief executive that year, with Charnas serving as chief creative officer.
“She’s not a designer … neither was Ralph Lauren … Calvin Klein … [or] Tommy Hilfiger,” Scanlan told BoF in 2019. “These guys were just style merchandising icons. They understood the lifestyle that they wanted to position for people and they had a clear, concise vision of what that looks like and could communicate that.”
In her new role, Charnas has continued to appear in marketing for the brand, and regularly touts Something Navy clothes to her 1.3 million followers on Instagram. But the brand has begun to diversify its digital marketing strategy, including how it executes its product launches. Rather than centering releases around Charnas’ Instagram posts, Something Navy now engages in a “360 degree” launch strategy where it sends out emails, newsletters and at-home catalogues, Scanlan said. It’s also dabbling in influencer partnerships and affiliate marketing strategies.
“I will always be the founder of Something Navy and the original ‘Something Navy girl’ and as the business grew I knew I wouldn’t be able to be a one-woman show forever,” Charnas said in an email. “I’m not necessarily taking a step back from the brand, but just working in a different capacity.”
Scanlan sees the new stores, in Dallas, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Miami, as key to drawing more traditional shoppers who may not follow Charnas on social media. The company is also launching a weekly newsletter targeting millennial and Gen-Z readers called “Some News,” and this month it debuted a retail partnership with Revolve, valued at $1 million.
It also has plans to expand into new categories, including home decor, bath products as well as activewear and pyjamas.
“[Arielle] needs to live her life. She’s a human being … It makes sense that a business that wants to be worth billions of dollars can’t rely on the same person or the same thing [forever],” said Scanlan. “I feel like we’re on a rocket ship that already took off.”