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08/11/2016

Ivory Ella Taps Millennial Buying Power for Social Good

If you have any doubt about the spending power and formidable influence of teens, tweens and those much-maligned Millennials, consider the overnight success of Ivory Ella.

Launched on April 18, 2015, the elephant-themed online-only apparel (tees! hoodies! hats!) and accessories (iPhone cases! water bottles!) brand has made good on its mission statement to blend business and beneficence into a company that exists first and foremost for social good, giving 10 percent of profits back to the global community. To date, Ivory Ella has donated a total of $415,000 to charitable organizations, including $360,000 for its flagship cause, Save the Elephants, and other groups such as the Elephants Crisis Fund, Breast Cancer Research Foundation and Toys for Tots. Not too shabby for a startup.

It's easy to see why girls of a certain age are crazy for Ivory Ella's bright tops, funky tie-dyes, whimsical patterns and adorable, eyecatching elephant logo. While co-founder Matt Fiano notes that the core Ivory Ella customers are 13- to 24-year-old females, "we have something special in the works for that middle-school age group.

"I don't think we realized how popular we were with that group on Instagram," he adds. The brand currently has more than 850,000 followers on the photo-centric social platform and averages about 45,000 likes per post.

Despite the founders' social media marketing and business background, Fiano and fellow co-founder John Allen still were surprised by the strong customer response right out of the gate. With 500 initial t-shirts on hand and some efforts to identify influencers on social media to help the brand go viral, selling through in a month was all Ivory Ella initially hoped for. "Selling out in a week would be awesome," explains Allen. "Instead, we sold out in 17 minutes." During the launch, Ivory Ella was a trending topic on Twitter.

That first major moment of success launched a long stretch of trying to produce of those trendy tees to meet demand while also ensuring customers were satisfied. The company immediately started taking preorders once the batch of 500 tees disappeared. Fiano chalks that up to inexperience. "We kind of didn't understand the clothing market at that point," he explains. "We sold based on what we thought would be available. I told a friend, 'it's really overwhelming.' And he said,' the worst thing is getting an email saying, 'hey where's my shirt?' But the real worst thing is not getting those emails because that means there's no demand."

Faced with 30,000 backorders at one point, Ivory Ella terminated pre-orders in August and by October had fulfilled the entire backlog. During that tumultuous period, Ivory Ella offered refunds to customers who inquired about their delayed orders, but the vast majority flatly refused, according to Allen. "It's more than a shirt to a lot of people," he says. "Our customers love to give back, and we encourage them to give back and not just through us." Fiano — at 37 years old, the only non-Millennial of the six founders — says that causes are crucial for the Millennial cohort. "They feel more connected to a product that's going to a good cause," he explains.

One year into the business, Allen jokes that Ivory Ella isn't quite yet out of the bootstrapping stage but is starting to find a good production groove. Apparel is sourced mainly from China, Honduras and Pakistan, with some items coming from Mexico. The company does 40 percent of its screenprinting in house, while the remainder, and some embroidery work, is outsourced to vendors local to its Connecticut headquarters.

A half dozen limited-edition products in runs of 1,500 to 2,000 pieces routinely sold out in 10 minutes over the holidays. "People were literally waiting for product to drop," Fiano says. "Consumers like having a product that not everyone can get, and it's awesome for a designer when a shirt sells out in minutes."

Ivory Ella shipped about 10,000 packages daily at the peak of the season, aided by up to 70 seasonal employees in addition to 40 full-time staff. The company is making big moves as it strives to emerge from startup mode, planning to consolidate spaces imminently and lease a larger facility as it ramps up production. Ivory Ella just implemented FishBowl Inventory to get a handle on its stock. "Up until [March], we were doing manual inventory counts," says Fiano. The company uses Shopify for e-commerce and mobile commerce and manages fulfillment with ShipStation.

Ivory Ella turned to social media to identify college ambassadors to help spread the word about the brand and now works with 30 to 40 schools. Fiano says the company's goal is to become a full lifestyle brand offering apparel for "every climate and every time of year," potentially expanding into bottoms and creating lines for youth as well as men. (Some initial efforts in men's wear fizzled.)

"We have to crawl before we walk," Allen concludes.