Stefan Siegel’s path to entrepreneurship has been a bit more twisty than the average. Before founded Not Just A Label (NJAL) in 2008, he was a soldier, a model and a financier working for Ernst & Young and Sal. Oppenheim in Switzerland and the Merrill Lynch M&A Investment Banking group in New York and London. His specialty was the consumer and retail sector.
It was that work that inspired him to found NJAL. He believed that the world of fashion was too stratified, too clubby and too content to keep doing the same old safe things, instead of offering up new ideas for consumers coming from outside and interesting voices.
It was not an idea that immediately gained traction. Most people didn’t see a future where independent and small designers would ever be really relevant.
"I had a long view and that’s something, especially in today’s world, is hard to convince people of. My business plan was more like 20 to 30 years rather than raise funds without anything to show for and then sell it in three years. That was not doable," he told Forbes earlier this year.
What Siegel lacked in investor adoration, he made up for in connections of just the right sort when one is looking to build out an eCommerce fashion platform. Central Saint Martins and Royal Academy Antwerp — two royal arts academies — both backed the idea early and used their alumni networks to find and encourage new designers to sign up. Those designers were looking for a marketplace — since many were finding their best channels were on social media, and their ability to amplify their signals on such crowded platforms was complicated. While building a platform for those adrift indies was attractive to one side of its platform, it only served to make the brand less attractive to investors.
“The first two years were so hard. People didn’t believe in it. They thought: you support the designers and you’re not making money, they then get hired by Chanel or someone and you’re still not making money.,” he said.
But, the black sheep brand persisted, and as of today it represents over 30,000 designers in over 150 countries, and has raised about $1 million from investors.
What’s next, Siegel said, is hitting reset again — and again, and again, and again. Fashion isn’t stagnant, despite some of the processes in the fashion industry strongly indicating otherwise, which means that staying relevant is really about finding ways to constantly be in motion.
Something NJAL is literally doing. Earlier this year, the brand relocated from its longterm London HQ to its new corporate home in L.A., so they can collaborate with more of the “right” people. London, according to Siegel, has become a city with no margin for error when it comes to who can stay and who has to go. Unless one is independently wealthily, London is becoming unlivable for the young and unrealistic for startup businesses. Even though NJAL is not the hungry start-up it was 10 years ago, it has no desire to pay ever rising rents. Plus, its personnel roster was changing away from the artistic and creative workers it was able to hire in its earlier years.
Instead, according to Seigel, he found the firm was becoming a professional haven for “rich kids.” And while there is nothing wrong with hiring in the independently wealthy, if that is all the brand can hire, that will limit and damage its ability to offer a well-rounded and modern perspective on clothes.
“I think London is not the right city to run a growing business anymore,” he noted.
NJAL has also been tweaking its business model in order to offer fuller and more robust services to sellers, and to open new revenue channels. These days, having a profile on the directory is free for designers, as it has always been. However, NJAL is now also offering a paid subscription with perks that include the ability to sell through NJAL directly and deals with partner brands to offer reduced rates on things like magazine advertisements and shipping costs.
For Siegel, the world he works in now is more competitive and more crowded — but also more interesting. He believes it will get even more interesting as the old gatekeepers in fashion keep passing out of relevance and as complacent firms are simply being disrupted out of the business entirely.
“I wouldn't want to be the CEO of any of these luxury brands right now,” he said.