Being told by a complete stranger that they love something you're wearing is an absurdly affirming experience, but when it happens to “stylists” for Stella & Dot, they don't just smile graciously at the compliment – they can turn it into a tidy profit.
In 2003, New York-based entrepreneur Jessica Herrin wanted a new project, one which would put women at the heart of the business – not just as customers but by empowering them to create their own income. “Accessories are the perfect category for the 'Everywoman',” says Herrin of the gap that she had spotted in the market. “But retailers have a problem: jewellery needs to be locked away or it walks out.” And so she embarked upon a jewellery making course, and put her social-selling concept to the test by selling her designs to a select group of friends and acquaintances.
While Herrin enjoyed some success despite her “terrible” design skills, it wasn't until 2005 when she met designer Blythe Harris that the juggernaut that is Stella & Dot, with more than $200m sales to date, began to take shape. Harris, who had designed for De Beers and Banana Republic, says of her part: “Amazing quality and design is important so that our stylists feel they are giving someone access to something – not pushing it on them.”
Indeed, rather than the pressurised home-selling environment of the awkward Ann Summers-style party, Stella & Dot “trunk shows” are instead designed to be a far more relaxed affair. Each stylist must first invest £169 in a starter kit which comes with £300-worth of jewellery to showcase and a free trial of their own micro-site on the Stella & Dot website. There are no sales targets to meet, instead each stylist can set their own goals and choose when and how much to invest in extending their business. Any further sales through their micro-site – such as the result of those occasional encounters with strangers – will generate commission too.
Since launching in the UK in October 2011, the brand has racked up sales of £7m through its growing network of 1,200 stylists selling jewellery, bags and leather goods. Everything is designed in-house, and the company's New York design office is a veritable magpie's nest of vintage costume and fine jewellery, with covetable works in progress and finished pieces covering almost every available surface.
At the beginning of each new season, 400 or so designs are whittled down to the 60 that will go into production, with up to 5,000 units of each being made. “We're not just about cutting-edge trends in fashion,” says Harris. “We have that, but also the essentials and a stone collection. There's a lot of breadth in the line to service all the different people who could end up at a trunk show.”
Harris was keen to bring her experience working with artisans to her new venture. “It is an important part of the brand that we work with our artisans in India on hand embroidery and hand finishing. Our end goal is to make as many women successful as entrepreneurs as possible – we do lots of micro-financing and create other opportunities,” she says. “It's great that I still get to work with artisans, even though we have built such a large company.”