When last we left off, the Los Angeles-based menswear styling startup Steel Fashion had just completed its summer-long residency as part of startup accelerator Velocity Indiana’s first class, alongside their fellow classmates Large Insights, Collabra, Change My School and GreekPull.
Steel Fashion is an online environment where men can style themselves and shop. It takes clothes that the man has, wants or is looking to buy and matches those items with other items of clothing and accessories to suggest a whole “look.”
The startup, led by its founder and CEO Rob Rosario, debuted its own style during Demo Day back in the waning days of August to much success before returning to the City of Angels to fine-tune all he and his team had learned along the banks of the Ohio.
Since then, there had been inklings and rumors about the possibility that Rosario & Co. would all leave the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles behind for the horses and bourbon of Louisville.
Thus, Insider Louisville decided to check in with him to see how Velocity “accelerated” Steel Fashion’s business model, what he thought of Louisville and its burgeoning entrepreneurial scene, and whether or not there were changes in his vision for the startup.
Of course, allow us first to ask the big question: Will Steel Fashions soon call Louisville their new Kentucky home?
“It’s definitely something that we’re open to. I have a team that’s there right now,” Rosario said. “I came to Velocity with my team in California. I ended up bringing on two more people that were local, and they are still in Louisville. So we are semi bi-coastal, but not really bi-coastal… Midwest?”
So close. Perhaps a case of Kentucky’s finest (and rarest) bourbon could seal the deal?
Regarding his experience in being a part of Velocity’s first class, he likened the experience to taking a master class in business, focusing on all of the intricacies that make any business tick.
Rosario also stated that for anyone who didn’t study business in college, an accelerator such Velocity Indiana is a great way to gain and learn to use the tools needed to not only be a successful entrepreneur, but to build the right idea into a successful business overall.
Going back to his Demo Day , Rosario said it was a great experience, especially when it came to pitching Steel Fashion’s raison d’être to would-be investors, including a few angel investors based in Indiana who could possibly (we hope) convince him and his new wife to make Louisville their new home.
“I think [Louisville’s entrepreneurial scene] is a young program, but they’re doing big things,” Rosario explained. “The support structure that they have there is phenomenal. You can reach out to anybody that does anything in [Louisville]. If you need anything, you have a hundred people that are going to assist and find you the resources that you need.”
As far as Louisville itself is concerned, Rosario is a fan of the big city with the small-town vibe.
He noted that Louisville was a big change from Los Angeles, where while the latter most likely has more of everything going for it, the angels that reside there aren’t as friendly or nice as Louisville’s cadre of characters, such as Velocity’s Tony Schy, with whom Rosario is now friends.
Regarding whether or not his vision for Steel Fashion has changed since his Velocity Indiana experience, Rosario says that the foundation still holds firm for the startup’s business model, noting that what did happen was his ability to better nail-down what he was looking to get out of his vision through the help of various mentors while paring down the concept to its roots, working upward from there.
Speaking of nailing concepts down, when asked about the core demographic Steel Fashion was aiming to capture, Rosario said that through two sets of A/B tests, he discovered that both affluent and aspiring male demographics wanted to up their style portfolio.
Currently, the focus is on the former, providing the power players at Hilliard Lyons with the tools that learn more about how each user dresses, then offer suggestions from their closet or, if need be, the nearest online or local boutique.
That said, Rosario is keeping the aspiring demographic in mind as Steel Fashion grows to be a power player in the menswear category.
And what would you find in Rosario’s Steel Fashion closet were you to gain access? Shoes from Rag & Bone and To Boot New York (especially when they go on sale at Nordstrom Rack, a favorite store of his that just — hint-hint — opened its first store in Louisville early in October along Shelbyville Road in St. Matthews), along with clothes from retailers such as Zara and Topman, and designers such as Prada and Christian Dior.
As for the state of menswear today, Rosario says it depends on where you go, for starters:
Menswear has a different kind of ecosystem in different parts of the U.S., or even in different parts of the world. But it is always [as if] men are tiptoeing around it. It seems that men don’t want to spend too much time getting to know fashion or style, but they’re interested. As long as it’s fast or convenient, men are willing to do it, but right now, the market is geared towards women and their behaviors and how they shop.
He also found that with Louisville men, they go for what he describes as “classic Americana” with a lot of earth tones and blues making up a lot of the local men’s closet.
Rosario also noted that Louisville tends to go through an annual fashion cycle tied into the weekend-long celebration of all things Oaks and Derby:
The Derby is where guys go all out, and they put on seersucker, a bow tie, and they get really creative and have great pocket squares. Some men carry that year-round, some are like, ‘Ah, it’s a one-time thing,’ but it does trickle out. And I see that progressively prolonging throughout the year, based off our our customer discovery interviews that we did with consumers in that area.
The biggest aspect of menswear that he’s found throughout the years is the issue of fit, noting that all men have a common obstacle when it comes to finding clothes that fit their individual bodies the best and make each wearer feel great, no matter if they live in New York, Los Angeles, or Louisville.
For Rosario, it wasn’t too long ago when he himself had wardrobe dysfunctions, throwing himself at the mercy of others to help style the future menswear startup business king, with mixed results. Rosario says:
I usually was dressed by whoever I was dating, and I’d be like, ‘I kind of don’t really reflect who I think I am.’ Eventually, I started going out to stores and researching and trying different brands on. Then, it really accelerated when I moved to L.A. I think it was probably so many different brands in such a small area– you can go to a mall and [find] 15 menswear brands — that you can really figure out what you like and don’t like really fast.
Speaking of his move to the City of Angels, the foundation stones for what would become Steel Fashion were molded by his previous retail experience. From folding pants and hanging shirts at Express, to working the floor at Michael Kors, Rosario studied the differences among each “branch” of designing, assembling, marketing and selling fashion.
In his findings, he says that most department store brands aim for a “cookie-cutter” approach to manufacturing menswear, leading to undesirable qualities such as dress shirts having excess fabric around the waist and the arms. Low-end, fast-fashion designers such as H&M and Zara, on the other hand, tend to pay more attention to how clothes should fit.
The worst part of how men are treated by fashion: They don’t even know how much better they could have it. Rosario says:
If you’re a designer and you just started out, you don’t notice all of the parts of that design that don’t make sense, that are off-balance. But after someone points [the flaws] out to you and go, ‘Hey, that doesn’t really make sense,’ you’re like, ‘Ooh! Now I’m aware.’ I think that mirrors men; they don’t really notice a lot of the small details until you say, ‘You should probably only have a slight break in your pants,’ and they didn’t realize that they thought it was a slight break.
Going back to Steel Fashion, which will celebrate its fifth anniversary in 2014, the styling site’s “secret sauce” development is coming along fantastically according to Rosario.
He says his team has been hard at work with the “learning machine” (the secret algorithm used to learn how each man dresses to help improve his style), finding out how it works with the tools needed to make it run. The team has also put the machine through its paces with small test groups, finding some great success as more and more men use it, in turn helping the machine to scale faster and faster with more proper suggestions.
The results thus far: Six out of 10 users find Steel Fashion’s suggestions to their liking and then some. On the other end, the site is seeing steady traffic from all over the United States and in Europe despite the lack of hard promotion, with 44 percent returning to improve their looks. Rosario believes the traffic is driven by word of mouth.
“I think we’re gonna see some really interesting changes with men’s fashion, men’s styling in the next couple of years,” Rosario said at the end of our interview. “[Menswear is] a vastly growing market; it’s growing so fast. I think we’re going to see some really interesting companies and interesting solutions come out in the next couple of years; Steel is going to definitely be one of them.”