Fashion Entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso - The It Girl
Sophia Amoruso has just remembered that Sheryl Sandberg sent her a note last week.
“Oh my god, I must make sure to write back,” she exclaims, with a note of self-reproach in her voice. “It was so supportive”.
That this 30-year-old has precious little time to respond to the COO of Facebook - a woman with a reported $1bn (£600m) fortune - should tell you something about her own stratospheric level of success.
As the founder of the Nasty Gal fashion brand, Amoruso is worth more than $100m. From humble beginnings, selling vintage clothes on eBay in 2006, today she employs 350 people in a 40,000 square foot office in downtown LA with a yoga room, has 550,000 daily customers, one million Facebook followers and celebrity fans including Cara Delevigne and Rita Ora. And now, she’s added a book to her empire.
GirlBoss is no ordinary business book. Part teen novel (one chapter is called ‘Shoplifting Saved My Life’); part stern lecture (‘Money Looks Better in the Bank than on Your Feet’), it swings between the salacious and the sensible.
But then Amoruso is no ordinary entrepreneur. Aged nine, she was suspected of having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD). By 16 she’s on anti-depressants. At 18, she hitchhikes down the West Coast of the US with truck drivers and survives by ‘dumpster diving’ for free food. At 19, she’s caught shoplifting. At no point has she held down a job for longer than two weeks. At few points does she seem to have had a good wash.
A Cinderella Story?
It’s pretty easy to label this a ‘rags to riches’ story.
“One article read, ‘from dumpster to CEO’”, she laughs. “It’s pretty reductive, but I find it comical.
“Yes, I put a lot of personal stuff out there. But if you tell your story, then no-one else can do it for you. It’s all down in the book, in my words.”
Amoruso plainly subscribes to the view that the worst things you’ve ever done will likely return to haunt you unless you self-publish them. And once you’ve outed your own sins? No one can hold them over you.
“It feels like I’m talking about someone else when I tell these stories,” she says. “I don’t relate to the person who made those decisions.
Nasty Gal is Born
It was being caught shoplifting (in fact, the first thing she sold on eBay was a stolen book) that convinced a 22-year-old Amoruso to turn her life around. She took a job - the last she would ever have - checking IDs at an art college and bought a copy of “Starting an eBay Business for Dummies”. Nasty Gal - named after a song by jazz singer Betty Davis - was born out of boredom and a love of vintage clothing.
Amoruso spent hours driving to remote locations and negotiating to bulk buy lots of secondhand clothing.
Amoruso excelled at selling. Social media was a part of her business from day one (hence the hashtag in GirlBoss). She connected with customers over MySpace. She scouted young models online and paid them in burgers. She knew how to pummel her competition because she was their demographic - and soon her clothes (scouted at house clearances and thrift stores all over the US) were selling for incredible prices.
Of course, this didn’t make her popular and she ended up getting kicked off eBay site after a spat with fellow users (they accused her of artificially inflating her prices). But for Amoruso it was a blessing - she’d already outgrown it. Instead, she bought the domain name NastyGalVintage.com- NastyGal.com - and grew her business proper.
Soon, she was hiring people to help with the growing number of orders. Bigger and bigger office spaces were required. On the day she banked $1 million cash, Amoruso took a photograph of her account. Just in case it didn’t last.
She feels the same way today. Her conversation is peppered with phrases such as ‘for now’. “I don’t want to count my blessings,” she says at one point - as if all this might disappear tomorrow. It seems unlikely. There are Nasty Gal stores on the horizon and girls in their 20s and 30s everywhere want to work for the brand – applying to Amoruso via social media and accosting her on shopping trips.
“It’s an amazing vote of confidence that your customers not only want to wear your clothes, but want to work in your office for 40 hours a week,” she says.
The Nasty Gal lifestyle
Amoruso isn’t just selling her loyal followers pink sunglasses, or shorts covered with strawberries. She’s offering them a lifestyle that doesn’t conform to the high street. “I want to make girls smarter and to create a community that can have conversations. My customers are curious about the world; they know that Nasty Gal is about making your life more than the sum of its parts. It’s not enough that girls are supposed to only be into fashion and that’s it”.
So, as a young female entrepreneur, has she ever come up against sexism in the boardroom?
“You know, I haven’t experienced that at all. I know other women do. I guess I waited until I was in a position of strength – CEO of my own business – to approach investors and ask for help. I never begged and said; ‘please, please give me some money.’ I waited until I was Sophia from Nasty Gal. No man has ever talked over me or not known that I was the one in charge”.
Amoruso gets involved in every aspect of her business: from board meetings to bagging clothes.
The girl who was fired from selling shoes in a department store for being late has come a long way.
“Oh my god, the lady who fired me recently tried to connect on Linked In,” she exclaims. “I thought, ‘I really don’t have room in my life for you’”.
Amoruso claims she’s freer in the world today than when she was ‘on the road.’ Does she ever take risks outside her working life?
“God, no. My ideal vacation is to stay somewhere small on the coast – where there’s just one street and the only decision you have to make is whether to turn left or right.”
Amoruso is a curious mass of contradictions. One minute, she’s the forthright CEO; the next she’s telling me that she doesn’t “take it all too seriously.” She claims to feel uncomfortable being labelled as a ‘dumpster diver’, but to promote GirlBoss she made a video in which she jumps out of a skip and munches on a bagel, supposedly scavenged from its depths.
But it’s this that makes her so approachable and, well, honest. It’s also what keeps her loyal customers coming back and what has propelled GirlBoss to the top of the bestseller lists – they know that there isn’t a bloke in a suit sat behind the desk at Nasty Gal HQ, calling the shots. Instead, it’s this rather fascinating misfit turned boss.
Although she could do with replying to Sheryl Sandberg sometime soon.