Fab.com’s Co-Founder on Living in a Culture of Savvy Design Enthusiasts

Bradford Shellhammer talks the e-commerce site's expansion into fashion design and how high-end, niche markets are now increasingly more accessible.

When I heard that Fab.com, a flourishing e-commerce site that recently reached the 2 million mark in membership and that this month, the site is introducing five new vertical shops, I wanted to get a peek behind the scenes. So I went to Bradford Shellhammer, co-founder with Jason Goldberg, the business genius behind the success story of Fab.com, a site known for its “daily deals” program of special offers, selling good design at rather favorable prices.

Bradford, a Parsons grad with an unerring eye for design excellence, is key to keeping the site’s design standards high. As Goldberg told Entrepreneur last October, “We’ve carved out a very large but unique niche for ourselves. Design is a horizontal market, not vertical. Design crosses multiple categories. […] We consider ourselves a design inspiration business.” Bradford completed the thought later in the same article: “Bad design gets under your skin. People who love design want to better the whole world through design. Everyone’s a tastemaker. Everyone’s an artist. Once you make the decision to embrace design, it’s hard to go back.”

Last month Fab acquired FashionStake whose co-founder Vivian Wang is now Fab.com’s lead fashion buyer. Considering that Fab.com went live on June 2011 (rebranded from Fubulis in April of that year), and is known for hiring some of the most talented designers, buyers, and people with other skills in a still sluggish job market, I was eager to ask Bradford to talk about their new areas of business, design, and phenomenal success in a relatively new field.

Susan S. Szenasy:  First things first. Tell me about the two newest vertical shops Fab.com launches on this month, Vintage (Feb. 20) and Fashion (Feb.21). Specifically, when I go on the Vintage page, what kinds of things will I expect to see in the furnishings category? In accessories?

Bradford Shellhammer: You can expect to see a range of items from Turkish rugs to mid-century sofas to vintage circus posters. The shop is gorgeous. I’m really excited about it since there currently really is no vintage-shopping destination online that does not cater to the very wealthy. In terms of accessories we’ll have beautiful restored vintage typewriters, lamps made from recycled industrial parts, and lots of pillows made from vintage fabrics.

Susan: Since you’re heading into Fashion and, no doubt you’re the visionary behind this new category, what is your vision for an e-commerce site for something as personal as fashion?

Bradford: We see a huge opportunity in entering the independent fashion world. There are tens of thousands of emerging designers out there, yet many don’t have the resources to get their designs in the hands of a large audience. That’s where we step in. We’re reinventing the way people discover fashion and at the same time creating a marketplace for indie designers.

I know I personally I have a deep connection to the products that touch my body on a daily basis. I want clothing that speaks to me, clothing that has a story behind it and it’s readily known where and how the garment was made. That’s why I’m so excited about what Fab is doing in fashion. The fashion items we’re featuring in our new Weekly Shop will have stories behind them and will be designed to make you smile. We will not be selling Tory Burch excess inventory. That’s not Fab. In many ways, we’re doing for Fashion what we did for Home and Product Design—we’re making it more accessible to everyone and introducing emerging designers to a bigger audience.

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Susan: How do you enhance the online shopping experience for items we like to touch and feel and try on?

Bradford: Our website and our mobile apps were created to showcase and present our designs. Shopping on Fab really is a beautiful experience for our members. Keep in mind this isn’t 2001, when shopping online meant looking at a static image. Technology today allows you to zoom in and see the exact color or weave pattern of a sweater or pair of pants. Also, all of our fashion items will feature information about fit and sizing. Finally, all Fab fashion and apparel sales are exchangeable for correct sizing. We’ll accept exchanges of unworn, unwashed, and undamaged items.

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Susan: Fab.com is known for bringing the work of emerging product designers to its growing audience (I hear your numbers rose to 2 million members recently). Who are the emerging fashion designers we should be looking for? How do their designs express our moment in time?

Bradford: Necklush, Martha Davis, Grey Line Map. What I find most interesting is that many of the independent fashion designers we’re discovering and featuring are not classically trained. They found their way into fashion through architecture or graphic design. That’s an exciting trend and is resulting in some really innovative pieces. In many ways, their designs express our moment in time because they’re part of this largest movement we’re seeing in the economy—a shift back to “making things.”

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Susan: Earlier this month you launched three other vertical shops—Kids, Pets, and Food. It may be a bit early to tell in the brick and mortar world, but since e-shoppers seem to be eager to find new sources and buy things quickly, which one of these new verticals has surprised even you, in its popularity? And, especially, the kinds of things that became instant favorites—talk about them.

Bradford: Those who know me well know that I’m not a fan of the felines. However, I’ve been most pleasantly surprised by the success of our Pets Shop. Modernist Cat makes the most beautiful litterbox. Sounds silly, but it’s handmade, and constructed of grass-cloth and wood. That’s been a hit. So yes, definitely Pets has been the biggest surprise and I can now say I’ve changed my tune on cats. In fact, here’s a shot of me and one of our biggest fans- Luna the fashion kitty.

Susan: Design is very much a focus of Fab.com. While in the brick and mortar world design seems rarely discussed, except at the high end, in e-commerce the rapid growth of your audience speaks to an important shift in the marketplace. Can you talk about how you see design’s role evolving in the marketplace? It all seems very hopeful to me—people having access to beautiful and affordable things. How do you account for this success?

Bradford: I’d actually disagree that design is rarely discussed except at the high-end. Stores like Ikea and Target have helped to educate consumers on the importance of good design. While yes, most iconic design is still confined to the stuffy walls of high-end showrooms I believe that over the last decade we’ve seen a shift. High-end, niche markets like fashion and cuisine are now more accessible and available to the masses—a la Zach Posen at Target or shows like Top Chef. Design too, is experiencing a similar shift with everything from Dwell to Apple to Fab.com, resulting in a culture of design savvy enthusiasts. When we founded Fab we had a hunch: if given a choice, the consumer would always choose the well designed object whether it be a chair, a place mat or a sweater. 2 million Fab members later—our hunch was right.

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Categories: Retail Interiors

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