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On 'Of a Kind' and the Slow Death of Brand Discovery on the Internet

Mourning the loss of one of fashion’s most innovative retailers.

‘Of a Kind’ founders Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo. Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images

Allow me to paint a picture: the year is 2012. “Somebody That I Used to Know” is playing on a continuous loop in everyone’s ears. (Admit it: You know you still know the words.) Thanks to the Internet and an influx of people willing to break the mold, we’re in the middle of a startup boom. Fashion is more mainstream than ever thanks to celebs-turned-designers like Kanye West and reality shows like “Project Runway.” 

I found myself at the center of everything as a second-semester student at F.I.T., and like everyone at my school, Tumblr was my bible. Through other people’s curated feeds, I was introduced to the creators, models and designers that would come to shape my world as I traded in my online life for a real one in the fashion industry. That online to IRL shift got real late one night in February when I discovered Of a Kind.

Like many startups of the aughts, Of a Kind set out to fill a necessary gap in the market, and was praised for its genius amongst the who’s who of fashion when it launched back in 2010. In a lot of ways, the brand was way ahead of its time and laid the groundwork for businesses to come. Co-founders Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo modeled Of a Kind after art startup 20×200 after Mazur wrote about the brand for her master’s thesis at Columbia University and realized that its concept also lent itself perfectly to the indie fashion scene. Over the course of a 25 email long chain, she and Cerulo decided that starting the business was a definite yes, and adopting 20×200’s limited-edition ethos was a must.

Using scarcity to drive sales has since been widely adopted in fashion, specifically through the use of product drops by everyone from streetwear supergiant Supreme to department store darling Nordstrom; this very site crowned 2017 the “Year of the Drop.” But the DNA of a drop is rooted in what Of a Kind understood all the way back in 2010: People flock to products when they feel like they’ll be the only ones in the world to have them.

In 2019, the way Of a Kind mixed content and commerce is commonplace, but it definitely wasn’t in 2010. Designer Ellen Dusen of Dusen Dusen, who committed to selling on the site before it even launched, recalls how revolutionary the concept felt at the time. “They launched during an era where blogs were really popular, and people were really starting to care about where things came from and the person behind the product,” she says. “They honed in on this and wanted to fuse editorial and retail, which at the time didn’t really exist, but is now ubiquitous.” A 2012 Business of Fashion article told the story of a crop of fashion companies trying to bridge the gap between content and commerce, two whole years after Of a Kind had successfully launched with a concept that did just that.

Back when Of a Kind launched, it wasn’t as easy for designers to sell directly to consumers. Platforms like Shopify and Squarespace hadn’t gone mainstream yet, and many makers couldn’t afford to set budgets aside for marketing or promotion. Mazur has always viewed Of a Kind as a resource for designers in addition to a retail platform, and says she consistently received feedback from these makers about the “real value” of the services she and Cerulo provided for them through “storytelling, photography, and curation.” Over the course of the business, the work of over 600 designers and makers were featured. The site served as more than just an avenue for them to sell their designs — it was also a vehicle to reach new audiences.

Of a Kind’s first employee Grace Canlas fondly remembers how Of a Kind’s storytelling set the brand apart: “I think the format of sharing two stories before a limited edition drop made people feel like they were patrons of art in a way. People truly enjoyed learning about the designers and felt a real connection to the pieces they were buying because of the stories being told. It wasn’t just a super cute necklace, it was a super cute necklace hand-dyed by Erin Considine in Williamsburg using the onion skins the Park Slope Co-op would save for her, and by wearing it, they were supporting her and her craft. In the same way Of a Kind gave customers access to under-the-radar discoveries, they gave designers access to the most enthusiastic fans who loved learning all about them.”

Of a Kind’s designer stories have covered a surprisingly vast amount of topics, with everything from a Kombucha-making guide from Tyler Haney — whose sold-out editions helped catapult her brand Outdoor Voices to viral success — to tips for expertly shopping for vintage gold from JJ Matchett of Machete, the line that helped usher us all into the statement hoops era, living on the site. Cerulo’s background working at magazines like Lucky and Details, coupled with her approach to storytelling, gave the business the unique selling proposition that it needed to make a splash. If you go on Pinterest, you’ll see that a good amount of the pins bookmarked from ofakind.com are from designer stories; selling products while telling the stories behind them allowed customers to emotionally attach themselves to the things they were buying, developing brand loyalty to not just Of a Kind, but the designers themselves.

Prior to selling on Of a Kind, Caroline Hurley of Caroline Z Hurley, which now boasts over 40,000 followers on Instagram, says she struggled to find ways to get her products in front of customers. “They helped me tell my story, take photos of my work, and think of my little low-fi website in a bigger way. In my mind, Of a Kind is the reason I exist,” says Hurley. Yuka Izutsu of Atelier Delphine, an eight-year-old line that can be described as “Southern California meets sixties European vacation style,” credits Of a Kind with putting her brand on the map, too. “They believed in me,” Izutsu says. “Nobody did before them. They gave me a big chance, respected [my design process] so much, and helped me make something that engaged customers.”

As Of a Kind grew, Mazur and Cerulo continued to create opportunities for the makers it featured to flourish and grow, inviting them to create new editions and participate in sample sales and pop-ups. These offline events allowed the designers the chance to have face time with Of a Kind’s über-engaged customers and even served as a way for them to meet one another and work through shared struggles; Dusen remembers one sale in particular where she became “great friends” with the designer that helmed Wray.

Perhaps this is what really made Of a Kind unique: the community fostered through Mazur and Cerulo’s bond. Jenna Wilson, one half of design duo Ace & Jig, found their friendship and relationship as co-founders to be one of the most impressive things about Of a Kind. “Claire and Erica have always had such a warm and collaborative approach. Our first talks with them inevitably ended up as ‘resource sharing’ chats where we supported each other in the beginning stages of entrepreneurship,” Wilson says. 

They seamlessly translated their partnership into content for the business. There’s the now-infamous ’10 Things’ newsletter which started as a way to promote a sale and morphed into a cult read for its customers. Then came a podcast, ‘A Few Things‘, and later a book, ‘Work Wife‘ about the power of female friendship in the workplace. Mazur attributed the brand’s success, in part, to the fact that it’s always been a very “authentic representation” of who she and Cerulo are and what they love. “Our voice and vision have been present from day one,” she says. “The best compliment we get from our customers is that Of a Kind feels like an in-the-know friend.”

Both founders also weren’t shy about bringing personal details of their lives into the fold. One of the site’s most popular posts featured Mazur fearlessly talking about how she used running to wean herself off of antidepressants, and on a recent episode about motherhood on the ‘Few Things’ podcast, Cerulo opened up about not wanting to have children. They labeled themselves as professional enthusiasts and took their customers with them as their lives evolved and they made life-changing discoveries along the way.

The decision to be so open came naturally because, in the beginning, they were the ones doing everything. When Of a Kind launched, Mazur and Cerulo did all of the product-sourcing, customer service and order processing out of their New York apartments. Jamie Beck, who was responsible for the site’s early photography, recalls these DIY days: “In the beginning we had to do everything guerrilla-style, using the NYC streets as our sets and white poster board from CVS as product backgrounds. I like to think I taught Claire and Erica how to pose because they were our models in the first years of Of a Kind.”

Mazur and Cerulo were in a unique space where they were, in theory, their own target demographic and they used that to their advantage as they strategically grew their business. In 2010, a few months after the brand had launched, they personally emailed about 20 customers and invited them to a roundtable where they were polled about everything from their thoughts on previous editions to what they were currently into. This acumen was the reason why designers would reach out to the duo for advice even after their editions had gone live. “They were always so helpful, positive, and god damn smart,” Hurley says. “It always felt so good going into their office. I always left feeling like ‘I got this.'”

As an industry, fashion was slow to warm up to social media, with many of the big brands originally seeing it as a waste of time and resources — but not startups. Of a Kind was the first retail brand to launch on Tumblr, and when Mazur and Cerulo were basically asked “Why Tumblr?” in one of their first interviews, their answer proved that they were thinking ahead: “The most obvious thing about Tumblr is it lends itself really well to the viral spread of content, so from a marketing standpoint that’s great for us. It’s also the demographic of early adopters who love to talk about things they love and there’s a really rapidly-growing fashion community.”

But it was only a matter of time until the rest of the industry smartened up, and when it did, it brought billions of dollars worth of backing with it. Pivots became paramount to success as the industry shifted at lightning speed; the influencer age set in, and people were less and less interested in consuming content off-platform. You didn’t need to set out to discover things anymore — algorithms did that for you, and you could now buy things recommended to you without even leaving Instagram. The same platforms that had contributed to the meteoric rise of startups became a huge factor in what lead to their struggles.

Writer and fashion vet John Jannuzzi was on the front lines, watching these changes in real-time as he worked in social media at brands like Kate Spade and later joined Twitter‘s ranks. He says that for smaller brands, it’s becoming tougher and tougher to stand out. “As the influencer economy grows and we’re all subject to the whims of an algorithm, it’s hard to win,” he says. “When people see a name that they recognize, i.e. a more established brand, the familiarity can make it enticing to engage with. A person with a large audience talking about a brand or designer with another large audience seems more likely to foster growth and conversation.”

“At one time, social media was the best place for brands like Of a Kind and the people they supported to grow,” Jannuzzi explains. “But these days, the crowds and mounds of content make it difficult to navigate. I think that discovery is evolving, but the climb for smaller, original, and unique creators — the kind that Of a Kind celebrated — is so much steeper now.”

To adjust to the new retail market, Of a Kind decided to branch out too, creating an in-house line, ‘Permanent Collection‘ of “foundational (but still special)” pieces that they designed themselves as well as “Professional Enthusiast” merch, all while expanding into new categories like home goods and personal care. There was even a collaboration with Target. This led to a necessary attempt at fundraising that Cerulo described as “a lot like dating” in a 2013 interview. In 2015, it seemed like Of a Kind had finally found the right fit when the business was acquired by Bed Bath & Beyond. It came as a surprise to many, but Mazur and Cerulo spoke to the fact that, like Of a Kind, the company was started by two friends-turned-business partners. The founders promised its customers that “Of a Kind will still be Of a Kind.” 

It seemed like that might remain true until Oct. 3, when Bed Bath & Beyond announced that it was shuttering Of a Kind during its latest earnings call. When an analyst from Jefferies asked for specifics about closing Of a Kind, Bed Bath & Beyond interim CEO Mary Winston seemed unable to offer up any reasoning other than reiterating how it was Bed Bath & Beyond’s “smallest businesses” and calling its performance “immaterial.”

Immaterial? Not to its bevy of devoted fans. On the Instagram posts where Mazur and Cerulo announced Of a Kind’s fate, over 600 devastated customers, designers, and fans reminded the pair of the brand’s impact. One customer left this especially moving comment: “I have been such a fangirl for so long. Looking around my kitchen this morning, I see multiple Of a Kind pieces, all of which bring me joy, and most of which I never would have discovered on my own. I could never even begin to properly wrap my head around all you gave to artists and other small businesses.”

When asked about what, in his opinion, made Of a Kind special, Jannuzzi noted how the business “solved a lot of problems people didn’t know they had.” Digging deeper, he said, “If you were looking to buy a gift for somebody difficult to shop for, or somebody who has everything, you wouldn’t leave ofakind.com empty-handed. How many sites can you actually say that about?”

Beck, who at one point shared an office space with Of a Kind and has an especially close relationship with the founders, echoed Jannuzzi’s sentiments. “In a world of mass-produced products without stories, there was a special gem. Pieces that were handmade with stories to tell and faces and names attached to them. The total opposite of mass production. It was a way for consumers to meet the designers and understand their process while supporting independent small businesses.”

She serendipitously created Of a Kind’s last edition and says her husband Kevin Burg, also a photographer, encapsulated just how much weight that carried by saying, “You shot their first product, and now you are their last. It’s so poetic.” Beck feels her journey with Of a Kind speaks to some of life’s biggest lessons: “To be there at the beginning, watching Of a Kind grow, forming lifelong friendships with Claire and Erica, being able to support each other for years and then being there in the end is like wrapping the story of Of a Kind up in a bow of love, friendship and support. Isn’t that what life is about?”

It’s hard to imagine a fashion industry where Of a Kind doesn’t exist, and in a lot of ways, the industry it’s leaving behind feels so much different than the one it made its mark on in 2010. The hope that was manifested through the fashion startup boom has since been replaced with a lot of fear of the future. One thing I’m sure of is that this is isn’t the end for Mazur and Cerulo: Since the closure of Of a Kind, they’ve launched a website where fans of the brand can sign up for a newsletter to stay in touch and learn about what they’re up to next. 

Still, I have faith for the parts of the industry that have benefited from Of a Kind’s presence. So many of the ethical business practices that were commonplace for the company — promoting conscious consumption, highlighting representation and diversity, etc. — are starting to be adopted on a larger scale, motioning towards a more inclusive and thoughtful era of fashion. There’s no doubt that the spirit of Of a Kind will live on, be it via the web of small businesses and designers that it helped to bolster, the content it trail-blazed with or the customers whose lives it made better with each edition. 

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Source: Fashionista.com

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