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516 - Innovating Fashion: Charlotte Holt's Tech-Driven Approach

March 14th, 2024

Hosts Will and Victoria sit down with Charlotte Holt, the Founder and Creator of The Fashion Library. Based in London, The Fashion Library is a contemporary wardrobe rental resource tailored for stylists. Charlotte opens up about her diverse background, spanning various countries, and shares the transformative journey that led her from being a stylist to establishing her own venture.

Charlotte sheds light on the formidable challenges stylists encounter, from the environmental repercussions of fashion production to the financial constraints of traditional shopping methods. She articulates how The Fashion Library is poised to confront these obstacles head-on by offering a platform that enables stylists to rent clothing, fostering sustainability while saving valuable resources like time and money.

Delving into the realm of technology, Charlotte underscores its pivotal role in streamlining operations and catalyzing a paradigm shift towards a more sustainable fashion industry. She outlines her ambitious vision for The Fashion Library's future, encompassing the archive, broadening the user base, and creating a robust marketplace and working platform.

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Transcript:

 WILL: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Will Larry.

VICTORIA: And I'm your other host, Victoria Guido. And with us today is Charlotte Holt, Founder and Creator of The Fashion Library, London's newest contemporary wardrobe rental resource for stylists. Charlotte, thank you for joining me.

CHARLOTTE: Thank you for having me. I never ever thought I would be talking on a podcast.

VICTORIA: You never thought that? Why? What did you think would happen? [laughs]

CHARLOTTE: As in, like, I never thought I would be on a podcast, me personally. So, like, this is a new experience for me.

VICTORIA: Wonderful. Well, I know you're speaking with us today, and just to warm us up a little bit, I'm curious: what other languages could you be speaking to us in? What's your...I heard you learn multiple.

CHARLOTTE: So, I actually went to school in the south of France when I was younger. And for the last couple of years, I've been living in Mexico, so I've been trying to learn Spanish. I am pretty proficient in French and getting there in Spanish.

VICTORIA: Very cool. I live in San Diego, and I've also been learning Spanish for a long time and love to practice sometimes, so... What about you, Will? Do you speak any other languages?

WILL: I used to speak Spanish, but it's so hard when you don't live in that culture to keep it up. Because I've been to, like, Peru a couple of times and some other South American places, but I always pick it up when I go back in there and kind of get the feel for it, but it's kind of hard. I need to pick it back up. But Spanish is the one that I feel the most comfortable in outside of English.

VICTORIA: Right. We're a bilingual nation. And so, I love that opportunity to get to meet other people and speak in other languages and practice that. So, Charlotte, coming back to your journey, it sounds like you've lived in all these interesting places. Why don't you tell us just a little bit more about your background?

CHARLOTTE: I am from Scotland originally. I know I don't sound like it. And then I went to school in the South of France for two years, like, to finish high school. Then I ended up back in the UK, living in London for 12, 14 years. And then, just as COVID was happening, I was actually supposed to kind of relocate or start working more in the U.S., and I actually ended up in Mexico [chuckles], of all places, and that's where I stayed for two years. I was living the good life.

I had a pretty good COVID experience. I was at the beach every day surfing, so I can't complain about that. And then I've been living in the U.S. on the West Coast in Los Angeles before I decided to set up my new business, which has brought me back to London.

VICTORIA: Wow, full circle. Well, what beach were you surfing on in Mexico, or did you go to a bunch of different ones?

CHARLOTTE: I've been to a bunch, but I was living in Sayulita. I've still got a place there that I keep because I love to be in the ocean. It's one of my favorite things to do. Surfing is definitely a good lifestyle choice of mine.

VICTORIA: There's not much surfing in London now, so your desire to start your new company must be really powerful [chuckles], very strong.

CHARLOTTE: Yeah, I actually have questioned myself, especially over the last few months when it's been full, mid-winter here: cold, dark, raining. Like, what am I doing? Why did I give up my kind of dream life working between LA and Mexico, being able to surf, you know, at least two, three, four times a month to come back here to do this? But the bigger picture is, hopefully, I will be able to go and surf wherever I like after I've built this business. So, that's kind of the end goal for me.

VICTORIA: Yeah. Tell me more about what led you to start your own business.

CHARLOTTE: I have been working as a stylist for the last 12-plus years. And then, obviously, my work took me to the U.S. A friend of mine gave me his little black book contacts of where I should go and places I should use in LA. And I walked into a rental house there that was for industry only and got a lightbulb moment. I was like, oh my God, why is this not happening back in London? And it kind of didn't make sense to me because the productions back in the UK are, well, they seem more sustainable. Everyone's hitting their kind of green quotas and targets.

So, it just made sense to me, but not just from, like, the sustainability point of renting clothes, but also having an industry-only place that you can go to and basically prep most of your job in one go. So, it was, like, saving time on the start of the job but also on the end, which is the return side, which people don't always realize.

Everyone's like, "Oh, it's so glamorous working in fashion and styling." But we are bag ladies. I will often have minimum six, eight cases with me, rails and rails, racks and racks of clothes. I'm always the first one there. I'm the last one there because we're packing away. It's lots of steaming, just lots of stuff. So, to me, it just made perfect sense to recreate the same thing in London. But then I started getting into it a little bit more and started looking at tech and how that can transform what we're doing, too.

WILL: Before we get too deep into The Fashion Library, I want to, one, explain what a stylist does because, like I said, I am not fashion-forward or friendly. So, tell me kind of what that looks like to do. And also, how did you become a stylist? Was it a dream of yours always, or what did that look like?

CHARLOTTE: I just love clothes. So, I actually was going to be a lawyer, and I went to school to study law [chuckles], and I ended up being a stylist. So, there's different kind of realms and levels of a stylist. You can be a personal stylist where you work in the consumer realm, helping people dress themselves. Then, you have your editorial stylists who create beautiful imagery for magazines. Then there's the commercial stylists who work on advertising, film, TV production. Then you've got your celebrity stylists. There's different kind of layers within being a stylist.

I actually work across a broad range of that. I do editorials, so magazines. I've worked with some talent, music videos, TV commercials, short films, stills, and advertising campaigns. And what I really love is how different every job is. It's never the same. You're never with the same crew of people. Every job is different. Sometimes, you might be on set for just one day. Sometimes, you're on set for a week. There's weeks and weeks of prep that goes into the job. There's also a lot of work on the backend doing returns, and budgeting, and reconciling everything. You literally have to love clothes.

WILL: Where did your love for clothes come from?

CHARLOTTE: [chuckles] That's a good question. I always thought it was my mum, but, actually, it was definitely my dad. I look at pictures of him from the '70s, '80s. He's got some wild outfits on. And I've got some of his pieces. I've got this floral jacket that we all used to get dressed up in when we were younger because it's the most outrageous piece. I have it now. It's actually amazing. I actually had it on the other week with just a little black vest and some jeans. And because it's such a statement piece, it looks super cool, but it's classic '60s. So yeah, definitely from my dad. He had a wild penchant for clothes.

VICTORIA: I loved how you brought up, in the beginning, that the role of a stylist is often portrayed as being very glamorous and being very just so fun and creative and how the reality of it is that it's more carrying bags around, and picking up at the end of the day, and getting the clothes ready, and how tedious that can be. And you discovered technology could take some of that tedious out of the process and allow stylists to focus their time on the creative aspects.

CHARLOTTE: Yeah. So, originally, my plan with The Fashion Library was just to kind of replicate what was happening in the U.S. with the rental house models and just bring it here. And I have a friend who I met surfing in Mexico. He's in his 50s, very successful tech entrepreneur. And I wanted to run my business past him just to kind of get some outsider knowledge but someone who's been there and done it.

And he actually said to me, he was like, "This is great, but you should really, like, start to look at tech and how that is going to really transform businesses in the future." And he flicked that switch on, and that was it. Then, I think a couple of weeks later, I started sending him all my brain dumps about tech and what I was thinking in my mind. And he actually turned around and said to me, "If you can see it in your mind, you can build it."

So, I started to look at my pain points as a stylist. And I work differently in every city because you have to adapt. Like, in LA, I'm often out and about compared to London, where I work a lot online. So, I started to look at, like, the pain points of everywhere and what would really be beneficial. It always kind of dialed back to that question of, what would help me as a stylist? So, that's how I've built the business, by looking at that aspect and what's helpful, what's not.

WILL: Yeah, I like that view because I totally agree. Tech is in pretty much everything. It's all about, how can you see it to help you with your pain points? So, that's amazing that you sat back; you saw the pain points, and it helped you create what you're doing. So, that's really, really amazing. Can you tell me more about The Fashion Library? What does that look like? What did you create? What was your pain points?

CHARLOTTE: We launched in mid-July last year with a physical showroom of around 500 pieces, which was just my archive. And then I'd built out a very rough and ready Shopify to kind of replicate what was going on in the physical realm but in the virtual realm. I hadn't shot all those pieces, so it was maybe only 200 pieces online. And then, within two weeks, I'd managed to grow the archive to well over a thousand pieces, and then I was like, ugh, I need to get all this shot now.

And it's me doing all of this. I'm working with a friend who's a photographer. And I style all the pieces on a ghost mannequin. I've already thought about some techie idea in my head about how to get around that in the future. I don't know if it's possible, but I can see it in my mind. We can build it. So, I just wanted them both to kind of work in the physical and virtual realm, but then, obviously, always going back to John's advice from Mexico that, you know, really start to look more into the tech.

And the tech's definitely taken over. We haven't built any yet. We are currently about to start raising because we want to build a fully functional marketplace that's industry-only. There's going to be a phase three, which will be a whole working platform that will streamline the working process from start to finish with lots of clever little things thrown in.

And I don't want to give too much away on this because it is just in my mind right now. Obviously, it's on paper, too, but I've just been looking at what else is going on in the fashion realm, in the fashion tech realm, and there's lots of exciting things. There was a stylist who reached out to me just before Christmas. She's actually an avatar stylist. So, I was really interested to speak to her. They're currently creating avatars from humans. So, soon, everyone's going to be able to have their own avatar if they want.

But there's some really, really interesting and innovative stuff happening within the tech space, and there's definitely exciting things. And I can see a lot of scope in the future for The Fashion Library in terms of how we build the tech and adapt and how we kind of disrupt the industry, not just here in the UK, but globally.

VICTORIA: Thank you for sharing all of that. I think that's so interesting. And I also really love that you made the connection from surfing that got you excited about tech and excited about all these possibilities that you're describing. I'm just imagining, like, a little side conversation while you're paddling around out in the ocean [laughs]. But I don't know if that's how it really happened.

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VICTORIA: What's your method for engaging with the industry on this issue and building your customer discovery process?

CHARLOTTE: Obviously, it's something I'm really passionate about. I knew that there would be others out there, too. We've been hunting for the stylists currently, so LinkedIn, this platform called The Dots here, Instagram, obviously, and then also connecting, like, higher up the food chain with production companies, ad agencies, really kind of targeting it from the top bottom down.

And then, the last couple of months, we've been focused on finding some founding members who are busy working commercial stylists who love the idea of sustainability and rental and want to be early adopters and users of The Fashion Library. We've had great feedback from them. So, having that feedback from people and it being positive is like a driving force behind what we're trying to create and creating.

VICTORIA: Has there been anything surprising in your conversations that has caused you to maybe pivot in your strategy?

CHARLOTTE: I mean, definitely, when I first took the idea to my surfing friend in Mexico, he really made me pivot from bricks and mortar into tech. I was always going to build out a tech platform, but it was literally just going to be online rental, just because of how I like to work in the UK. I think talking to him that really opened my eyes.

And then, also, kind of going off and launching really then understanding what he'd said to me. Because I think after I launched, I realized that actually the bricks and mortar is nice, and it's really nice to have that space and the showroom as a showcase, but it's not where I want to be. I'm really excited and really focused to get the tech going. It's really exciting. And if we can create what I'm envisaging, I think it's going to be so useful.

VICTORIA: Yeah. And I love that you're really focused on a specific group and creating something for the industry that you're in. Can you share any other specific problems or challenges that a stylist may have with a wardrobe rental app versus a person like me who's just trying to, like, rent a dress for the weekend or something?

CHARLOTTE: Yeah. Well, that's the thing. I mean, rental is trending as a whole globally. So, there are a lot of consumer-facing rental apps and businesses out there. But the thing about stylists is it's quite a lonely career. Yes, you have your assistants, but until you're on set or with your clients, you're pretty much on your own. And I think after COVID, there was that real push for community.

And also, as stylists, we tend to sit on big archives that we've collected from jobs, or we've had custom pieces made that actually never went to set or got used. And we don't want to get rid of them because they're special to us, but at the same time, they're just kind of sitting there gathering dust. So, being able to put those out to your peers and know that they're, like, going to go onto an advertising job or a TV commercial, or, I don't know, a short film, or a feature film, or on talent is kind of exciting because they're almost getting repurposed for what they were originally purposed for.

And also, being able to make money from your dormant archive that's kind of a cool thing; it's a first. And knowing that it's not in the customer consumer realm, so you don't really have to worry too much about your amazing couture dress that you had for this artist and it was never worn going to a wedding and getting trashed.

WILL: I think I understand kind of what the flow is. So, for example, if tomorrow I want to become a stylist, before The Fashion Library, would I have to own all my pieces to even get into the space?

CHARLOTTE: It really depends what kind of realm you're working in. Obviously, if you're working on editorial and with celebrities, you tend to get pieces from brands because they give you pieces or loan you pieces for publicity, so it's kind of a two-way deal. However, when you're working on film, TV, commercials, advertising, you get given production budgets, like, wardrobe budgets.

So, the current way that we work is we go out and shop, and we shop a lot. And we also fuel the fast fashion monster because a lot of the time, we have minimal budgets. We have this store in the UK, and it's called Primark. It's very, very, like, cheap and not good for the environment, and there's also ASOS as well. There's all this kind of online fast fashion places. And it's, like, you get the budget, and they want Prada, or they want designer and luxury. However, you've only got the budget to afford Primark or ASOS.

And, actually, what a lot of people don't realize is that stylists spend a lot. Say they get given a £2,000 or $2,000 budget; they will spend £6,000 or $6,000, and what isn't used, they then return. But because they're buying into the fast fashion brands, a lot of the time, once they do those returns, especially the online stores, it goes back, and it's actually landfilled or incinerated because the price point for them to repackage it is so minimal that it's actually cheaper for them to just get rid of it. So, we are actually really adding to the problem of fashion being a massive pollutant globally.

WILL: I didn't even catch that part, but yeah, that sounds amazing that not only, you know, if you said, "I had a budget for this movie or whatever. Can I get more pieces?" Because I'm looking at your website right now, and it looks cheaper to rent them than if I was buying them outright. So, I have more choices, but also, I'm saving the world. That sounds, yeah, that's a win, win, win.

CHARLOTTE: Yeah, that's so right. One of our slogans is, 'Saves time, money, and the planet.'

VICTORIA: It sounds like a core value that drives your everyday decisions. Are there any other values that help guide you as a founder as you're building your business?

CHARLOTTE: Just the positive feedback from everyone in the industry, whether that's from the producers, production companies, stylists, just everyone getting it because it is such a simple idea. So, it's just having that recognition and just knowing that what you've envisaged and you're creating is valued. That's a huge driving factor for me.

VICTORIA: And what does success Look like in six months or in five years from now?

CHARLOTTE: I think in six months, it will be to have a business that is growing and really living up to its foundations of helping stylists, making their lives easier, saving time, money, and the planet, growing the archive to double what it is currently. So, it's currently around 2,000 pieces. It'd be great to have 4,000-plus in the next six months. Continue to grow our user base, and just expand on that, and grow the connections that we're already creating within the industry with our affiliations with the green sustainability companies.

There's some exciting things happening. I don't want to talk about them just because until they're, like, done, I'm always a bit like, oh, I don't know if I should put that out there yet. But yeah, generally, just, like, expanding and building the business and also completing the first raise and starting to build and develop the tech. That's something I'm really ready and excited to do. It's scary, but it's also super exciting.

WILL: Yeah. I can't wait to see what comes out of it because it seems like you can go so many directions with this. Because, like you were saying, like, brick and mortar versus tech and, like, that means you can reach anywhere that you can ship products to, instead of having to come to one location. Even nowadays, like, Amazon does a little bit of it, but like, when you're trying to buy furniture or something, you can put it in the room and see how it sits there and stuff.

So, it's so many things because I know, like, fashion, the one thing I do know about fashion is how it looks on the person, so, like, you know, seeing how it looks on that person through technology. I'm so excited because I can see so many directions you can go with it.

CHARLOTTE: Will, you are right on the money there. I'm not going to say too much more, but yeah, you're definitely getting my vision a little bit. There's so much scope for it, too. And also, I mean, what you've kind of touched on is what I've envisaged. But, again, it's also, like, just keeping focused and keeping on that path for now because there's also so many different avenues further down that you can go into, too. Like, the potential and possibility with this is endless.

VICTORIA: What advice do you have for other founders out there who are building products in the fashion industry?

CHARLOTTE: That it's okay to make mistakes. You've actually just got to start. That's one of the things. You know, I worked on this for almost a year and a half before I brought it live. And I think I wanted to be as ready as possible. And knowing that it's okay to not have all the answers and, also, being able to learn really quickly and ask for help from people that you trust, and that age-old saying of trust your gut. If something with someone doesn't feel right, it's probably not, so just trusting that.

And also, just being able to pivot. You can't be so focused and rigid with what you're trying to create because it's going to, I mean, mine's changed so much from what I initially envisaged to where I'm at now, and it's going to keep changing. And that's okay because it needs to be adaptable in order to succeed and survive, I think.

And also, you're going to get a lot of people who are going to promise so much. At the end of the day, no one's going to work on it as hard as you are, and that's okay. But don't trust everyone who says they're going to do X, Y, Z for you because, usually, they're not. And they're always the ones that fall at the first hurdle.

WILL: One thing I love about doing this podcast is listening to entrepreneurs and their mindset and how they got to the place to even, like you said, start something. I feel like that's one of the biggest hurdles is just starting something. I want to understand more about your mindset. What is your wind in your sails? What motivates you?

CHARLOTTE: I got this idea. I've always had ideas but just generally just spoken about them and never really took them to fruition, whereas with this one, I was adamant I was going to do it. I actually ended up having my heart and soul ripped out of me and was, like, rock bottom, and this was already after I'd had this idea about this. And it was that need to, like, just heal and grow that I really just threw my all into it and was like, you know what? I'm going to try this. Like, I just suddenly found my path, and I just got so focused and determined on building this, so I haven't looked back yet.

Trusting your idea, knowing that it's okay to, like, make mistakes from time to time. But just being a little bit naïve, I've definitely learned a lot. But yeah, just having that determination and discipline to just keep going. Even when people who've promised you the world, like, ghost you or disappear on you, if it's your baby and it's your vision and you believe in it, you can make it happen.

VICTORIA: Thank you. That's really wonderful advice, and I think will really resonate with our listeners. Do you have anything else that you'd like to promote today?

CHARLOTTE: Yeah, so anyone involved in film, TV, and advertising production, or any stylists and costume designers, follow us on Instagram. Join our mailing list via our website, even if you're not London and UK-based, because we've got some really big, big things coming over the next 12 months. So, I know we're only London and the UK at the moment, but the vision is global. So, join us on our mission.

VICTORIA: That's so exciting. Thank you so much for coming on to the show and sharing your story with us.

CHARLOTTE: Thank you for having me.

VICTORIA: You're welcome.

You can subscribe to the show and find notes along with a complete transcript for this episode at giantrobots.fm. If you have questions or comments, email us at hosts@giantrobots.fm. And you can find me on Twitter @victori_ousg.

WILL: And me on Twitter @will23larry.

This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore.

Thanks for listening. See you next time.

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