Jessie Zeng, founder of fashion and tech startup Choosy, Photo Credit: Chris Miggels
Photo Credit: Chris Miggels
Can a startup be considered both a fashion company and a tech company?
In the case of Choosy, that’s a resounding ‘yes.’ The brand that leverages artificial intelligence to identify fashion trends first launched in 2018, and has revolutionized the way women’s clothing is manufactured by closing the loop between social media and fashion — and making it even tighter. And here’s the cherry on top: it does so without producing waste, by matching demand and supply with predictive technology.
“Our algorithms go through the entire realm of social media,” cofounder Jessie Zeng explains. “We follow everyone that has some type of fashion influence on social media, and we aggregate this database that visually tracks all of their posts, and all the comments on their posts. And then we track how it performs over time, as well as what people are actually saying in the comments.” This allows Choosy to rank the popularity of specific items using natural language processing.
Essentially, Choosy defers to Instagrammers’ takes on styles to design women’s essentials, from streetwear to special occasion items.
I spoke with Zeng, who was included in this year’s Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in the “Retail & E-Commerce” category along with her cofounder Mo Zhou, about how the data-driven shopping site Choosy is flipping the script on the fashion world.
“We started Choosy with the goal of using technology to deliver top trends and fashion in a smarter way. We wanted to put the styles that women love on social media, directly into their hands. At the same time, we wanted to use artificial intelligence to refine style selection and production,” Zeng explains.
But first, a bit of a backstory: While Zeng was working as a trader at Citi, she was fashion blogging as a side hustle. That’s when she recognized the link between certain fashion influencers and the power that influencers can have on determining whether a trend will be a hit or a miss. (Once a trend becomes ubiquitous on Instagram, it’s usually a good indicator of whether its popularity among consumers will follow suit.)
Zeng launched the company with two fellow Citi colleagues, including Mo Zhou, 27, who serves as chief operating officer, and Sharon Qian, who originally served as chief technology officer, but left the company in 2019 to focus on a Ph.D. in applied mathematics at Harvard.
Thanks to long-standing relationships with hundreds of factories in China (Zeng was raised in China and her family runs some factories there), she identified a network of small, agile textile factories, making it possible to produce a range of items in small quantities —as little as 80 units at a time — practically on demand.
“What’s special about Choosy is that we match supply and demand in real time. So on the supply side, we have innovated by being able to dramatically reduce the waste and by producing smarter pieces that people actually want, but also on the demand side, we’re unique because we’re ‘social’ first. For example, when we were growing up, we’d go to the mall after school and that’s where buying intent really occurred. But someone who is 19 or 20— they really exist more in the virtual world of social media. So today that’s where people are getting ideas and inspiration of what new outfits they want to purchase. Choosy is among the wave of these new brands that are actually meeting the customers where they are.”
By producing in small batches, Choosy holds minimal inventory and uses only readily available repurposed fabric, which is eco-friendly.
The algorithm Choosy employs helps identify what’s trending in women’s fashion and also involves the Choosy customer by having her “vote” and validate products.
A classic example of an item that was “tested” is a pair of two-colored pants: since it was a forward trend, Zeng was unsure about whether the pants would be well-received or rejected by the community. The algorithm had identified them as a trend, and now it was up to the Choosy customer: they were produced in low quantity as a test, and ended up being a bestseller.
“The items on our own Instagram are the products the algorithm has already picked up. So we want validation on our social media and / or newsletter, by asking our customers something like, ‘we only have enough room for one suit — which one do you want, left or right?’ And that tends to work really well because the customer feels empowered and like she’s part of the decision-making process.”
Creating a sense of community is also important to Zeng, “by just allowing our customers to engage with us and letting the customer be part of the brand’s growth.”
A critical part of growth is evolution and reinvention — something incredibly important to Zeng.
“For me reinvention is really about adapting to change, no matter what challenges come about in life. As a small company, it’s so important to be nimble,” Zeng explains. “The biggest benefit of a start-up is being able to make decisions quickly. For us, that means being proactive in everything from trend forecasting to applying the technology we’ve developed, to different use cases beyond our initial plans.”
Reinvention is also about pivoting, which Zeng mastered ever so gracefully when she went from team member to founder, and pivoted from finance to fashion.
She left Citi to focus on Choosy when she realized the idea had potential for growth:
“In the very early iterations, when I was doing it by myself, I was literally fulfilling orders out of my apartment in NYC. My cofounders said, ‘I think we have some traction here, maybe we should go raise some money.’ I was doing photoshoots on my roof and there were sewing machine labels everywhere!”
Choosy’s official launch was in the summer of 2018, after the startup received funding. To date, they’ve raised over $10 million in funding.
“We were pretty scrappy, until we essentially raised the first round of funding.”
But being a small, scrappy team is what gives Choosy the ability to be agile.
One of the changes Choosy has made is its recent partnership with the shopping platform, Verishop, with the goal of continuing to change how the world shops.
“Business initiatives such as this exciting partnership with Verishop have had an added layer of complexity because of COVID-19, but we’re taking each step day-by-day to make sure we’re able to serve our community and keep our employees safe. We make plans and backup plans with as much information as we have at the time, and avoid getting bogged down with ‘what-ifs.’”
The partnership means that Choosy apparel is now featured on Verishop’s Millennial and Gen Z-focused e-commerce site, with Verishop also acquiring the rights to select Choosy data and technology assets. (Verishop was cofounded by ex-Snap Inc. executive Imran Khan).
“We’re a small team so we’re able to make decisions and adjustments quickly. This is crucial, especially now, since information is changing every day. We’re fortunate that our industry hasn’t been hit as hard as hospitality or luxury retail. We make sure to keep high spirits and check in with our team every day.”
In the face of constant changes, Zeng is fueled by what the future holds and grateful for the highly engaged community that Choosy has built. The brand held its first IRL pop-up in its New York City headquarters in 2019, and hopes to merge physical with virtual again soon, as was originally planned for 2020. In the meantime, watch for Choosy’s next move as the accessible brand that is democratizing fashion.