If you've heard any of rapper Cardi B's recent string of hits, you know the woman has expensive taste. The Bronx-born star loves Balenciaga, Prada and Gucci. But true fans know that for years she's been one of the most visible spokespeople for a brand that's far more affordable: Fashion Nova, a popular retailer known for being sexy, cheap, and worn by celebrities.
The company came seemingly out of nowhere and is everywhere, online at least. Fashion Nova was among the 10 top-trending fashion brands last year in online searches, according to Google. A Fashion Nova spokesperson didn't reveal sales figures but says the company has seen triple-digit growth every year since it was founded in 2006.
Fashion Nova's success comes at a time when brand loyalty is a difficult thing to achieve. A new NPR/Marist poll finds online shoppers are roughly divided when it comes to shopping for brand loyalty versus a good deal. Fashion Nova has achieved both, and the company has done it through a smart social media strategy.
The retailer invests little in stores (it only has five, all in California), and doesn't roll out massive advertising campaigns. It simply gets celebrities to wear its outfits and post the pictures on Instagram.
"Basically, they're doing nothing to promote their brand, aside from getting it into the hands of the hottest celebrities out there, like the Kardashians, Cardi B," says Gabriella Santaniello, a fashion industry analyst.
Of course, these days every brand wants you to follow them on social media. Fashion Nova was just an early adopter of social media, and has been incredibly successful at tapping into millennial neurosis: the obsession with seeing and being seen. The company understood that one selfie posted by Kylie Jenner wearing your dress translates into a legion of customers.
"Getting your product in the hands of an influencer is incredibly important," Santaniello says. "They have followers, and they're able to influence their buying decisions."
It helps that the price is right. Most of Fashion Nova's outfits cost less than $40. But it would be unfair to say Fashion Nova's success is predicated entirely on its prices and getting celebrity endorsements on Instagram. The company has also been savvy at filling a void left by high-fashion magazines and haute couture: It caters to curvy women and women of color.
Women like Gabriella Lascano. Growing up, she says she was told she should model, but all she could think was, "I'm fat. Like, models aren't fat."
These days, Lascano is a 27-year-old plus-sized Instagram model for Fashion Nova's Curve line. She has 220,000 followers. She's gorgeous, but also relatable, living a normal life in the Bronx.
She first gained some popularity on Instagram for her makeup tutorials. Then in 2016, Fashion Nova started sending her clothing. At her apartment in the Bronx, she pulls out a crate and shows some of the pieces to me: a black corset; an olive camouflage jumpsuit. Lascano says before she found Fashion Nova, it was very difficult to find plus-sized clothing that was pretty, or sexy. So she jumped at the opportunity to model for the company.
At first, she just got to keep the outfits she wore in the pictures. As her following on Instagram grew, Fashion Nova started paying. She won't say how much, but this is clearly her full-time job. She plans the locations and themes of the shoot. Her fiancé takes the photographs. She does her own hair and makeup, as well as the lighting and editing.
And while the end result is Lascano looking carefree and glamorous, her Instagram page is meticulously well planned out. She watches her audience numbers intensely — she knows their age, that most of them are women living on the East Coast. She and her fiancé are like a marketing team rolled into one. She even times her posts, to get maximum visibility.
Lascano has a face that is reminiscent of the supermodels of yore — long lashes and voluptuous hair a la Cindy Crawford or Linda Evangelista. But unlike those supermodels, who exuded an air of inaccessibility, she talks to her Fashion Nova followers constantly and responds to their adoring comments. This is not Twitter. There's no nasty trolling on her page. Instagram has a filter which allows users to block words from the comments. (Users can also mute words on Twitter.) Lascano's list of blocked words and phrases is long. She reads them to me, in a defiant tone. "Early death. Elephant. Everyone's lying to her. Fat. Fiona — you know from Shrek? People love that one."
Even though she can't see those comments anymore, Lascano says being an Instagram model — and her own editor — can trigger a lot of insecurities. It's that millennial neurosis again: You aren't just watching; you are being watched. In high def.
But as Lascano scrolls through the comments section on her most recent post, her face lights up. "Beautiful girl. Que hermosa eres, which is 'you're beautiful' in Spanish. Slay. You look amazing. Where did you buy that bathing suit?" She laughs.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
If you've listened to Cardi B, you know she has expensive taste.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LIKE IT")
CARDI B: (Rapping) I like those Balenciagas, the ones look like socks. I like going to the jeweler. I put rocks all in my watch.
KELLY: But Cardi B is a spokesperson for a brand that is much more affordable than Balenciaga. A new NPR-Marist poll finds that online shoppers are roughly divided when it comes to shopping with brand loyalty in mind versus a good deal. Well, Fashion Nova does both. The company is known for sexy, affordable clothing worn by celebrities and Instagram models. Jasmine Garsd reports on how Fashion Nova came to become one of the top trending fashion brands on Google.
JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: In this commercial, Cardi B walks into an elevator looking like a sexy Inspector Gadget in a blue trench coat and whispers her secret to looking so good.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
CARDI B: This drip right here - Fashion Nova. But don't tell nobody. Shh.
GARSD: Cardi B recently published the video on her Instagram page for over 25 million followers to see. This is how Fashion Nova silently became a retail juggernaut. A spokesperson for the company says they've seen triple-digit growth every year since they were founded. Most of the outfits cost less than 40 bucks, but when you wear Fashion Nova, you're wearing the same thing your favorite star wore a few nights ago.
GABRIELLA SANTANIELLO: Basically, they're doing nothing to promote their brand, aside from getting it into the hands of the hottest celebrities out there like the Kardashians, Cardi B.
GARSD: Gabriella Santaniello is a fashion industry analyst. These days, every brand wants you to follow them on social media. Fashion Nova has just been super successful at tapping into millennial neurosis, the obsession with seeing and being seen. They understood that one selfie posted by Kylie Jenner wearing your dress translates into a legion of customers, and Kylie Jenner does that a lot.
SANTANIELLO: Getting your product in the hands of an influencer is incredibly important. They have followers, and they're able to influence their buying decisions.
GARSD: Fashion Nova has also used social media to fill this void left by the big brand names and high fashion magazines. It caters to curvy women and women of color.
GABRIELLA LASCANO: I'm fat. Like, models aren't fat.
GARSD: That's what Gabriella Lascano thought when she was a kid. Now, she's a 27-year-old plus-size Instagram model for Fashion Nova's Curve line. She has 220,000 followers. She's gorgeous but also relatable, living a normal life here in the Bronx. Lascano first gained some popularity on Instagram for her makeup tutorials. Then, in 2016, Fashion Nova started sending her clothing.
LASCANO: This is another dress. Isn't it pretty?
GARSD: The lace...
At first, she got to keep the outfits she wore in the pictures. As her following on Instagram increased, Fashion Nova started paying. She won't tell me how much, and she looks carefree and glamorous, but the page is meticulously well-planned out. She watches her audience numbers intensely. She's like a marketing team rolled into one.
LASCANO: I'm at a solid, like, 62, 63 percent women and their age - the age for women is mostly between 18 and 34, which is perfect, right?
GARSD: She even times her posts to get maximum visibility. This is her full-time job.
LASCANO: I do my own hair, my own makeup, the photography, the editing - all of that work I do myself.
GARSD: Like a magazine ad, but unlike supermodels, she talks to her Fashion Nova followers, responds to their adoring comments. This is not Twitter. There's no nasty trolling. Instagram has a filter which allows users to block words from the comments section. Lascano's list of blocked words and phrases is long.
LASCANO: Early death, elephant, everyone's lying to her, fat, Fiona, you know, from "Shrek." People love that one.
GARSD: Even though she can't see those comments anymore, Lascano says being an Instagram model and her own editor can trigger a lot of insecurities. It's that millennial neurosis, again. You aren't just watching. You're being watched in high def. But as Lascano scrolls through the comments section on her most recent post, her face lights up.
LASCANO: Beautiful girl - (speaking Spanish) which is you're beautiful Spanish. Slay - you look amazing. Where did you buy that bathing suit (laughter)?
GARSD: For NPR News, I'm Jasmine Garsd in the Bronx.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONSTER RALLY'S "SULTAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.