Tragedy struck in April 2013 more than 8,000 miles away from where Erin Houston and Emily Kenney were attending graduate school in Washington.
They knew none of the 1,134 workers killed and 2,500 injured in the horrific collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory complex in Bangladesh, but the lives lost or forever compromised in the making of clothing for U.S. and European consumers would serve as the women’s entrepreneurial calling.
“We want our customers to feel good about what they’re buying and what they’re supporting,” Kenney said.
Which is what she and Houston, both 32, wanted for themselves when they were working while attending grad school at American University — Houston, a native of Wilmington, in sales and account management at Devex, a media platform company for the global-development community; and Kenney, of Ohio, running a youth program at the American Red Cross teaching high school and college students about international issues.
Both joined the local-food movement, making a point to buy locally and organically. Then a structural deficiency that witnesses likened to an implosion brought down the eight-story Rana Plaza in a deadly heap of concrete beams and pillars just five months after a fire at a similar facility in Bangladesh killed 112 workers.
“I thought, ‘Well, I just did this with my food. Can I do this with my clothing? Can I buy clothes in a way that also fits my values?'" Kenney recalled. “And pretty quickly I realized I couldn’t, or I could, but it was really, really expensive, or I was printing out 100-page reports on supply chains to try to figure out if the subcontractor was using child labor, or if it was actually organic if it said it was organic.”
Bottom line: It was a lot of time and stress just to buy a white T-shirt and a pair of jeans, she said.
Consumer “analysis paralysis” is what Houston called it.
With input from Kenney, Houston based her master’s thesis project on “being able to spend your money with impact in a way that would positively affect workers’ rights and the environment.” That was the initial research behind and prototype of Wearwell, Houston said.
It was about 2014, when Stitch Fix, now a publicly traded company with a market capitalization of more than $2 billion, was in its early years. Kenney had just signed up for it, loving the ease of curated items delivered to her home along with a packaging slip that provided guidance on what to wear with what.
Over dinner, the friends talked about the need for a similar subscription service with ethically sourced clothing.
“Where we landed was if we could simply just make it easier to shop for ethically and sustainably made clothing that could drive a whole lot of change in this industry that has a really bad rap,” Houston said.
They concluded that the best way to make such buying easier was gathering such products in one place and curating them to meet subscribers’ personal tastes. “It wasn’t like it is today where there’s tons of new brands that are doing things ethically or sustainably all on your Instagram feed,” Kenney said.
Houston and Kenney used grad school for prototyping to see if the concept had legs. It did, enforced by the response to a crowdfunding campaign in April 2017 that raised $54,000 in 30 days and attracted more than 400 preorders for the Wellwear service. That enabled a beta launch in the fall of that year, which promptly revealed “a lot of mission misalignment for us," Houston said.
With a model like Stitch Fix, where multiple items would be mailed to a subscriber for consideration, and rejects sent back, "we were just seeing this carbon footprint ... and it was enormous,” she said.
As start-ups often must do, Wearwell pivoted in December 2017 to the company’s current model: a monthly membership where customers are sent suggested selections by email links and make purchase choices. Those selections are then shipped from a converted space in Center City. The return rate is about 20 percent, versus 50 percent under the original model, Houston said.
The company of 10 employees, most of them independent contractor stylists, has about 300 subscribers paying a monthly membership fee of $8.50, which gets applied to a purchase. Revenues are about $10,000 a month, with subscriptions — primarily millennials — growing 10 percent to 15 percent, Houston said, citing a U.S. target market of 8.6 million millennial women making at least $75,000 a year.
Wearwell has 30 brand partners, one-quarter to one-third of whom are in the United States. Houston and Kenney say each has been vetted on such things as whether the cotton they use is organic and whether they are paying workers fair wages and providing them a safe environment.
Fair Anita is a 4½-year-old social enterprise in Minnesota that sells clothing and accessories made from recycled materials by 8,000 women around the world who have been victims of sexual assault or domestic violence. The goal is creating economic self-sufficiency, a pathway out of abusive relationships, said its founder, Joy McBrien, 29, a rape victim who named her start-up after a social worker in Peru, where instances of domestic violence are high.
“It’s absolutely critical that we’re able to partner with organizations like Wearwell,” McBrien said. “The more sales we have, the more jobs we’re able to create.”
Wearwell’s mission struck a chord with Media-based Untours Foundation, a financial-support nonprofit for small businesses which has provided Wearwell a $25,000 low-interest loan. Director Elizabeth Killough called that decision “a no-brainer.”