Cult Mia was founded in 2019 as an online platform that sells a curated collection of premium clothing, shoes, accessories and housewares by independent designers from “out-of-reach-places”. Founded by Mexico-born Nina Brener-Hellmund, the London-based platform is a marketplace that works with independent brands on a drop-shipping basis. Cult Mia does not buy or hold inventory, but when a customer places an order on the Cult Mia website, the brand ships directly to them.
Cult Mia fully manages customer communication and relationships. This lineup has enabled the company to work with more than 150 brands from 30 countries, including Georgia, Nigeria and Ukraine. The brands currently include Bani, Bagdone, Eboli, Eugenia Kim, Femponiq and Lalo Cardigans. Retail prices range from £ 45 for a notebook to £ 2,375 for a coat.
From more than 100 companies that applied for the London Business School’s Launchpad accelerator program, Cult Mia was selected as the winning company by venture capital judges and was awarded a cash prize in the ideas phase. Cult Mia then joined the London Business School’s Incubator program, which closed in September 2020, and received more than £ 200,000 in resources and office space for its first financial year. Cult Mia has just increased its pre-seed investment round supported by strategic investors and family offices.
The two profit levers for Cult Mia are commissions on sales and shipping costs, from which the gross margin is derived. To date, more than 30% of Cult Mia’s brand partners have paid shipping costs to customers. The average shipping cost for Cult Mia worldwide is £ 15. The average gross margin in 2020 was 48%, over 120% above the industry average for a marketplace model, the company said.
Brener-Hellmund, whose mission is to “provide the platform to shop and support locally”, talks to Drapers about the Globetrotter business.
Why did you start Cult Mia?
Being based in London for the past few years and wearing clothes that I took from my travels to Mexico was my first point of inspiration. When someone asked me what I was wearing, it was never my high street boots, it was always my hand-embroidered enamel earrings from Oaxaca. It was clear that shopping was about stories and experiences.
Two of my previous roles have also shaped the concept of Cult Mia: I previously worked for the United Nations Women’s and Trade Team, focusing on supporting and scaling female-owned micro-businesses in the least developed economies. When I saw the demand for the unique product and design of these independent fashion designers, I found that often established luxury brands either buy or replicate these original designs and pieces. The tremendous opportunity to nurture independent fashion designers was evident, and I wanted to build on that mission to provide the platform to buy independent brands locally and directly.
Most recently, I worked for online luxury retailer Moda Operandi as a global saleswoman, where I saw three possibilities in the marketplace model. First, there was a great demand for yet-to-be-discovered designers who offered a high quality product on par with a luxury brand but at a more affordable price. So much more could be done for this growing segment – most platforms shared the same designers and experience.
Second, I saw a gap in the market between luxury and fast fashion for a platform that could offer premium products that are unique in Europe.
Third, the more I talked to independent brands, the more they told me that they wanted space on a platform that could really tell their story and offer global visibility without high marketing investments and complicated inventory levels.
What is Cult Mia’s USP?
Cult Mia is your trusted global curator. In the past, customers couldn’t easily interact with the brands we offer, and they weren’t sure if the quality of a smaller brand was high, which is especially important now that due to the pandemic, people can’t even travel to get them for them shopping.
Which brands are selected?
The platform takes a two-pronged approach: adapting to customer values and tastes; as well as brand and product review. Cult Mia identifies the right brands for its community in terms of uniqueness and exclusivity, looking for value in the process. The mission is to integrate high quality brands that could be on any luxury platform but don’t (yet) have high luxury prices.
We also want to ensure a differentiated range for its customers. The platform can be the first to bring brands online or act as a stepping stone for brands into markets outside of their own. It is equally important to live up to the values that are dear to the Cult Mia community, including empowering women, local social enterprise, sustainability and inclusion.
How do brands get involved? Are you pitching yourself or are you being approached by Cult Mia?
The discovery process is driven by Cult Mia’s network of brand sourcing partners, which includes influencers, fashion universities, stylists, PR agencies and local fashion authorities – for example the Australian Fashion Council and the Latin American Fashion Summit.
As much as I wish the four-person all-female team based in London could physically travel to Abuja or Bogota to discover new brands, our sourcing partners support our on-site curation by providing a permanent pipeline of designers, which they hit the ground. While brand sourcing partners provide the first filter, Cult Mia carries out internal brand checks and at the same time looks at its community to inform its product range. The platform has developed a socially minded approach where their customers have the power to influence the brands and products they buy from us.
Clique, community, collective, whatever you want to call them – Cult Mia is a group of women with style who travel. These women power the platform by voting, liking, tagging, and sharing the brands they want to wear.
Parallel to the fact that the platform is getting bigger and bigger, more brands present themselves every day. Regional brands tend to pay attention to where their competitors are in stock. As a result, we have received inquiries from various fashion capitals where the platform previously had designers on board (e.g. Tbilisi in Georgia and Cartagena in Colombia).
For the brands that are not offered a place on the platform, Cult Mia would like to give them constructive feedback on areas that need to be further developed in the future in order to put them online.
How does the platform use artificial intelligence and data?
The platform’s business model is very agile and starts with data-driven curation. It listens to its community and is constantly testing trends, products, collections and brands that Cult Mia reviews on social media. The curation and demand planning is driven by the community insights and feedback from Cult Mia. The platform is currently introducing data-driven influencer partnerships as part of the brand sourcing process. Influencers and their communities will test emerging brands whose followers are aligned with Cult Mia’s target customers in terms of values and demographics.
Influencers will explore brands locally, from Bogota to Cairo. Cult Mia organizes a scouting day for influencers who visit the brands’ boutiques and showroom and, if possible, meet the designer. Influencers share their discovery day on social media with their community, who will vote on which products Cult Mia should bring home for them. Influencer partners share their survey and feedback data on the products and brands scouted for Cult Mia.
Looking ahead, Cult Mia looks forward to investing in AI to increase personalization across all touchpoints. The platform wants the idea of constantly showing customers the products they want to buy at the community level through to the individual customer experience – for example in the knowledge that returns are the greatest challenge in e-commerce, especially because of the poor size choice next month Cult Mia introduces a virtual dressing room to improve customer size recommendations based on AI algorithms.
Why Independent Brands?
It is expensive for independent brands to expand internationally. Many of the brands Cult Mia works with either don’t have online stores, can’t figure out how to cut down on international logistics, and can’t afford the marketing spend to build brand awareness and reach overseas customers. Accessing luxury ecommerce platforms as an independent brand is difficult, and for the lucky ones who do, the brands may face inventory risks that they cannot afford.
I was intrigued when a brand listed on an established luxury platform first approached Cult Mia and asked myself what Cult Mia offers that a Net-a-Porter or Farfetch platform doesn’t? While making it onto an established platform is great for authenticity, no one discovered the brand. An independent brand rarely, if ever, makes it onto valuable website real estate. If the brand is not the focus and remains unknown, customers will never look for it on platforms. Cult Mia is able to spotlight independent brands in ways that existing platforms cannot.
What are the future plans for the business?
The community is at the center of Cult Mia’s future plans. The platform understands the value of bringing brand partners, customers and insiders together to share their stories personally (post-pandemic). However, we are not planning to open a traditional physical store. The platform doesn’t keep an inventory and knows that their reach and return on marketing spend online are significantly greater than if they rely on physical footfall and pay rent.
Cult Mia’s brand offering will continue to grow, along with the support the platform offers its brands. We will continue to focus on our mission of being the go-to place for one-of-a-kind fashion discoveries. This means that every Monday customers can discover new brands, products and collections that have fallen on the platform. The number of brands that are permanently on the platform depends on their performance, but we want to have at least 100 on site by the end of summer. We are learning from the sales and testing of 14 different categories in 2020, with a focus on clothing, followed by jewelry and bags.
For our long-term partners like Andrea Iyamah, we see the Classics program, which started on April 6, 2021, as permanent editing for the 10-brand site as a stepping stone to the start of a brand incubator. The platform aims to expand its partner service offering by starting to invest financially and supporting the brands in which we see potential.