My big advice to Nau 2.0: Charge more for your clothes. And start as small as you can.
A few months ago, I wrote a post on the rise of Indie and Eco Luxury, and one of the hero companies of Eco Luxury that I mentioned was Nau. They were one of the first attempts at creating a luxury brand that forcefully marketed ecological, sustainable, and stylish clothing through online and direct retail stores.
Sadly, due to a lack of venture capital funding Nau was forced to shut their retail stores and sell off all of their stock at a discount. There's been much talk in the blogosphere about what killed Nau v1.0:
Their unusual, I mean novel, retail model. Nau stores generally carried one size of each style and encouraged store visitors to have their purchases shipped to their home instead of buying them in the store. Critics have noted that many luxury fashion purchases are often made on whim, and the inability to easily carry a purchase out could have been a negative for the buying experience. (I personally didn't care when I had made an purchase there, but then again, I'm not really a luxury shopper.)
Their all-Flash Web site. Nau.com, as much as I love it from a branding perspective, was not created in a manner that made it easy to shop and had weak user experience. When the brand launched, some of my designer friends had hammered on the site design as an example of design trumping usability, which is definitely a bad place to be for a design-oriented brand that focuses on function and form.
Their oversized ambition regarding audience demand. Nau's business plan hinged on continued rounds of investor financing to ensure their continued growth into more retail locations. This is what really spiked Nau's ambition, when you boil all of this down. Instead of fostering an audience through their Web site and then growing that online audience into local retail, where demand had been generated, Nau was looking to expand into new locations even as they were discussing shutting their doors. My neighborhood of Fremont in Seattle was the destination for one of those new locations.
I find it fascinating that a company that wanted to live, eat, sleep, and breathe sustainability in clothing production, distribution, and sales practices didn't launch their business by only selling through the Internet, or intentionally limit their market by starting very exclusive before mass-producing their line and attempting to go big retail. Millions of dollars were wasted in proving that without a strong online customer base, a compelling retail experience in a few upscale markets isn't quite enough to keep the doors open.
Had Nau offered a smaller product line that was made to order and was perhaps more exclusive in both price point and retail placement, my gut tells me that they would have organically created a group of loyalists that would have evangelized the brand when they dove into the mainstream retail market as their own storefront.
Small pioneering eco-luxury brands such as Mink Shoes took about as long as Nau's lifespan to get off the ground, and still haven't achieved any major economies of scale. But they're profitable, and resell through many top retailers. A recent article in Fast Company echoes similar sentiment regarding the need to find sustainability through selling small quantities of green products in the luxury market. You won't see Barney's selling 2,000 of the same pair of eco-friendly shoes. Eco Luxury has a long, long way to go if it's going to scale to the mainstream in any meaningful way.
Hindsight is 20/20 here. And luckily, Horny Toad has swooped in and purchased the Nau brand and legacy, along with much of the original staff, to give it another go. Here's hoping that with this new financial backer, Nau 2.0 will be able to create a sustainable business practice through actual clothing sales that matches the deep philosophical roots that underpin their products.
So, back to what I said at the start of all this...
Okay, Nau 2.0: Now that thousands of your loyal customers have jumped up and down and told you how much we want you to stick around, I don't think we'll mind paying a little more for your clothes -- especially if that will allow you to continue donating 5% of each purchase to charity.
If you're going to try and keep the luxury mantle on your products and your philosophy untouched, that's one of the few ways to keep an edge on the dozens of other fashion brands that are now rolling out eco-friendly lines alongside their usual unsustainable practices.
And we'll forgive you for the missteps along the way... just be sure to be a little smarter about what you're doing this time.