It comes as no surprise that in person, Who What Wear founders Hillary Kerr and Katherine Power look the part of sartorial royalty. When we chat the pair, who swan into our meeting in a flurry of luxe fabrics and bold prints, are in the midst of launching Who What Wear’s Australian arm.
“We knew we wanted to expand internationally, we looked at our largest and most engaged audiences outside of the US, and Australia was top of list,” says Katherine.
The move has allowed Hillary, who interned at Marie Claire Australia, to reconnect with her one-time home. “Lizzie [Renkert], my very first boss, is here tonight. I just said to Lizzie, ‘If it wasn’t for you I’d be making French fries somewhere.’”
Following her stint in Australia, Hillary soon graduated to a job at Elle in New York, where she would meet Katherine. After toiling away behind the scenes for a year, the friends began itching for more.
Katherine came up with the idea for Who What Wear while putting trend reports together. “We couldn’t see this type of magazine content online,” she says, “so I thought, ‘Why don’t we create a place where women can consume this kind of content and also shop?’
“I went to Hillary and said, ‘I think I want to start this magazine on the internet, but I really need someone to write it, would you want to do it?’ and she went, ‘Sure!’”
The decision was made while the pair were driving, “turning left onto Wilshire” in Beverly Hills, California. “I said, ‘But really I’m serious, I need to know if you’re serious because if you’re not then don’t even bother,’ and she said, ‘No, I’ll do it.’ And that was it.”
‘It’ has now morphed into Who What Wear, a website that is, quite literally, an account of ‘who’s wearing what’, with shoppable links. The brand, launched in 2006, now sees 4 million monthly unique visitors. It is renowned as much for closing the gap between content and commerce as it is for creating a brave new voice in the fashion world, one that is as approachable as it is affable.
“Fashion had always been very intimidating,” says Katherine. “As I delved into the industry, I understood, ‘Oh! There’s a way to do it, you just have to pull back the curtain.’
“There was not an accessible voice in fashion, it really came from Hillary’s brain, she invented that point of view. Now we see so many others embracing that tone, but honestly there was nothing like that before.”
With no predecessors to look to, the early stages were a process of trial and error. Katherine taught herself Photoshop, creating all the layouts herself.
“People really thought we were nuts to leave our print careers and do something online which was just totally looked down upon. But we saw this really big opportunity. We knew [it] had clear revenue opportunities… It was only a matter of time until brands figured out the importance of digital marketing.
“We truly believed in what we were creating, so going back to ‘regular’ jobs wasn’t even a consideration. Who What Wear was going to work; there simply wasn’t an alternative.”
Impressively, Hillary and Katherine spent no money on marketing when they launched. Yet their print backgrounds brought gravitas.
“The fact that we had worked at Elle was invaluable. Digital content was not looked at favourably, and many brands were nervous about working with online publishers.”
The ability to call on friends in high places has been instrumental. “Early on, Nicole Richie agreed to be our first guest editor, which was a really important moment for the site.”
Success abounded, and in its wake that crazy idea hatched in a car has grown into something of a media empire. In 2013, the duo launched two additional sites, Byrdie (beauty) and My Domaine (interiors) under their parent company, Clique Media Group.
A strong unique voice has been essential in developing engagement across all three sites. “Both Byrdie and My Domaine have a very distinct point of view, something I think you need to build a strong brand,” says Katherine.
The ability to cultivate loyal social media followings has played an equally crucial role.
“When we started Who What Wear, we grew our audience organically on Myspace,” laughs Katherine, “but Byrdie and Domaine were born into a time where Instagram and Twitter exist. Having that direct connection to readers made a world of difference.
“Who What Wear was the first publisher on Snapchat. I think that’s why we have such a robust following on social because we’re there early, we create content that feels really authentic and is right for the space. Instagram is different from Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, we’ve optimised that.”
Hillary credits authenticity with making their brands stand out. “When you really know your brand, your purpose, that makes everything so much easier – you’re not just chasing the latest trend. Authenticity is what resonates with people.”
Now the Australian market has been conquered, further international expansion is on the cards. Last year saw Clique Media close a US$8 million Series B funding round, and a mobile commerce platform is also in the works.
However, on the eve of Who What Wear’s 10th birthday, perhaps the greatest victory is in proving wrong the naysayers from all those years ago. “Now people truly understand the power of social media and digital,” says Hillary. “It’s really great to say, ‘See, we told you! Let’s all shop on our phones!’”
Read more in Issue 29 of Collective Hub