The Vue Podcast: Leaders in Retail | Agi Letkiewicz
SilkRoll is a digital currency marketplace that enables users to exchange products online. Founded in 2016, with a vision to become the world’s largest shared closet, SilkRoll has been actively engaging in interpreting resale in their own way and with sustainability becoming a norm in the fashion industry, SilkRoll has been contributing to achieving this goal. Tune into this episode of The Vue Podcast, and listen to Agi Letkiewicz, Co-Founder, SilkRoll talk about:
- Discovering SilkRoll and why she invested in it
- Why digital currency is used as an alternative
- How community plays an important role in shaping their business
- Why SilkRoll focuses only on luxury and designer wear
- The future of consumption
Here’s the transcript, to make your experience easier:
Akshara Subramanian: Hi everyone! Welcome to a new episode of The Vue podcast. In 2019 Sustainability became the norm in the fashion industry. With the resale industry growing 21 times faster than the pace of the retail apparel market in the last three years, the industry has seen the rise of many entrepreneurs who are interpreting resale in their own ways. One such company that is looking at resale with a unique lens is SilkRoll, founded in 2016, SilkRoll is a fashion exchange platform that enables users to give in their used items in exchange for digital currency that they can avail for other items on the platform. So without further ado, here is welcoming the co-founder of SilkRoll, Agi Letkiewicz, on our podcast. Welcome, Agi!
Agi Letkiewicz: Thank you for having me.
Akshara Subramanian: So talk to us about the story behind SilkRoll and how you discovered SilkRoll. We know that you have mutual friends with Janet Wu and Erin Wold, who are the first founders of the platform. So what was it about SilkRoll that really drew you in?
Agi Letkiewicz: That’s a great question. So I am a lifelong retailer and I’ve always worked in the fashion industry. And a couple of years ago, I became very interested in sustainability and my mind was more on the manufacturing side because I’ve always been in buying merchandise. And so that was really what I was familiar with. But I made it my mission to find out what was happening in the industry and just see what people were talking about. And one of the companies I learned about early on in their journey was SilkRoll. And so I researched the company and I thought that it was just such a cool concept to actually join. I was one of the first customers I sent in a bag of things and got my points and started shopping and I just thought it was a really cool solution. Yeah. So I was in New York in the Erin and Janet were in San Francisco and life brought me to San Francisco and I was looking for an early-stage startup that was looking at sustainability in an interesting way to join and to help with that mission. And SilkRoll was one of the top companies on my radar. So I found a fourth-degree connection actually to Janet and just made a really bold request to have a meeting with her. So we sat at Starbucks and we talked and found that our backgrounds were so complementary because she came from a banking finance background. Right. Erin came from a people and operations background and I came in with a fashion background. And we were really able to take those varying and diverse perspectives and really bring them together to continue work on the company. So as you mentioned, I joined as a late co-founder and I’ve had a great time joining the team and we all work really well together.
Akshara Subramanian: Wow, that sounds like quite an exciting story of how you started with SilkRoll. You know, one of the key differentiators between SilkRoll and any other resale or swapping website is the digital currency that powers your platform. So could you tell me a little bit about why you chose to create your own currency versus operating like any other resale platform?
Agi Letkiewicz: Absolutely. So one of the biggest problems that we saw in the resale market is the depreciation of clothing. So there is some clothing that’s luxury that does not depreciate. And that’s great, you know, for those items and there are some awesome platforms where you can really get your value back. But the reality for most of us and what fills our closet is a lot of clothing that is truly an investment for us but depreciates incredibly fast. And so that’s a problem that Janet really identified. So, the origin story of SilkRoll is Janet was working in investment banking in Hong Kong, in London. And when she moved to San Francisco, all of the designer clothing that made her feel really confident in that industry in cities like New York and Hong Kong and London just didn’t work for San Francisco. It’s a different climate. It’s a different culture. And, you know, you have to walk up hills. And so heels don’t really work most of the time. And so she thought about, you know, how is she going to change her closet to really work for her new lifestyle? And she literally went to the consignment store. She tried to resell mine and was really surprised by how much her clothing depreciates and I’ve certainly had that experience in my own life, too. So that can be frustrating to have an item that you paid a 100-200 dollars for and you try to take it to a buy-sell-trade or to a consignment store and they offer you maybe 5 to 10 cents on the dollar. So the majority of what you’re bringing if they even accept it at all. So with the digital currency, what we are trying to solve is that depreciation problem. So to facilitate value for value exchange.
Akshara Subramanian: That’s really interesting. Have you had any shoppers talk about how it’s made their experience more convenient?
Agi Letkiewicz: Oh, absolutely. It’s so interesting talking to customers of our business because I was so interested in sustainability. Yeah. Before I joined SilkRoll and I was really coming at it, from my own experience and research, from, like I mentioned, a manufacturing point of view, like we should be buying better and we should be buying less and making more ethically and sustainably and all of that is absolutely what we should be looking at. But there is a reality for women where our life changes. Our lives are so dynamic. You know, we change jobs, we move cities. We were seeking opportunities. We’re having children later. And all of these phases of life require different clothing. And it’s not frivolous. It’s actually really necessary when we change careers or our hormones means that our body changes. We need new clothes to suit that phase of life. Right. Actually, a woman changes sizes 31 times on an average in her lifetime.
Akshara Subramanian: Wow. I didn’t know that.
Agi Letkiewicz: Yeah. So it’s like, you know, your size changes and then you have to swap your whole wardrobe. Right. And it becomes a very expensive and so women are thinking, wow, it’s going to take so long for me to resell everything and so that’s probably not worth it and there’s a whole, you know, attachment we have in our closet. You don’t necessarily just want to drop it off or, you know, give it somewhere where you don’t know if someone’s gonna enjoy it and then you need to spend thousands of dollars shopping new. Right. So I’ve talked to so many customers and been able to discover this. And they’re telling me that it’s made their experience of moving or having a baby or changing sizes just less stressful because we provide that outlet and we do all of the work. Right. So they’ll have to do is send in their clothing and they can shop on our website that we tried very hard to make it look like a normal online retail store and make their experience as seamless as possible. And so we’re just able to remove that one element of stress and that one element of the inconvenience of having a life change which already comes with, you know, a little bit of stress.
Akshara Subramanian: Right. I think that’s quite interesting because you’re basically talking about a model that’s both convenient and in some way responsible. You know, the sustainability angle. You know, Agi, a number of resale platforms today, including, you know, Depop and a lot of other platforms believe in putting community at the forefront of all of the activities. SilkRoll also has a very strong focus on community. Right. Talk to us about what that looks like and how the community has helped shape the business so far.
Agi Letkiewicz: Absolutely. So one of my absolute favourite features about the site is that you can follow users closets and you can find what we call- Style Mate. So it’s somebody who has the same style and size as what you’re currently looking for and it’s such a fun feature to be able to connect with people and be able to discover new fashion. So when I go on to my profile, I can see everything that I’ve given and everything I’ve taken in my virtual closet. And then people can follow my closet and I can follow their closets. So I love that aspect of actually being able to see where your clothing goes and who is enjoying it. And you can really see people’s styles. It’s just so fun. And I know that I’ve put a lot of time and care into curating my closet and I travel a lot and so a lot of my clothing comes from these travel experiences where I met somebody that owns a shop and had a great conversation with them and there is a huge emotional element with letting go. And it’s one of the reasons why women really hang on to a lot of their clothing and I think having that community aspect really helps with that letting go. Because when I can see the person that is enjoying my clothing and then it fits their style, I know that they’re probably enduring it. So it really helps with that. And it’s really fun to get to connect with people on a platform that way.
Akshara Subramanian: This is something I’ve read very recently, but an average American woman apparently buys 64 new articles of clothing per year, half of which are worn three times or less. And in a world with fast fashion is seen significant growth, but it’s also led to tons of waste from the fashion industry alone. You know, the value of fashion is really important, and that’s one of the key principles of SilkRoll. So is that why the platform completely focuses on luxury and designer clothing?
Agi Letkiewicz: Yes. So we play in everything that is mid-market and above. So everything from your favourite mall brands all the way up to luxury and designer. And the idea of that is to really encourage buying less and buying better, buying things that last and then being able to exchange and extend the life of them.
Akshara Subramanian: Okay, You’re also the founder of an activewear brand right, Active Joy, which focuses on making sustainable leggings. So do you see SilkRoll as an extension of your brand’s values?
Agi Letkiewicz: Absolutely. I mean, everything that I’ve worked on in my career has been an extension of my personal values. So actually when I started Active Joy, that’s what I was talking about earlier with my focus on sustainability on the manufacturing side. So after I left my previous retail job, I thought that I really want to focus on that manufacturing aspect. And so I was looking at sustainable materials, local manufacturing, reducing waste in the manufacturing process. And that’s what led me to starting Active Joy and when I joined SilkRoll, that became really a smaller side project, because what I didn’t enjoy about that is working on my own. It was a small project and I was the only person working on it. And I found myself, you know, really seeking out networking groups and meeting people and having conversations way more than I was actually working in the business because it was just hard for me to work completely by myself. So that’s actually why I was very excited to join Janet and Erin and work on a project with two other women where we can bounce ideas and work together and support each other.
Akshara Subramanian: And is there anything exciting you discovered when you started Active Joy, just the process of picking out things that are sustainable, or did you learn anything exciting about sustainable materials?
Agi Letkiewicz: It’s a good question. So in my journey of starting active joy, one of the exciting things that I found is I was going to the trade shows every season to learn about different vendors and basically just trying to find a fabric. But what I found when I went to these trade shows is that there’s an incredible community there that gets together for talks and has conversations. And it was very, very cool to see the huge focus on sustainability that was happening. So upwards of even half of the talks that were happening at these trade shows were focused on sustainability. And it was very cool to hear about new ideas and different projects that were happening that are coming in the future that is so innovative when it comes to sustainability because especially on the manufacturing side, there’s a lot of different solutions. So it’s not one perfect solution to say, oh, if we move all fabrics to like this, then the industry is going to be a 100 percent sustainable. We don’t have that solution and so there’s a lot of conversations happening. I learned about tensile fabrics made from eucalyptus and the closed-loop process that some companies use to make that. And that was really exciting. And then hearing about some of the projects on textile recycling was really exciting because we throw that around a lot. There’s a lot of companies that do take-back programs and things like that, which is great. But the reality is that we’re really far from a commercial solution on actually being able to recycle fibers and turn them back into fibers to make new clothing. Right. So textile recycling right now involves making insulation of rags and things like that mostly. And there’s a lot of conversations about, well, how can we actually recycle fibers? There are some startups that are looking at that and there’s some really cool technology that’s happening. So mostly what I think is exciting is just the breath of innovation and the number of topics that people are talking about and isn’t just one solution. I think that that’s actually really great because there’s a lot of solutions that are needed because clothing has different purposes. Right. Like we can’t just have natural fabrics because actually synthetics have a really great performance element that you really can’t get away from. Right. You can’t do a lot of extreme sports and things like that in cotton. Right. You need the performance aspect. So we need those different conversations and it’s very cool to see that a lot of people are focusing on it. And not just startups like these big companies and even the fast fashion brands are also having the conversation, too. So it’s really awesome to see.
Akshara Subramanian: Right. And you know, that’s interesting. You mentioned recycling programs because I think, you know, we had also read that SilkRoll has partnerships where if items don’t pass your quality assurance test on submission, they’re either sent to charities or recycling units. So talk to us a little bit more about how that process works.
Agi Letkiewicz: Yes. So right now we’re small, so we keep a lot of it local. So we work with an organization called Good 360 that pairs as with local partners, that might need some clothing. And so what we do is we try to separate our donations into different groups. So we have one group of items that didn’t pass our quality control, maybe someone sent us fast fashion or something like that. And but it’s still able to be worn. And so we partner with local partners that might need clothing at different times of year to give them those items that are still good to be worn. And then we have items that are stained or really damaged that aren’t able to be worn. And then we have another partner that, as I mentioned, does that like more rag recycling and things like that. So we try to be as conscious as possible with our donations. And as we get bigger, it’s just going to be such a big focus because it’s you know, a lot of what comes through the door, ends up being donations. So it’s something that we’re really thinking about.
Akshara Subramanian: Right. That’s quite exciting. And, you know, one of the biggest ways I think the fashion industry is looking to solve this sustainability crisis is through tech. So as someone with years of experience in curation, merchandising, how do you believe that tech can really be used to support sustainability?
Agi Letkiewicz: So I am a lifelong retailer and not a technical person. So it’s been a really fun journey to learn more about the tech side in this company. We are a tech fashion company with no technical founders, so that is not to be underestimated how much they’ve had to learn, all three of us definitely through this journey. So, I mean, there’s a lot of applications of tech going into sustainability. And like I mentioned, a lot of conversations about recycling and simple fabrics and all of that. And one thing that I think is really great for our platform, in particular, is that taking a second hand online is tricky, quite frankly, because we need to photograph and describe and make available on our website. All of these items are completely unique. So this is not something that retailers of the past like ever had to think about. You would photograph and make available an item on your website that you had hundreds of items to sell. So that proposition is very different. So, you know, where I see coming at it from the curation, merchandising, buying side is how do we do that in a way that is actually affordable, where we can offer this service as many people as possible to really make it accessible and affordable. So, you know, I really see tech helping our processes to be able to make that accessible at a price point that works for our customers.
Akshara Subramanian: Amazing. You know, I think that kind of brings us to our last question. We spoke a lot about, you know, sustainability, we spoke about recycling, we spoke about the unique business model that you guys have built over the years. So finally, why don’t you talk to us a little bit about the future of consumption, right? Gen-Z is increasingly going the second-hand route, and multiple research reports have established that they don’t really care about ownership. From your time building SilkRoll, do you see a marked difference in the way women and more specifically, the women who form your community are consuming fashion today? Where do you think that’s headed?
Agi Letkiewicz: That’s a really great question. So my mindset has really changed on this since I’ve been at SilkRoll because when I first started getting interested in sustainability in my own personal life, I really became a minimalist and that really works for me. I like to have fewer things, I like to have less clutter and my closet is very small. And so I was very focused on that. As a solution you know, definitely consume less and keep your things longer and that is a solution. But really talking to customers and hearing about how much fun they have with fashion and how their life changes and you just need new items. I really see that we don’t have to walk away from the concept, that we can play with our fashion because we’re having a sustainability conversation. It can actually happen at the same time and I think that’s super exciting because fashion is so fun. It just is. I mean, I started in this industry for a reason. It’s the self-expression and it’s playful and it’s really great to be able to maintain that and have a conversation about sustainability. So I really see the future being not that we can’t get new things, we can get new things, but it doesn’t have to be completely new, it can be new to you and that’s actually just as good. Right. You can have just as much fun with that. So I think rental’s really exciting. I think that second hand is really exciting. We don’t have to keep manufacturing all these billions like 100 billion items every single year to be able to have all of the fun that we’re having in fast fashion. This is what I love about SilkRoll and I love about rental and secondhand in general as well, is that we can have all of that fun and we can feel free to change our style and we can feel free for our life to change and we don’t have to make all of these new items, all of that can exist at the same time.
Akshara Subramanian: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Agi. That brings us to the end of our podcast. You know, we learned a lot about SilkRoll and it’s really exciting. We’re really excited to see where this journey goes.
Agi Letkiewicz: Thank you so much for having me.
Akshara Subramanian: If you’re looking for more episodes of The Vue podcast, tune in to our resources page on Vue.ai and go and check out every single episode that we’ve done so far. Thank you for tuning in. And we’ll see you soon.