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- Rent the Runway/Facebook
It’s an exciting time to be in retail – as a brand, as a consumer, and for us as product writers. The Insider Picks team tested countless new products, learned the stories of many new startups, and followed the growth of dozens of our now-favorite companies.
A select few retail companies really impressed us in 2018, and for a variety of reasons – from superior product launches to admirable social initiatives with quantifiable impact.
They’re a standout representation of what it takes to succeed in retail today: the puzzle pieces of mission, product, branding, customer service, and other key business components fitting together to create a cohesive solution to the needs and wants of consumers.
Learn more about the all-stars of 2018 retail below.
Everlane has much to celebrate this year, including the opening of its first brick-and-mortar stores, which were welcomed with open arms in San Francisco and New York; stellar product drops like basic but comfortable underwear, the soft leather flats we can’t stop talking about, and an outerwear collection made from recycled plastic water bottles; and another successful anti-Black Friday initiative that sent $260,000 to help fund beach cleanups across the country.
The brand impressed us throughout the year for its continued commitment to ethical, transparent manufacturing practices and almost-eerie grasp of the styles customers crave – and how to fill the gaps with its own minimalist, carefully curated take.
- Dagne Dover/Instagram
It’s not just you – we’ve been seeing a lot more Dagne Dover bags in the streets of urban jungles, too. This might be because of its increased but carefully managed offline presence in select Nordstrom stores, Equinox boutiques, and BANDIER shops, or confident push into styles and textures you wouldn’t expect from a women’s work bag company.
Whether it’s a work tote, gym and travel bag, or laptop bag, the women of Insider Picks have agreed that Dagne Dover hits it out of the park every single time with a consistent track record that’s not always easy for experimental startups to achieve.
More so it seems than other clothing industries, outdoor brands share a special connection with the environments they design for. With the push into recycled materials like down and cashmere, and the no-hesitation decision to send its $10 million 2018 tax cut to grassroots environmental activist groups, Patagonia ramped up its efforts to protect the outdoors.
The ubiquity of its vests and sweaters might inspire joke Instagram accounts, but at least they’re the products of a highly-rated B Corp with a conscience. In February, it launched Patagonia Action Works to connect individuals to events, petitions, and organizations they might be interested in, and on Election Day, stores across the country closed as a reminder for citizens to vote.
In philanthropy, product, and philosophy, ThirdLove has thoroughly demonstrated its women-centric mission. Its 30-day Try Before Buying program reduces the pressure and cost of buying bras, and even better, the returned bras are donated to women’s charities across the country. In 2018 alone, the company donated more than $4 million worth of bras, including to victims of the recent California wildfires.
It also expanded its bra sizing and now carries 70 bra sizes, compared to the industry average of 30. Most recently, its CEO Heidi Zak took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to critique comments made by the CMO of Victoria’s Secret about plus-size and transgender models.
Many luggage brands capitalize on the romanticism of travel, but it’s relative newcomer Away who arguably did it best this year and whose suitcases and bags top the wishlists of millennial wanderlusters. It raised an additional $50 million this year, bringing its total funding to just over $107 million, and it’s estimated to bring in $150 million in revenue.
Its suitcases, though certainly well-designed, aren’t necessarily revolutionary or extremely high-tech, but Away is adept at keeping interest high through limited-edition colors and collaborations (including with Dwayne Wade, Karlie Kloss, and Rashida Jones) and the constant referral back to its idea of a streamlined “travel uniform.”
2018 was the year Athleta proved to us that it’s more than simply a yoga and fitness brand. It has never been shy about inspiring and elevating women, but doesn’t stop at pure messaging, as would be tempting (and which many brands fall victim to).
Through products like the Empower Bra, designed specifically for post-mastectomy breast cancer survivors, and its partnership with P.A.C.E., a program that provides education opportunities to female workers, Athleta highlights that business can do good. Meanwhile, its performance underwear and Commute/Work collections this year reveal thoughtful design processes centering on the realities of being a modern woman.
Wool Runners and Wool Loungers were this popular online brand’s primary shoe offerings, that is until 2018 brought about a slew of new materials and styles. Shoes made from eucalyptus fibers (the Tree line) and sugar cane (for limited-time flip-flops and new shoe soles), plus high-top and boat shoe-inspired silhouettes joined the family of simple and comfortable footwear. Like its fellow direct-to-consumer darling Away, it raised another $50 million in 2018.
- Tommy John/Facebook
To raucous cheers of the women who had been stealing their partners’ underwear, Tommy John finally released its women’s collection, which was also timed well to celebrate the brand’s 10-year anniversary. Impressively, it doesn’t just do underwear perfectly. We called its 360 Sport Leggings its most innovative design yet, and we discovered its loungewear is also very comfortable.
Rent the Runway
- Rent the Runway
Rent the Runway is a boon to both sides of the clothing industry by offering a sustainable, exciting rotation of designer fashion to shoppers and an exclusive platform ripe with data and insights to fashion brands like Jason Wu and Rebecca Minkoff. While you can always rent individual pieces, it’s actually RTR’s two-year-old subscription business that is up 150% year over year and now represents over 50% of the company’s total revenue.
As it grows in membership (more than nine million members) and investor funding (more than $200 million), RTR is also creating smart solutions that demonstrate an understanding of its core customer base.
- Home Chef
One of the largest meal kit companies in the country, Home Chef delivers 3 million meals a month. Its reach became even wider after being acquired by Kroger this year in a deal valued at up to $700 million. By mid-October, it was rolling out “Express” meal kits, which are ready to eat in 15 minutes, at select Kroger locations.
Home Chef further distinguishes itself from other meal kit services by offering speedy lunch options and selling equipment from All-Clad, Misen, and Cuisinart to prepare the kitchens of their customers.
As other big box retailers struggle, Target’s overall sales are up 5.7% and comparable digital sales are up 49%, according to its most recent earnings report. It added to its robust variety of shipping and order services by acquiring delivery service Shipt in December 2017, letting shoppers enjoy same day delivery on all their favorite Target essentials this year. To become even more accessible to urban shoppers and college students, it has strategically opened dozens of small-format stores personalized to their shopping habits and needs.
Target has also embraced innovation and of-the-moment trends by making room for online direct-to-consumer startups and running four accelerator programs to build the next generation of retail startups.
- Universal Standard/Facebook
This inclusive women’s fashion brand started out making stylish essentials in sizes 10 through 28, but this year expanded in both directions, now selling sizes 00 through 40. It captured the attention of some major investors, including SoulCycle co-founder Elizabeth Cutler and Gwyneth Paltrow, who later helped launch a Goop capsule collection with Universal Standard.
Other notable collaborations include a capsule collection with J.Crew and a partnership with designer Christian Siriano to sell an exclusive collection at his boutique on Fifth Avenue, the very area where the founders first realized they couldn’t shop together on the same rack.