Formalwear Marketplace Raises $6.3M Funding During Pandemic

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Queenly, a formalwear marketplace for shoppers seeking pageant dresses, wedding gowns and quinceañera attire, nabbed $6.3 million in a round led by Andreessen Horowitz, the founders told WWD.

Having pulled in $800,000 in pre-seed funding in 2019, the two-year-old start-up managed to score another $2.26 million round in April. With the latest round, the total raised to date comes to $7.1 million.

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Not bad, especially considering so much of its business model hinges on live events, a sector decimated during the pandemic. At one point last year, the unemployment rate across the sector rose to 47 percent. As states like California — San Francisco-based Queenly’s home turf — lifted restrictions, momentum seemed to return to events like festivals, parties and other shows, only to see new COVID-19 fears arise, thanks to the highly contagious Delta variant.

But Queenly founders Trisha Bantigue and Kathy Zhou appealed to investors with a model that seemed hardened against the pandemic.

For one, the business holds no inventory. Instead, it partnered with independent boutiques — the main source of formal gowns for shoppers searching for unique finds — and directly with prom brands like Mac Duggal, Vienna Prom and others to build out what the company describes as both a marketplace and a search engine for formalwear.

“We initially started off with peer-to-peer retail, getting the individual woman to upload her old prom dress, old wedding dresses online to sell to other women. And then during COVID-19 we found that a lot of these mom-and-pop shops with wedding dress boutique stores, prom dress boutique stores, quinceañera boutique stores, they relied on their brick-and-mortar stores to generate revenue,” Bantigue told WWD.

“Now COVID-19 has shown that this is not really sustainable when it comes to a global pandemic and lockdowns. We wanted to create a new way for them to come online,” she said.

The partners approached these boutiques — which had no idea who Shopify or other tech vendors were, Bantigue added — to put their inventory online with Queenly. Some 40 of them agreed.

Their inventory, plus that of brand partners, gave the platform multiple sources and no supply chain to fret over, which wound up being an advantage, as delivery delays and other issues dogged other retailers.

The other advantage is having a dual business model: Queenly also acts as a peer-to-peer, secondhand sales platform, allowing users to buy and sell. This effort expanded the company’s range of designers, from formalwear brands like David’s Bridal to BCBG or Calvin Klein. Today, there are 60,000-plus unique dresses listed on the platform, with a total inventory value of $15 million, turning the platform into a shopping destination.

Think of it as Amazon meets Poshmark, but for formal gowns.

As for how the business managed to grow during a pandemic that snuffed out in-person events, Bantigue explained that people still dressed for occasions, even if they were only virtual.

“What we saw during the pandemic is that people love their culture, their tradition, and they still had virtual proms, virtual weddings, virtual pageants, and women dressed up more at home because they wanted to feel normal again, despite what’s going on in the world,” she said. Today, the platform sees more than 120,000 active monthly users across mobile and web.

“We are already seeing our average engagement — in terms of more searches, more time spent on the app — go up,” said Zhou. “We’re seeing our average order value go up, as well as the overall trends from both Google Trends of Google searches for these special occasions and internally through our own SEO reach and our own internal search engine [and] active users.”

When they come to the platform, what they find is an understanding of what this target shopper wants. Both founders have backgrounds competing in the pageant circuit, and Bantigue was also a former fashion model for formalwear designers.

“Where they started, with a very strong niche in pageants, it felt like a really great wedge into all the formal work,” said Connie Chan, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz. “They’re starting with a particular customer set, that very closely self identifies with pageants, and it’s very much part of their identity.

“[The business] offers something that retailers just can’t, which is near infinite selection,” Chan continued. “And if you compete in pageants, it’s actually very important to not wear the same dress as someone else in that same competition. So you’re very unlikely to go to your local Macy’s or Nordstrom, to try and shop for that dress.”

The other part of the equation is the artificial intelligence that underpins the platform, driving recommendations and powering its search functionality.

Queenly categorizes dresses through the computer vision and machine learning built in-house by Zhou, a full-stack senior engineer who previously built search and recommendation features at Pinterest. The tech allows users to search by color shades, necklines, hemlines, fabrics and body measurements, and the company is exploring other uses for it in the future.

Given that one of the company’s VC investors includes the original Google engineer who built out the Google image search engine, that seems like an inevitability. He’s not the only tech investor to jump on the Queenly bandwagon.

The business, which got its start at startup accelerator Y Combinator, has been backed by a who’s who of angel investors, including Thuan Pham, former chief technology officer of Uber; Manik Gupta, previously chief product officer Uber, chief executive officer and cofounder of Mercari, Ryo Ishizuka; James Park, CEO of FitBit, and Caviar cofounders Jason Wang, Shawn Tsao and Andy Zhang.

It seems Queenly has managed to do what few fashion start-ups have managed to accomplish: Enamor Silicon Valley with formal dresses. And, perhaps, inject some optimism into what lies ahead.

“I do think we will return to some kind of new normal, where physical in-person events are going to come back,” Chan said. “And I think the other thing that people don’t realize about these events is, they happen year-round and they happen every single year.”

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