Nine minutes into the VFiles Runway show at New York Fashion Week in September, rapper Young Thug stepped out of his seat on the front row, stopping the young man coming down the catwalk to adjust the model's outfit. At any other show, Young Thug's intercession -- likely contrived but no less blithe for it -- would have resulted in stifled gasps from its host and some sideways glances from those in attendance. Instead, VFiles' staff was tickled by the interruption, encapsulating as it did the mission statement of the host.
"Fashion and music are intrinsically related," VFiles founder Julie Anne Quay told Billboard in VFiles' Soho office a month later. "VFiles exists at the nexus of the two," Quay claims, "which makes it a really important pop culture community. The common denominator is always youth energy."
It's an intersection that the brand capitalized on last spring, with a buzzy, Yeezy-referencing pop-up merch shop behind Justin Bieber's Purpose tour. The collection, designed in collaboration with Fear of God designer and (of course) Kanye West favorite Jerry Lorenzo, drew hundreds of excited fans, who waited in lines that stretched around the block at VFiles' brick-and-mortar space in Soho. The pop-up helped VFiles further carve out its place within the ever-more sophisticated business of music merchandise, a dialogue foregrounded in recent years by megastars like Bieber, Kanye and Drake.
VFiles operates on a content-and-commerce business model encompassing a social media platform, a brick-and-mortar store, a video and content producer, a runway show, and most recently, a record label. Though Quay has had a long career in fashion herself, working for Esprit, Steven Meisel, Richard Avedon and V Magazine prior to founding VFiles, she's happiest operating at the crossroads.
Mat Vlasic, who was involved with the Bieber pop-up as CEO of Universal Music's merchandising arm Bravado, sees the connection between fashion and music as increasingly important in a digital age.
"As more and more music is consumed digitally, it's important to continue having these physical products, like fashion, in the marketplace," he told Billboard. "They're marketing tools for the artists and they're consumable for fans to enjoy. They provide people with a chance to buy into the lifestyle brand that the artist represents."
Much like those artists at the bleeding edge of this "new" revenue stream, VFiles has leveraged tangible merchandise as a way to grow awareness for a largely digital brand. It launched in 2012 with post-gender streetwear brand Hood by Air in its showroom and a concert by A$AP Rocky, and has since helped a number of cool-kid fashion labels like Gypsy Sport and Di$count Univer$e make a name for themselves by stocking them in the space. Rio Uribe, designer of Gypsy Sport, went on to win the prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award this year.
Merchandise sales from the VFiles showroom are stout, and have provided the most significant revenue stream for the largely self-funded brand up to this point. Still, VFiles will be pivoting away from its storefront model, Quay told Billboard, with intentions to eliminate its (likely very expensive) Soho brick-and-mortar space by the end of the year in order to focus on developing other aspects of the brand.
"We did a survey of our users and found out that their number one issue is that they don't feel they get equal opportunity," Quay explained. "As much as possible, we want to use technology to disrupt the historical ways of entering the fashion and music businesses, and give our users an opportunity to get out there, collaborate with each other and do things."
This means, on one end, scouting for undiscovered-but-promising talent online and providing spaces to nurture and cultivate that talent -- in the real world. In the fashion realm, it has involved pulling gifted young designers from the VFiles digital platform and having them present at New York Fashion Week via the VFiles Runway show. The designers also receive mentorship from industry greats like supermodel Naomi Campbell and legendary makeup artist Pat McGrath.
VFiles Loud, the brand's music arm launching this month in collaboration with former Good Charlotte frontman and The Voice Australia judge Joel Madden, is intended to kickstart similar career advancement for young musicians. With new singles being released six times a year that will be culled from the site's users, the vertical intends to serve as an incubator for new talent. The brand's association with hot young acts like Rae Sremmurd and Lil Yachty, who have performed as part of the Live at VFiles event series, gives Quay hope that VFiles will be able to attract a high caliber of up-and-coming musicians.
In addition to its fashion and music verticals, VFiles will also focus on expanding its native advertising and brand partnerships. Though it has a relatively small following -- there are about 250,000 registered users on the site according to Quay -- it has already landed large collaborations with established brands like Calvin Klein and Mountain Dew.
The draw for these legacy brands? A vast majority, 82 percent, of VFiles' users are under age 24, positioning the platform as a portal ripe for targeting those coveted, tastemaking young eyeballs. And VFiles' ability to draw A-list fans like Katy Perry and Rihanna to its merchandise seems to indicate it's doing something right.
Which is one reason why VFiles won't be dropping the content-and-commerce model anytime soon, even as it reduces its physical presence from a constant storefront in New York to occasional pop-ups in various cities. As a not-yet-profitable startup that's still in "growth mode," the platform has a ways to go before it can show it is truly scalable. But with big publishers like Condé Nast making acquisitions to expand into retail, VFiles' business model may be ahead of the curve.
"This idea of content and commerce is what sets VFiles apart," CEO of advertising and representation agency DMA United Marc Beckman told Billboard. "I think Julie Anne developed this model before everyone else, this model of a culture that is very specific to the millennial base, with a focus on peer-to-peer communications and creativity. If she can continue forward with it, her market will find her and it could be a very successful platform."
One benefit of encouraging peer-to-peer creativity is that it genuinely benefits users, which can convert them into vocal brand ambassadors. One example of this came from VFiles' February 2016 NYFW runway show. It opened with a performance by 17-year-old Beyoncé protegé Sophie Beem, who wore pieces from in-house brand VFiles XO. The show gave Beem a chance to perform alongside more well-known acts like Tyga and A-Trak, and exposed her to smaller, VFiles-represented brands like Ottolinger. Beem has since pulled extensively from VFiles designers for her own music videos and performances, ebulliently telling Billboard that she's "basically in love with everything in the whole store." Through their relationships with VFiles, young musicians like Beem can get connected to emerging designers, and both benefit as a result.
Still, VFiles' championing of up-and-comers can have its setbacks when it becomes a victim of its own proteges' successes. Hood by Air and Off-White, the latter of which was founded by Kanye West collaborator Virgil Abloh, are two important fashion labels that no longer sell through VFiles. Since bigger brands help boost the profiles both of VFiles itself and the smaller labels it represents, losing those accounts has a real effect.
Still, Quay seems focused on new talent to such a degree that she's not discouraged by former VFiles partners moving on to bigger things, and would even claim them as proof that VFiles is the right springboard for up-and-comers. Part of Quay's emphasis on creating opportunity for new kids on the block rather than focusing on established talent stems from her experience of fashion as an "elitist" industry with hard-to-hurdle barriers that she'd like to see removed.
"We're actually going to do our runway shows exclusively at music venues from now on," she told Billboard. "The music world is much more accepting of what we do and of the kids who make up our community. We have no interest in being uptight the way fashion sometimes is."
Her focus on inclusivity and diversity reflects the values of the generations she's trying to reach. And it's evident in everything from how VFiles involves crowdsourcing when choosing the winners of its design competition to Quay's initiative to hire "nice bouncers" at events so she can be confident they're being kind even to those they turn away.
"People say, 'How do we talk to them?' meaning the kids or the youth," Quay said. "And it really shouldn't be that. It should be, 'How can we support them and create new paths?'"