The Chicago Maroon | November 8, 2021
According to a new survey by the The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, about 6 in 10 Americans believe the pace of global warming is accelerating. However, carbon emissions from the fashion industry, which emits more than international flights and maritime shipping combined according to the UN Environment Programme, is often overlooked. Booth School of Business alum Anya Cheng hopes to address this challenge while simultaneously keeping men stylish through her new men’s clothing rental startup, Taelor.
Taelor allows men to rent clothes for 15-day intervals instead of purchasing them. For a monthly fee of $69.99, customers receive an assortment of four shirts curated by artificial intelligence and an assigned stylist. The clothes are selected based on the customer’s expressed preferences and sizes. Taelor ships the clothes directly to the customer for 15 days. After this period, the customer will receive a new batch of clothes and can either purchase the previous clothes for up to 70 percent off retail price or return them.
Since launching last May, Taelor has won the semi-final of Alumni New Venture Challenge, a competition for UChicago alumni to present their early-stage startups. Taelor competed against start-ups from six other regions of the world as the U.S. west coast champion for the $100,000 award. The company has just sent out its first 100 pilot boxes of clothes to customers nationwide. After receiving feedback from the pilot boxes, Cheng hopes to improve her products and begin fundraising in earnest next year.
Cheng credits her UChicago education as integral to establishing connections that have guided her company during its early stages. She graduated from Booth School of Business in 2014 as one of just nine women in a class of 90. She is now a Professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications.
“When we worked on our finances, we asked classmates who are now CFOs in other companies to look at Taelor’s financials,” Cheng said, that the first round of the people who said that they would invest were her classmates. “ Also, I have been asked by other entrepreneur classmates to be a board member for their companies to help with marketing, and in turn, I see how they operate their startups and I learn from those experiences as well.”
Cheng met Taelor co-founder Phoebe Tan while studying at Booth. While Cheng specializes in marketing and technology, Tan handles the company’s finances and operations. Their respective skills and professional experiences allow them to effectively manage their company and tackle challenges that come their way.
“Phoebe and I have totally different expertise, but through our UChicago Booth education, we know enough to at least ask questions to help the other person avoid blind spots,” Cheng said. “This kind of communication allows us to support each other and become really great founders.”
Cheng designed Taelor’s business model after learning that roughly 85 percent of all textiles end up in landfills or burned. As more than 60 percent of fabric textiles are made from fossil fuel derived polyester, Greenpeace International, a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness for environmental issues through research, reports that these clothes in landfills can take hundreds of years to decompose and generate microplastics which pollute waterways.
“Taelor helps busy men look good without the commitment of buying clothes and while also helping people save the environment,” Cheng told The Maroon in an interview. “People only wear 20 percent of what they buy. So even though you might love some outfits, most of the stuff in your closet that you never really wear ends up in landfills.”
Cheng’s startup comes at the heels of the “fast fashion” explosion, the proliferation of cheap, trendy garments based on celebrity culture. According to the World Resources Institute, 2014 witnessed people buy 60 percent more clothing than the year 2000, but they only kept the clothes for half as long. In response, clothing manufacturers, in an effort to satiate record demand, have more than doubled their output since 2000 and generally do not design their clothes to last.
Cheng believes that Taelor and other clothing rental companies have an edge over fast fashion due to the fast two-week turnaround for clothes and the associated consumer preference data.
“So if you think of fast fashion, the reason these companies, which are not eco-friendly, are so successful is because they get really quick feedback in four months,” Cheng said. “But for our platform, people rent clothing and then in just two weeks we have real data come back and we know if people like their clothes. The customer can judge whether it is fair to wear and if the quality is good, and that all feeds into our rich data.”
Cheng was first inspired to start Taelor by her own struggles finding affordable yet fashionable clothing with little hassle. Whereas most existing clothing rental companies target women, Cheng viewed adult men as a prime market for her business.
“Before I started this company, I wasn’t a fashionable person, I was pretty lazy, I hated shopping, and I hated laundry,” Cheng said. “What I eventually found out was that many people have the same problem I do. And guess what, most of those people are men. They are 25 to 40 years old, 60 percent are single, and they don’t care about fashion, but they do care about looking good in order to achieve certain goals that they have, and that’s [how] Taelor was born.”
The shift away from fast fashion to clothing rental is reflected in the success of companies such as Rent the Runway. Rent the Runway debuted its IPO last Wednesday at a valuation of $1.7 billion, surprising analysts who expected a number close to $1.3 billion.
“Circular fashion is the future of the clothing industry, and that includes both resale and rental business models,” Cheng said. “With a resale clothing company, users go on a website and can purchase clothes that have been worn before, or they can sell their own clothes to others. That’s great, but it can take hours to scroll through different products, and once you buy something, you usually can’t return it, which makes no sense for people who don’t have a lot of time.”
Since graduating from Booth, Cheng has led digital innovation, marketing, and artificial intelligence teams at companies such as Facebook, eBay, Target, and Sears. This professional work experience has honed her skills in marketing, innovation, and leadership and ultimately prepared her for being the CEO of Taelor.
“I am actually a new entrepreneur,” she said. “In the last 15 years, I have always been working in the corporate sphere, and I specialize in building zero to one products. So on the one hand, I have a lot of zero to one product experience with building new businesses, new products, and new innovations. On the other hand, I have a lot of retail experience. So, at retail companies like Target, Sears, and eBay, I know how difficult it is for brands to really know what people want.”
Taelor is currently offering a 30-day free trial for anyone who signs up for the monthly membership and who wears medium sized shirts. Memberships may be cancelled at any time.
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