Trisha Bantigue, Co-founder of Queenly: 5 Things You Need To Create a Highly Successful Career In The Fashion Industry
Don’t be scared to be radically inclusive! For us, we knew of the various demographics of women who were always excluded from the fashion industry. We know that brands are making huge mistakes by ignoring large demographics of women that fall under plus-size, darker-skin tones, trans women, etc.
Aspart of our series about the 5 things you need to succeed in the fashion industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Trisha Bantigue, CEO and co-founder of Queenly.
Trisha Bantigue is the CEO and co-founder of Queenly, the leading marketplace and search engine for the formalwear industry. She first found inspiration for Queenly from her many years of competing in pageants and modeling for fashion designers. She strives for Queenly to reflect the progressive, inclusive goals of the tech and fashion industries and to provide access and affordability to women everywhere. Bantigue is also passionate about diversity and representation in fashion, including size inclusion. Prior to founding Queenly, she held positions at Google, Facebook and most recently with Uber, on their Executive Recruiting team focused on Engineering and Product.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Alot of different life experiences to say the least! The very core of Queenly’s story is my personal experience competing in various pageant competitions. Both my cofounder and I come from very low-income, immigrant families and so growing up, we know what it’s like not to be able to afford your dream dress. At the age of 17, I emancipated myself due to abuse and neglect I experienced at home and so I was fully independent and had to find ways to survive. Fortunately, I got into UC Berkeley for college, but I had to figure out how to pay for my out-of-state tuition fee (which my financial aid didn’t cover). I worked a variety of jobs and then I came across the opportunity to gain scholarships from pageants. In 2013, I tried it out, and I loved every minute of it. The women there inspired me so much as they were entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, PhD scientists and at the same time, they had a heart of gold. I competed for more than eight years and when I started working in tech (Facebook and Uber), I then started developing this gut feeling of wanting to start something to solve the pain point that I experienced and that I saw from many others: finding, affording and reselling a formal dress!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started?
The most interesting thing so far is that after countless VC and investor meetings the past two years, we came across a prominent VC that disclosed to us during the call, that she used to compete in pageants too! We were in awe and our jaws dropped, because we thought this was an extremely rare occurrence.
We used to joke about how the perfect VC that will see our vision will be someone who did a pageant before, and it actually happened! Manifesting can take time and can test some people’s patience, but I’m just super excited we finally found the perfect VC for us.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us What lesson you learned from that?
To preface this, I’ve made a ton of mistakes and I think it’s just the nature of being a scrappy startup founder. I think one funny mistake is that I had ordered 1000 Queenly boxes from a supplier in China BEFORE I had the product (app & website). The boxes arrived and I had no office to store them in and so I crammed them all in my apartment. I had huge towers of cardboard boxes in my apartment for the longest time and it was very, very annoying. To all aspiring entrepreneurs, do not preorder 1000 boxes before you have actual orders, trust me.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I can say that there are a few things that make Queenly stand out in a sea of male founders in Silicon Valley but one simple one is that we are our own users. As two female founders tackling a very female-focused problem that we ourselves have experienced, we are at an advantage where we can understand our users to their core. The way that we allocate for seller tools including height and that we understand the importance of seeing clothing on real people’s bodies, and not just models, is truly integral to a company’s success yet often overlooked. It is more common than not that we see founders build a startup company on a problem that they know nothing about, or maybe they start with a fancy solution without knowing the actual core problem they need to solve for their users. This is why we’ve seen startups that try to tackle women’s birth control and women’s fashion and they are started by men. This is extremely infuriating to female founders, who are undeniably underfunded and underrepresented in the tech/startup world and this revolves around the concept of the glass elevator. For us, fundraising was extremely brutal and we have experienced so many backhanded comments and assumptions from VC’s, that most male founders do not receive. There’s a reason why only less than 3% of venture capital funding went to female founders in 2020 and we hope that our company can help set a precedent for getting more female founders funded.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Prioritize self-care and provide yourself with a strong support system. The majority of the burnout feeling that most founders feel is that they feel as though they are alone in the burden. When you realize that you can’t give your company 100% if you, yourself, are not feeling 100%, things will go a lot smoother. It’s okay to grind but simultaneously, remind yourself that taking some time off, away from work can be healthy and can be beneficial for your company and your team. I have gone through some of the toughest times by also leaning into my support system of my partner, my cofounder and my friends. They’re there to help you get up when you feel weak and they’re there to remind you how great you are, which is a mood booster when you’re feeling insufficient or experience imposter syndrome.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We understand that not everyone has the means to attain their Cinderella-like dress for their prom, quinceanera or wedding and this can be extremely disheartening for them. For the longest time, the only options were to buy brand new at a department store, or to drive for hours to the nearest boutique store to find out that they don’t have the dress in your size. Now that online shopping and especially resale is becoming more popular, we’ve had the opportunity to help so many women find their dream dress at a more affordable price. We’ve had so many customers thank us for our platform and our service, because they finally found the perfect dress for their special event. One time, we even had a mom fly all the way to our San Francisco office at the last minute to pick up her dress order for her daughter because she didn’t want the shipment to get delayed during the holidays. She told us, “Thank you so much for existing! We’ve been looking for this dress for over a year now and we finally found it on your app.” This is exactly what makes us get up in the morning and work hard for our company.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.” This life quote is relevant to me because I was born in a small province in the Philippines to a very poor family. In my childhood years, my family struggled to even put food on the table and so I never take for granted the situation that I am in now. I was on my own at an early age where I was really close to sleeping on the streets. If I had decided to accept my circumstances and give up, I would not have been able to graduate from UC Berkeley, work at Facebook and Uber, and now, start my own business. Yes, of course, it’s hard when you have so many barriers to break through with very limited resources. I understand that wholeheartedly. I am not saying that these walls do not exist for certain groups of people and that these obstacles are easily defeated. But, with the right mindset, it IS possible. It’s possible to decide where you want to head in your life and it may not be the easiest path, but it’s possible to fight for your own future.
Do you see any fascinating developments emerging over the next few years in the fashion industry that you are excited about? Can you tell us about that?
I think the most important development in the fashion industry is that the secondhand/resale market is growing significantly, and we are not the only company that is proving that. The secondhand market (according to ThredUp’s 2020 report) is set to hit $64B in the next five years and the fact that resale grew 25x faster than the broader retail sector in 2019. More and more women are open to buying secondhand now than they ever did before and this overall bodes well for the environment! The use case of buying secondhand is perfect for a garment that you only plan on wearing once (and is typically pricey at brand new retail price), and having the ability to then resell it again is so beneficial to consumers. We want to reduce fashion waste by making sure that these preloved dresses are able to safely find a new home since they are well-taken care of compared to other garments. Another development that we’re truly excited about is the technological advancements made that pertain to the fashion industry such as being able to search listings with an image (reverse image search) and also being able to try on dresses through your phone’s camera (AR technology!). These are all things that we have in our product roadmap and we’re excited to get them out to our users.
Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Things Needed to Succeed in the Fashion Industry”. Please share a story or example for each.
- Firstly, don’t be scared to be radically inclusive! For us, we knew of the various demographics of women who were always excluded from the fashion industry. We know that brands are making huge mistakes by ignoring large demographics of women that fall under plus-size, darker-skin tones, trans women, etc. We felt as if it’s only right for us to provide a dress marketplace that will be inclusive to all women, and that’s why we have one of the largest selections of plus-size formal dresses for women. When we did our photoshoot campaign, we hired an Asian American model and also a trans woman model. We were very happy that we didn’t just stick to the status quo and it was well-received by our users.
- Second, know your market! Who are you actually targeting? Who do you want to sell your product to? It can range from a woman in her mid 30’s who is excelling in her career and living in an urban city such as NYC or SF to mom’s in the Midwest and the South who are looking for the best deal possible. It’s important to know who your target audience is when it comes to having successful branding and marketing campaigns. You don’t want to be throwing marketing spend left and right without them going to folks who are actually going to be your customers. For us, we knew early on who we were tackling: the pageant and prom market. For our early traction, we targeted women who competed in pageants multiple times and women in Middle America who LOVE dresses (and great deals!), so we managed to stay conservative with our marketing spend while growing at a good pace.
- Third, surround yourself with strong founders in the same industry. I think it’s so important to network when you want to start your own business and it’s even more important to forge relationships and to nurture them. I started networking way before I had my product, and being able to have honest and open conversations with female founders who have built amazing companies before really helped me. They gave a lot of great advice and even helped me with a few action items. Don’t ever underestimate the power of a strong support system in this industry!
- Fourth, educate yourself on the industry trends. It’s important for fashion brands to stay consistent and up-to-date with the latest trends in order to stay competitive or even stay in business. There have been so many companies that have failed and shut down because they failed to stay with the trends that people are leaning towards. The fashion industry moves constantly and moves fast. The best brands are always the ones who are keeping up with all these changes and launching amazing products and marketing campaigns that parallel what’s going on in society. One great example is the transition to online shopping vs brick and mortar stores. Macy’s has closed down so many stores the past few years due to this because they didn’t move fast enough to entice their customers to buy online instead. For us, we exist online and we’ve managed to create a pleasant shopping experience on our app and website for our customers. We’re always constantly improving everything as we listen to feedback from our own customers so that we can give the best user experience to them.
- And finally, dream BIG! I always believe that the greatest founders are the ones that start solving a real problem with overly ambitious goals. Of course, you take small steps to lead up to that, but in the end, these founders imagine the world as it SHOULD be, not how it currently is. This is what I love about the intersection between tech and fashion for us, is that we’re able to innovate so much to make people’s lives better. Katrina Lake did not achieve being one of the youngest female tech CEO’s to go IPO if she just stuck with the status quo on how women should shop. She created a brand new experience for her users and it was well received. Now Stitch Fix is a big industry leader in fashion tech and I am in awe at what they’ve done. For us, we hope to do the same for the formal wear industry as this industry has been so low tech and traditional for decades.
Every industry constantly evolves and seeks improvement. How do you think the fashion industry can improve itself? Can you give an example?
I think that the fashion industry is still struggling to provide inclusion. The fashion industry has a long history of excluding certain demographic groups such as plus-size women, minority women, trans women, and more. I think a lot of brands are still very reluctant to hire a plus size model for fear of rejection from their customers. I strongly believe that if you are a big brand that has the marketing reach of hundreds of millions of people, that you have a moral responsibility to make sure that the ads you launch and the brand you portray, does not lead to young women developing self-esteem issues, depression, eating disorders and more. Society overall has come to become more accepting of various progressive ideals, and that it’s time that the fashion industry innovates their traditional ways and rebrand themselves in order to be more inclusive to all. One famous example of this is the controversial comments made by Ed Razek, who is CMO of Victoria’s Secret’s parent company. He said that they don’t think they should hire trans models as it would “ruin the fantasy”. The brand has also notoriously avoided plus-size models and I think it’s time this needs to change.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would love to start the “Queenly movement” where a community of women come together in order to help one another look AND feel like a queen! This is what our company stands for and this is what we want to work towards.