A few words with Nina Brener-Hellmund, Founder & CEO of Cult Mia
Nina Brener-Hellmund (Nina): Raised between Mexico, Texas, and Switzerland, I was a global nomad growing up, always feeling like I could adapt to anything. I’ve always been happiest in environments that foster diversity and value an international perspective. Now 29 years-old and a London resident over the past seven years, I am excited to have put down roots personally and professionally here.
I spent four years in Silicon Valley and a first attempt at starting a business at 19, I knew very early on during university that I liked the entrepreneurial life. But I also knew that there was a huge amount I needed to learn and key skills that I needed to develop to succeed. After I graduated from Stanford University in 2013, I joined Goldman Sachs, followed by UBS, working in investment banking. It was an excellent school – I learned how to evaluate the most exciting pre-IPO investment opportunities in consumer and tech. Equally important, I learned to work incredibly hard and how to be resilient.
I joined London Business School’s MBA in the fall of 2017 to change career paths to entrepreneurship. I worked for Moda Operandi during business school and began to see opportunities in fashion e-commerce (an area I was always interested in, but never thought I would have a career in). I went through LBS’ accelerator and incubator programs and began testing ideas in the space. During my two year ‘break’ as an MBA student, I had time to fine tune my start-up idea and landed on Cult Mia. After pitching to VC judges and winning the first prize in LBS’ Launchpad program in May 2019, I was reassured that Cult Mia had legs to grow. I was excited by the challenge to build a business that was inspired by my own experiences.
TFR: What is Cult Mia?
Nina: Cult Mia is the global marketplace for unique fashion discovery. We’re centered around emerging fashion curation, scouting for hard-to-access and unique products, but at more accessible price points.
Our community powers our curation. Our customers have the ability to influence the products and brands they can shop on Cult Mia. Like, vote or share the brands you love – we’ll bring them home for you. Each curated drop reflects community feedback on the unique products handpicked and vetted by Cult Mia.
Cult Mia is your trusted global curator.
TFR: What is the entrepreneur story that inspired the launch of the company?
Nina: When I was working at Moda Operandi, I saw three opportunities in the marketplace model that seemed glaringly obvious to me.
First, there was huge demand for designers that had yet to be discovered. These brands were the up and coming, offering a product that was as good as a luxury brand, but more affordable. I felt so much more could be done for this growing segment.
Second, as I was researching the landscape for this type of brand, I noticed the market is split between luxury (average AOV £900) and fast-fashion (average AOV £50). I saw a gap in the market for a platform that could offer unique modern luxury, specifically in Europe.
Third, the more that I spoke to emerging brands, the more they have told me that they wanted space on a platform that can really tell their story, proper global visibility, without the complicated inventory requirement, operational overheads and marketing spend.
Where Cult Mia comes in: we connect designers to our global and very engaged audience seeking exactly what the designers offer from a values perspective, as much as the product they sell. Customers typically can’t otherwise engage with these brands: where would they find them, how could they trust their quality, and now with Covid-19, they can’t even travel to them.
TFR: What have you learned from being an entrepreneur?
Nina: I try to keep these three lessons front of mind:
- Don’t think about the exit like everyone else. Think about the journey. Think about building a business that you would never want to exit. Wouldn’t it be amazing to run and own a hugely profitable business in the long run that is meaningful to you beyond the profit (and hopefully to the world!)?
- Competition is a great thing. If you have a good start-up idea, you won’t be alone in the gap in the market you’ve identified forever. Learn and grow alongside your competitors.
- Reframe failures as successes: I failed as a first time founder at 19 during university (Food2Campus could have been the first UberEATs, but never took off!). Failures are only as good as how you analyze them and how you build off of them.
TFR: Sustainability is a hot term (and the term is being overused). Many companies are investing in sustainable materials while adapting their operations. What do you think about sustainability in fashion? Is it an oxymoron? Who is leading this change, brands or customers?
Nina: There’s a long way to go, but I don’t believe that fashion sustainability is an oxymoron. While the industry might be run unsustainably, it’s clearly top of mind and a positive movement is building – I see this with every brand we are talking to. I think it’s important to decouple fashion from the industry and from consumption.
The change needs to come from both, brands and customers, but from what I have seen, brands are currently leading the change. Our fastest growing category is made-to-order: designers work on a zero inventory model in order to minimize waste. Environment advocates stress that overproduction is fashion’s biggest issue and it has been great to see that 21% of our brand partners have taken the slow fashion approach and run their labels via demand-led inventory models.
Platforms also need to do their part. We focused on two areas that impact sustainability in our first year. First, brand partner selection. We handpick brands based on our assortment criteria that includes sustainable logistics, demand-led inventory, mission-driven, and / or supporting local production. Second, we never hold any brand damaging markdowns. We don’t need to (we don’t hold any inventory). We want to ensure that we are protecting brand value and doing our part in mitigating mindless consumption.
TFR: What is Cult Mia’s value proposition in regard to the assortment (brands, style, quality, price…)?
Nina: We handpick our assortment in two steps. The first is passing the brand vetting process. We care about operational excellence and finding the perfect product for our community in terms of price, quality, exclusivity. Our assortment in the modern luxury price bracket, with an average product site on price of £270. Our AOV in Q4 2020 was £313 and in Q1 2021, £453 – we see customers tend to select multiple items from multiple designers in each order. We look for value, high quality products that could be on any luxury platform, but that do not command the super luxury price tag yet. We look for opportunities for customers to shop exclusively: we bring brands online for the first time or introduce brands to the European market for the first time.
The second is meeting our assortment criteria. We equally care about meeting the values that our community cares about and we select brands. We have focused on having a balanced brand portfolio across our assortment criteria that includes women empowerment, sustainability, inclusivity, and local mission-driven.
Nina: At the beginning of the month, we invited our top ten brands to join our first permanent collective, Cult Classics. In addition to seeing how much our community engaged with and shopped the selected designers, the Classics were chosen based on our ability to team up with our brand partners to co-design and / or offer exclusive pieces, and early access to new collections to our customers. After iterating and learning from past best sellers in 2020, our exclusives collection is dropping on site in two weeks time on 3 May, 2021.
TFR: Who are your customers or followers? What visitors expect from the platform?
Nina: Our customers are looking for unique fashion, but they’ve found that the discovery process is far from hassle-free. There’s so much product online; it’s overwhelming. There are also so many platforms to shop from that offer the same designers, the same experience. All in all, our customers come to Cult Mia due to the lack of unique finds at modern luxury prices.
Our community is made up of explorers, who are willing to try new brands and value personalized and exclusive products. There’s a philanthropic side to our community: our customers value sustainable brands, supporting small / independent designers, and care about materials and innovation. More than anything, our customers value unique pieces and curated content.
Our audience has reached over 100 countries and our customers are spread across the UK, EU and US. On Instagram specifically, our follower base is 83% millennial and 89% female. They check in every Monday to see what new brand, collection or product has dropped on social or on site.
I’ve found that visitors are surprised by our curation and the products they find on the platform. When people think about shopping locally, especially in emerging countries, they think of tourist shops and stereotypical cultural finds. Shopping in Mexico means sombreros and ponchos. Funnily enough, whenever anyone asks me about what I’m wearing, it’s never my high street boots, but it’s always about my handmade enamel earrings from Oaxaca. I used to have to disappoint and respond that you have to travel to Mexico to get these earrings. Now, I can send you to Cult Mia.
TFR: Covid–19 has accelerated digital transformation increasing online sales and omnichannel adaption. Platforms are disrupting the retail industry. As opposed to Yoox Net-a Porter, Farfetch owns no inventory and operates as a platform for local boutiques and multibrand stores. A few apparel platforms’ business models seem to focus more on technology than “fashion”. What is your platform’s business model? (e.g. inventory management, product curation, customer service)?
Nina: Our model is very agile and starts with our data-driven curation. Something we really value is our community telling us what they want: we’re constantly testing on social. Our curation and demand planning is driven by our community. We handpick emerging luxury brands from across the world, post due diligence & criteria checks.
We bring brands online and work with brands on the marketing side, logistics and ecommerce fronts. We accept customer orders and manage all communication with customers, with visibility of brands’ inventories. Brand partners drop ship on our behalf directly to customers – we never buy or hold inventory. Brands that perform well on the platform have the opportunity to stay on and join our permanent collective.
The key to our model is our agile curation: Cult Mia picks up on trends quickly. We don’t follow the fashion calendar. We follow customer appetite. If there is demand, in less than 3 days a brand can be onboarded and live on site. We list what customers want, when they want.
Covid-19 gave us the opportunity to prove our agile business model through our ‘Staycation’ drop. In March 2020, we pivoted from a ‘Wedding Guest’ edit to introducing nightwear, home, face masks and activewear to adapt to Covid-19 customer needs within the week.
TFR: Physical retail is changing urban ecosystems. Department stores and mass-market brands are amongst the more affected by retail transformation. “New threats, new opportunities” as seen with new store formats at Nordstrom, Nike or H&M. Do you plan to open a physical store or pop up?
Nina: We do not plan on opening a traditional physical store. We don’t hold inventory and we also know that our reach is significantly larger online and return on marketing spend is much higher than relying on physical footfall and paying rent. However, we understand the value in connecting our community and bringing our brands together to tell our story in person. Post pandemic, we’re excited to host physical events for our community to deepen the connections between both sides of the platform.
TFR: As a start-up, what do you think are the key success factors that brings you to compete to big players?
Nina: There are a lot of platforms, both big and small. We’re doing things differently to both groups and we’re solving clear problems for both sides of our platform.
On the brand front:
I was surprised the first time a brand listed on an established luxury platform approached us, wondering what Cult Mia offers that a Net-a-Porter or Farfetch type platform doesn’t? While it’s great for authenticity to make it onto an established platform, no one was discovering the brand. An emerging brand rarely, if ever, makes it onto precious homepage real estate space. And if the brand isn’t center stage and remains unknown, no one is searching for them on the platform. We shine a spotlight on emerging brands in a way that existing platforms don’t.
On the modern luxury shopper side:
Customers tell us that they love shopping on Cult Mia for the ease in browsing our handpicked assortment, rather than browsing through a global catalog of every luxury product out there. We’re seeing less is more: listing more products on site has not led to increased revenue. 58% fashion execs consider demand focused assortment planning as a key focus area in 2021.  Customers are looking for a trusted curator.
All in all, the key for us to compete successfully is to remain conscious that we are still in our learning phase. We are listening and pivoting everyday. I can’t wait to see where we are in the next 3, 6, 12 months.
 The State of Fashion 2021: McKinsey & Company and Business of Fashion