A few hopeful Duke students are looking to revolutionize how people shop for clothes online.
In October 2022, then-sophomores Dhruv Bindra and Rayan Malik sat in a 100-person lecture hall as they watched several girls in front of them switch between multiple shopping websites during class — Zara, Aritzia, Princess Polly.
“What we didn't realize at that time is … we ended up chancing upon the solution to the biggest problem with fashion recommendations,” Bindra said.
Seeing their classmates struggle with a handful of different brands, Bindra and Malik envisioned the convenience of a fashion aggregator mobile app that mimics the Tinder interface, one that allows shoppers to swipe on clothing recommendations from multiple websites on a single platform and receive curated recommendations based on their choices.
Now over a year out from that lecture, Bindra and Malik’s fashion startup Styl — marketed as the “Tinder for Clothes” — has amassed over 500 active monthly users and over 1.5 million impressions on social media since its launch on July 12.
This problem the co-founders wanted to address was data scarcity. Since most fashion brands’ websites display multiple rows containing multiple items at once, when customers scroll past a row without clicking on any items, it’s impossible to determine whether the user didn’t like a particular item or just did not see it. As a result, the website cannot collect complex data about individual products.
The Tinder-like interface allows the app to know whether a customer likes the item with a right swipe or dislikes the item if they swipe left. The app can then build more sophisticated clothing recommendation systems with the collected data and effectively monetize window shopping. According to Bindra, this data is invaluable to clothing manufacturers and retailers.
Other entrepreneurs before Bindra and Malik have had similar ideas. Madison Semarjian, for instance, created the Mada app while she was a student at Boston College. Launched in 2020, Mada also allows users to swipe left or right on clothing items or accessories.
Bindra noted that, unlike Mada, Styl shows a single item at a time, allowing for stronger data collection to power the algorithms driving recommendations. Styl is focused on changing user behavior, something that Bindra said other similar apps like The Yes have been unable to do.
For Bindra, Styl is more than just a startup — it’s a fresh attempt at changing a process he has long despised as a kid. Growing up conscious of his body image, he hated going to parties due to the pressure to dress up.
“Every time I would try something on, I would just internalize how overweight I was,” Bindra said. “So I was never into fashion growing up, because I just hated the process of shopping.”
With the idea solidified, Bindra and Malik decided on the name “Styl” for their company, removing the “e” from their initial name “Style” for stylistic reasons. Not every step came as easily as creating the name, however.
“We were a couple of brown guys building [a] women's fashion startup; we didn't know what we were doing,” Bindra said.
The team’s first step was creating a focus group of 35 female students. The group met weekly at Duke’s dining hall to swipe on 100 pre-created clothing recommendations. After asking hundreds of questions about their fashion shopping habits, the team collected user insights to fix and build upon the app interface. They also recruited sophomore Rahul Bhandari as chief technology officer to help develop the app.
Users like sophomore Rachel Kim found the app especially helpful for finding outfits for her weekly, theme-varying sorority events. According to Kim, there are few malls in Durham and online shopping can be unexciting.
A feature of the app that Kim found particularly useful was the curated “wish lists” for upcoming events, from which users can browse pre-selected lists of clothes that fit the themes of upcoming fraternity parties and other events.
“[Styl] spares me so much stress because I can get outfit ideas for specific events I’ll be attending,” Kim said. “I do wish the app offered a greater variety of brands and smaller boutiques, though.”
The team is spearheading user growth with an emphasis on marketing, after hiring sophomore Maya Teixeira as chief marketing officer and sophomore Nina Venter as chief strategy officer.
One of their strategies has been posting flyers around parts of campus. Near Edens Quad, a part of campus notorious for its distance from the rest of campus, flyers read “Walking to Edens is painful enough. Make it fly by! Start swiping on the 'Tinder for Clothes.'” On the walls of Bostock Library, the flyer playfully asks that the students “Bo-stock up on clothes.” Under the slogans is a QR code that directs students to the app.
The fashion startup is looking to expand to neighboring colleges, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, although it is still cautious about its expansion.
“We want to grow longitudinally before horizontally,” Bindra said. “So we're really focused on keeping our user base as small as it needs to be. We're happy to grow, but not at the expense of distracting ourselves away from time that is best spent talking to users and building out new features.”
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