Early this year, Lori Coulter, MBA ’99, was flying high.
Summersalt, her venture-backed, tech-driven apparel startup, had just closed a $17 million Series B round of funding.
Then, flights to and from Europe were cancelled overnight. Online purchasing came to a halt. Summersalt’s business declined quickly.
The COVID-19 pandemic slowed Coulter’s business for about six weeks—but thanks to foresight and a consumer-focused model, Summersalt navigated through the initial uncertainty and is back to pre-pandemic levels. Coulter says they’ve “launched over 3,000 SKUs this year alone and are benefitting from a generational shift in consumer behavior, accelerated by COVID-19.”
Coulter and her co-founder, Reshma Chattaram Chamberlin founded Summersalt three years ago to be “the go-to lifestyle brand for our consumer to own her entire wardrobe.” The brand began with a signature swimwear line before branching intoloungewear, sweaters, sleepwear and now activewear.
An emphasis on sustainability
Coulter set out to create something different, from the design process to how her consumer is seen: “The entire point was to offer joyful, elevated style in functional products with performance baked into the materials, quality and design of the product.”
Coulter emphasizes sustainability in her product: Nearly all Summersalt’s garments are created from recycled materials or cruelty free yarns, and their packaging is made from recycled material.
She also sees space to rethink “the way we’re presenting women and speaking to our consumers.” Ditching the traditional merchandise advertising playbook, Coulter and her team focus on creating a relationship with the customer through community building, body positive messaging, new product innovation and continued interaction with a focus on the real women who wear these garments.
That strategy is paying off—and Coulter sees it as part of an inevitable rethinking of how we buy our clothing.
“Venture-backed e-commerce brands like ours are growing explosively right now,” she said. And the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic fallout has “essentially accelerated the decline of traditional retail.”
An apt moment for expansion
That’s due to a prolonged shutdown of in-store shopping options and an inability to quickly shift and respond to customer desires in the traditional major merchandising model. “We actually had beautiful products when, where and how the consumer wanted to be spoken to at the right time.”
The pandemic also reinforced Coulter’s recent decision to expand Summersalt and launch an activewear line—one that listens to the needs of women.
“So much activewear has been done in the same way in the past—so we just listened to our consumer about what she wanted right now.” Given how integrated work and life are during work-from-home and social distancing, “we created garments that transition her world and meet her where she is.”
As Coulter looks to the future and continued growth, she’s constantly reminding herself and her team to reflect on their values. “We always go back to making sure the brand reflects who we are, and that we’re authentically communicating that to our consumers.”
Sometimes that looks like using sustainable methods and carefully thinking through every design element. Recently, that looked like launching a text-based app that sent inspirational messages to women who might be struggling, or a $100,000 donation to Forward through Ferguson and Color of Change to fight for racial justice.
And Coulter knows that staying true to who she is, and what Summersalt is, will determine the future of fashion. “We don’t know what’s coming in the next few months,” she said. “But Summersalt intends to be ready to meet our consumer every step of the way.”