Online interaction has revolutionized the way we make friends and do business. No one knows more about this intersection between community and marketplace than Daily BR!NKer Ella Gorgla, whose innovative online retail community, I-ELLA, has become nothing short of an interactive fashion phenomenon. The platform allows members to buy, sell, borrow, and swap clothing and accessories. This vibrant community of shoppers and swappers takes social responsibility seriously—10% of the proceeds from every transaction goes to charity, and users are passionate about preventing waste through reuse. This fashion recycling has struck a chord with a wide demographic of users, and since its opening, I-ELLA has collected accolades for its innovation, sense of community, and commitment to social responsibility.
Tell me about your background, how you first got interested in the fashion industry, and what inspired you to found I-ELLA.
Most of my career I worked in business and strategy consulting and did some investment banking, so I didn’t work in the fashion industry, but I’ve always had a strong interest. The way I-ELLA got started was a combination of a number of things. First, just my love of fashion. Second, because the whole retail landscape is changing in terms of how women shop. There are companies out there that are applying social media to shopping and making it more collaborative. Third, I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur. My desire was to create something, and I-ELLA just sort of came together as the perfect launching pad from which to do so.
The site has been described as Gilt Groupe meets eBay. What sites inspired your business model?
There’s real value in being able to create a curated environment in which people can participate. If you look at the size of the online retail industry—estimated to reach $188 billion this year—it would be great if we women, who are the primary drivers of that growth, could participate in a tangible way, rather than just spending, spending, spending. At I-ELLA we’ve created an environment where you’re the retailer.
I know the site’s invite-only. Did you deliberately choose to make it that way, and how can people get involved?
It’s important to be able to define a brand while building it, so in the beginning it was primarily opened up to people in the fashion industry, marketing and PR and those who were heavily involved in non-profit and philanthropy. We wanted them to then invite their network onto the platform. So that was certainly done by design, but now the site is open, and we would encourage people to just jump in and join the fun!
Giving back to the community seems very important to you. How did you decide to incorporate charity work?
Well, I’m from Liberia, and right before I started doing this I spent about a year working with small firms in West Africa and companies here in the United States who were interested in investing in a positive, socially impactful way in West Africa. I knew that I wanted to keep that going. Imagine if every retailer gave 10 percent of their revenue to charity. What would our world look like? We’re already spending money on clothes, and I think people would want a portion of that to go to charity. We’ve discovered that this social element of I-ELLA keeps people coming back.
You’ve had several celebrities donate items to the site for auctions. What’s it been like working with them?
It’s been really fun. Our first celebrity was Whitney Port. After working with us, she donated her proceeds to an organization called Face Africa, and within a few months she got so involved that she traveled to Liberia to see the work they were doing.
You recently had an in-person session of I-ELLA in New York. How did that go, and are you planning on having any more?
We’re planning something very fun for Fashion Night Out. It’s amazing to see virtual members in person. We always end up connecting. I’ve hired people who came through as members, I’ve made partnerships with folks who came as members, just because we’re passionate about the same thing, creating this marketplace.
I want to take a moment to talk about your accolades. You recently made the Time Inc. list of 10 NYC Startups to Watch, you’ve been featured in Lucky Magazine, InStyle, WWD, Glamour, and BlackBook, and you were named one of Inc. Magazine’s 11 Leaders to Watch in 2011, alongside Justin Timberlake and Mary Landrieu. Congratulations!
That was crazy!
That’s a lot of press for a company that only started last year.
I’ve always believed in the concept, but we couldn’t get it off the ground because we didn’t have sufficient capital. When we were able to raise the capital and really launch it in a proper way, people just responded. We’re really creating a positive experience.
You have a self-professed love for fashion. How would you describe your own personal style, and who are some of your fashion influences?
My style is a bit schizophrenic. One day I’ll be the Ivy League prep girl, and the next day I’m the Lower East Side grunge girl, and then when I have to go to something fancy, I don’t mind being super dapper. I love to display my mood based on what I have on.
Do you use I-ELLA to get outfits?
I do! I definitely have I-ELLA closets I love and watch, and I have to give our members time to shop them. Sometimes I’ll say in our newsletter, “I have my eye on this skirt, you guys have 48 hours to snatch it up or else I’m going to take it.” It feels good to know you’re shopping recycled luxury. When you think about the 1.5 million tons of clothing that goes to waste every year, it’s good to know that someone was ready to get rid of their stuff, and I’m able to make good use of it and feel the love they pass down.
Do you have a favorite item you’ve gotten from the site?
I have this beautiful cream bubble sleeve jacket by Lanvin and black mesh dress by Jason Wu. The great thing is, these are pieces you’re not going to find it anywhere else, and when you list something, you can actually share your story, and it feels like a real community.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
It’s not just my success. If they get involved with I-ELLA, they contribute to the success of other members on the platform and themselves, with us donating to charity as well. I would invite them to start by signing up and becoming a member, and telling at least five of their fashionable friends to sign up. One thing that we are going to start doing, and I’m going to share this on Daily BR!NK first, is asking people to take a recycling pledge, where they commit to wearing at least one item that has been pre-owned or borrowed. If you make that commitment, even if it’s just every other day, and share that story with people, I think it will help move this movement further and faster.