Rathna Sharad used to travel overseas extensively for work, and one of the first things she’d do after unpacking her bags was visit the local boutiques. She was looking for clothing she loved, of course, but she was also searching for brands with a story to tell. What was the inspiration behind a particular piece? How was it made? Where were the materials from? “These are bits of information that women want to know,” she says. “It helps you relate to this thing you might want to buy.” What she found, though—aside from tops and shoes to add to her wardrobe—was just how difficult it could be for emerging designers to tell those stories. Especially to customers overseas.
Back in Seattle at her job in the ad department at Microsoft, the thought of that literal and figurative gulf be-tween designer and consumer nagged at Sharad. Earlier in her career she’d worked for UPS, finding the easiest and most cost-effective ways to route shipments around the world. Surely she could use her knowledge of customs and import taxes and supply-chain logistics to shorten the distance between the two.
Flash forward a couple years, to summer 2012. Sharad had left her job at Microsoft to begin building out Runway2Street, an online marketplace that would showcase items from designers she’d discovered in her travels. The idea was simple: Because many of these brands had little to no web presence—not to mention a dearth of experience in shipping product overseas—Sharad’s site would act as their website.
Executing the idea was something else entirely. “We could have very easily said, ‘We make the sale, and the brand will figure out how to ship it to you,’ ” she says. “But we didn’t want to do that.” Instead, Sharad and her partner, Sherwyn Soff, stitched together a web of carriers based on their ability to serve a given region and the rate they’d charge to ship that, say, swingy, color-blocked tank top from Mexico City–based designer Sandra Weil to U.S. customers.
Once they had that network in place, Sharad started hitting up designers themselves, pitching her site as a digital solution to their analog problem. It wasn’t a tough sell, especially when the owners of those emerging brands realized that she could give them the kind of analytics—which items sold best, and where—that larger retailers either couldn’t or didn’t have the time to provide. “At the end of the season these designers really know who their customers are,” Sharad says. “They have sliced and diced data by geography and age.”
After months of beta testing, Runway2Street launched in January, and by March Sharad had curated collections from 44 brands, in 19 countries—like De Siena, a Swiss designer that pulls off strappy, studded riffs on heritage Italian shoe design; and Greek label Gaffer and Fluf, with its goth take on streetwear. The designs aren’t for everyone—this is luxury, cutting-edge fashion—but customers are starting to pour in. Customers like Sharad’s first, a woman from Houston who ordered jewelry from Italy.
“Wait,” she says with a laugh. “That’s not true. My first sale was to me.”