I am welcomed into Chottie Hamilton’s contemporary Austin apartment by the smell of a home-cooked dinner. You can imagine my delight, considering the last “meal” I had consumed was a cup of ramen. Chottie has invited me three floors down (I happen to live in the same apartment complex) to talk about The Retail Vault, an online styling service that delivers custom-tailored outfits straight to your inbox.
Everything in the apartment is off-white with gold accents. A single pop of millennial pink comes from a tulip in a delicate vase.
Fitting, really, as Chottie is currently a sophomore at the University of Texas. At age 20, Hamilton has already checked what is maybe the biggest item on every business savant’s to-do list: become your own boss. The Retail Vault, after all, is rising in the ranks of digital fashion services, with Chottie at its helm.
It started with a hobby. As a high schooler, Hamilton was limited to the weekly monotony of private school uniforms. Without the freedom to dress expressively, she soon channeled her creativity into a new outlet: a fashion blog named Charlton Lee (coined after her birth name) dedicated to documenting notable brands and boutiques unknown to the general public. Soon enough, a loyal band of followers emerged and Hamilton was quickly deemed the resident stylist amongst her friends.
Hamilton says it was the widespread reception of this “master list” that introduced her to the digital fashion industry and, eventually, inspired the inception of The Retail Vault. Today, the website boasts a recently renovated interface, complete with a user-friendly online form to kickstart your styling consultation. Based on your preferences, The Retail Vault’s team of stylists scour the Internet in search of three made-to-order outfits. Clients then have the choice to purchase either the completed look or a single piece. The best part? You never have to leave your couch.
Spark Magazine: Take me back to where you were right at the beginning stages of The Retail Vault. What was going through your mind?
Chottie Hamilton: At the time I was 16, and I remember thinking, who’s going to take me seriously? Honestly, I didn’t think it was going to work. My mom encouraged me just to start somewhere, so I started the website based on my list [of stores]… it was kind of like Pinterest in a sense. There were 10 categories of style types with a list of stores and their signature specialties in each. No revenue stream; it was merely a resource for my readers. Last spring is when I felt confident enough to begin offering styling tips, but just this fall is when The Retail Vault transitioned into a full-fledged paid service.
SM: How did you settle on naming it “The Retail Vault”?
CH: Going off the idea of the “master list”, I wanted to play off the fact that you were getting in on a secret, you know? There’s something very exclusive about the word “vault”. Then I was going back and forth with what word would really encompass everything we’re offering here, and “retail” really pulled it all together. The Retail Vault.
SM: What was the turning point that transitioned The Retail Vault from a possible business idea to a real, tangible brand?
CH: I think it’s definitely been a gradual process. Coming to UT last year, there were so many resources at my disposable, including friends. I had a friend who created our logo and I think that was probably the biggest change. We went through this time when [our website] was just a compilation of text and simple colors. But then we really did our research and got into the branding of it, and then with the new logo, that was the first time we were like, “wow, this is real!” Since then, we’re still transitioning. It’s one of those things where you have to learn as you go, and I would rather experiment and figure out what works as opposed to hypothesizing “what ifs”, being wrong, and then having to start all over again.
SM: I think it’s really admirable what you’ve created. A blog is one thing… a start-up really seems like a whole other domain.
CH: Right! You might think that running a start-up is just taking an idea and maybe making a website, but there’s so much more to it. You start thinking about, for example, hitting XYZ revenue projections for the month, and if I don’t make it, then what needs to change? But then at the same time, I have accounting homework and a part-time job, and you throw in balancing a college social life on top of it, and it’s a lot.
SM: How do you deal?
CH: Because I know I want to do it, and I can. That’s the thing: I look at career fairs and nothing else interests me. I want to have my own business, so there has to be sacrifices. You can’t have both, so.
SM: With the rise of the digital age and social influencers and, now, online style services? We’ve seen such an emphasis on transparency and relatability with your clients. What do you think of it all?
CH: I used to be pretty private with my identity; my mom didn’t let us make Facebook accounts and with my blog, that’s why I used my birth name instead of “Chottie Hamilton”. Now, when it comes to the Retail Vault, I know it’s so important to reveal more about myself. When I go to a brand, I want to know who they are, what their story is… Give me something, you know? I’m so fascinated with the whole idea of building a brand, but at the same time, I’m not living some glamorous, entrepreneurial life – I’m going to class half the day. I think it’s just a game of “how do you find stuff that is relevant to share, without sharing too much?”
SM: You cater to a wide demographic of individuals. How does the collegiate angle work to your advantage?
CH: We really started with word of mouth and sharing with friends and building a social network. Now, we’re focusing on catering to all young professionals – they need clothes. College students can wear shorts and a t-shirt every day and get away with it. They can’t. The Retail Vault is like going to that cool, older girl and asking her for fashion advice, and whether that’s a college student or a young professional, we’ve got you covered either way. Being a college student is part of my story, but it doesn’t define my business.
SM: How does The Retail Vault stand out amongst the increasingly saturated market of social influencers and millennial brands?
CH: I totally agree with the idea of trusting bloggers and social influencers with being transparent, but I also think it’s definitely not as organic anymore. They’re trying to make a living, so they’re going to try and sell you the highest commission item – they’ll sell you what they need to. With The Retail Vault, you’re already paying us to style you, so we’re going to tell you what might be best for you and really be authentic with that. We’re focused entirely on what the client wants.
SM: What would you want to tell other aspiring entrepreneurs, especially collegiates, about building a business?
CH: Just never giving up. One of my professors once told me that it’s possible to achieve success if you just don’t ever give up. If you can take some hits and make sacrifices and push through and keep pivoting time after time; it will work. It’s all about the perseverance and the drive. It’s hard because you look around and think it’s never going to happen, but the people that it did happen for made it because they just kept pushing. Any other attitude and you’ll want to quit in a second. •
For more, visit www.theretailvault.com. Student discount available.
Writer Joanne Xu / Photographer Joanne Xu
In partnership with The Retail Vault
featured online, as seen here