Retailers   //   June 30, 2020

How Stitch Fix built a culture of silence among stylists

Two weeks after styling service Stitch Fix announced that it was laying off its 1,400 California stylists between now and the fall, morale was low in The Thread, the company’s internal messaging system. Stylists were discussing challenges they were facing in finding the right items to send to clients for their orders, internally called “fixes.”

“It’s SO disappointing when I really am trying my hardest and doing the absolute best I can for my clients, even when it’s semi-impossible due to lack of inventory,” wrote one stylist in a message viewed by Modern Retail. “Combined with the fresh feelings from losing this job, the pandemic, and everything else going on in the world…it’s just a lot to take.” 

A second stylist lamented how “it’s so hard when we aren’t given the tools to do our job, and we get criticism from both sides,” referring to customers, as well as managers, internally called leads. “What frustrates me the most is when we get vague communication like, ‘we know this will affect your metrics and we understand,’ yet we still get pressured when things go into the red,” she added. 

A styling supervisor jumped in telling stylists that “Covid has created some unique challenges with inventory vendors that are out of our control,” but that, “I can speak for all of us when I say that we want you to be supported and care so much about how this is making you feel.” 

“They are going to do what’s best by their shareholders,” said one Pittsburgh stylist, when asked by Modern Retail for her reaction to the message. “I do not feel supported.” 

Modern Retail spoke with eleven current and former stylists, more than half of whom joined the company before Stitch Fix’s 2017 IPO. All spoke on condition of anonymity, as Stitch Fix — like many tech companies — has a very broad definition of what is considered confidential information that stylists aren’t supposed to disclose. Stitch Fix has all of its employees, including stylists, sign confidentiality agreements.

Stitch Fix has long maintained that its business model is a blend of art and computer engineering. “We’re experts at both data science and human empathy,” its former CMO Deirdre Findlay told Adweek last year, about its stylists. Stitch Fix has developed proprietary algorithms that are supposed to help better predict what clothes customers are interested in over time. Yet similar to other so-called tech platforms — like Uber — that rely on a growing fleet of part-time workers, this precarious workforce makes up the service’s real front lines.

But some stylists said they feel like the artistic side of the company has increasingly been devalued. Since launching in 2011, Stitch Fix has transitioned from a scrappy startup to a profitable publicly-traded company. The vast majority of stylists are part-time, don’t get access to health insurance and are given limited benefits, like one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours work. (They are not, however, independent contractors like Uber driver.)

Stylists typically have to work between 15 and 29 hours per week, and depending on the region, start out at around $14 to $16 an hour. After a year with the company, they are promoted to “senior stylists,” and are given around a $1 raise to their hourly rate. Going forward from there, they are given raises if Stitch Fix has determined the cost of labor has risen in their particular zip code. One stylist said in nearly three years, her pay has risen just five cents per hour. 

Some stylists also said that Stitch Fix has — in explicit and implicit ways — increasingly discouraged stylists from voicing negative feedback about internal changes and processes. Leads will turn off comments on threads announcing big internal changes, like the impending layoffs of California stylists. Stylists are instructed to post “kind” and “solution-based” messages in the Thread, which makes it hard for them to commiserate with coworkers, according to the current and former stylists Modern Retail spoke with.  

Because Stitch Fix’s stylists are remote, some of them feel like they don’t have many options to escalate feedback to the rest of the company, beyond speaking directly with their manager. During the pandemic, the current stylists that Modern Retail spoke with said they felt like they’ve received conflicting messaging from Stitch Fix about the company’s priorities. 

In response to a list of questions sent by Modern Retail, Stitch Fix provided the following comment: “Our stylists are instrumental in building relationships with clients and creating the highly personalized experience Stitch Fix is known for. Their feedback, in partnership with our talented team of merchandisers and data scientists, helps us to continually improve the personalized recommendations of items and outfits we send to our clients.”

The statement went on: “All of our Stylists care deeply about their clients’ experiences and we encourage them to share feedback, ask questions and discuss learnings. We are committed to providing an open forum where this can take place in a safe and constructive way.”

The California stylists who are being laid off accounted for 1,400 of Stitch Fix’s roughly 5,100 stylists. Stitch Fix’s other styling hubs are in cheaper locations for the company to operate: Austin, Dallas, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis. So, Stitch Fix is instead hiring 2,000 part-time stylists in its other hubs between now and the end of next year, and offering laid off California stylists the option to apply to relocate to another styling hub. Stylists who do decide to relocate will get money to move, the company said. 

Multiple stylists told Modern Retail that these consolation moves were not enough.“[Stitch Fix] has a very toxically positive environment that I really bought into,” said one former California stylist. “I liked it, but in hindsight after being laid off, I now see that as not sincere and not authentic.” 

Running afoul of Threadiquette
When Stitch Fix went public in 2017, it had 2.3 million active clients. Today, that number is up to 3.4 million. The company lost $33.1 million in the most recent quarter due to challenges from the coronavirus. But up until this point, Stitch Fix has consistently reported a profit. In fiscal 2019, Stitch Fix reported a net income of $36.9 million.

The way that Stitch Fix’s model works is that customers pay $20 for a “fix,” in which stylists send customers five items of clothing and/or accessories they think a customer will like, based on what data the stylist has on that customer’s style. That $20 gets credited towards anything from their fix that they decide to buy. Over time, the company’s algorithms are supposed to be able to better predict what clothes a particular customer will like, and make it easier for the stylist to select clothes for that client.

Stitch Fix has long referred to its stylists as the “heartbeat” of the company. “It’s more than just an hourly job,” CEO Katrina Lake told Business of Fashion in 2016. Despite being on the front lines, some stylists feel they have few ways to air their grievances.

Stylists are judged on a variety of metrics, such as how many items their clients end up keeping. In the fall, Stitch Fix raised the number of fixes stylists are expected to complete per hour from 4.25 to 4.6, according to six current and former stylists, adding another new challenge. 

The current and former stylists Modern Retail spoke with said they felt their ability to challenge or get answers on why some changes were made to their jobs were also hampered by Stitch Fix’s communication processes.

On the Thread, conversation is broken up by different business-related topics. Oftentimes, conversation will turn to laments about inventory, or stylists talking about if they are struggling with a particular fix. The stylists said that leads have sometimes jumped into discussions critical of the company and instructed stylists to take concerns directly to them via email.

“We’re not in a typical company where you can go and stand by the water cooler and voice your frustrations to a coworker — not necessarily complaining about the company, but just…feeling like you are not alone,” said a second former California stylist. “It just seemed like you weren’t even allowed to do that because you were looked upon as being negative.”

There are rules governing use of the Thread — internally called ‘Threadiquette.’ “Thoughts and feedback are what drive change, but how those messages are delivered is important,” read one message viewed by Modern Retail instructing stylists on Threadiquette. Stylists are told to frame critiques with Stitch Fix’s OS in mind; they’re instructed to be bright, kind and motivated by challenge. 

For example, Stitch Fix defines “motivated by challenge” as being, in part, “someone who thrives in ambiguity and is resilient. Someone who operates with hunger, #StitchFixGrit, and perseverance.” The current and former stylists said that they sometimes feel Stitch Fix uses terms like grittiness and perseverance as an excuse to not make changes that stylists are pushing for, like to inventory or to the algorithms that they use. 

In an exchange viewed by Modern Retail, one stylist, for example, asked her lead for more specifics when Stitch Fix told stylists in 2019 that, going forward, it would be giving raises only if the cost of labor rose based on the zip code each individual stylists worked in. This was a change to the previous model — one that likely resulted in the stylist getting a pay cut. She expressed some disappointment to her lead about the change. The stylist’s lead changed the conversation away from compensation details and pointed her to Stitch Fix’s core values, including being “motivated by challenge,” asking if that clause resonated with her. The stylist interpreted her lead’s email as insinuating that she was not representing Stitch Fix’s core values by questioning company changes. 

This follows a trend; some stylists said leads frequently respond to inquiries in ways that don’t always directly address their concerns. For example, some stylists have said their leads will ask them to “get creative” in response to concerns about not having the right inventory for their clients. “The second you say anything [negative], you have got a target on your back — you are seen as unkind, or not a team player, so I don’t speak to anybody,” said one stylist, who asked only to be identified as working from the East Coast. 

Coronavirus woes
Companies have had to make drastic changes to the way that they operate thanks to the coronavirus, and Stitch Fix is no exception. During the third week of March until roughly the beginning of April, half of Stitch Fix’s warehouses (“hizzies,” as the company refers to them in internal messages) were closed, resulting in a backlog of orders. 

On April 2, the company’s vp of operations, Minesh Shah, sent an email to stylists projecting that their hours would be reduced at least for the next month. While warehouses were operating at a reduced capacity, part-time stylists would be paid for 15 hours per week during the first two weeks of April. Hours went down from there, to as little as five hours per week the second half of April. 

Shah said that while the company’s legal and people and culture teams were working to understand all of the implications of the CARES act,  “we do not recommend you file for unemployment now unless you were previously working significantly more than 15 hours a week on a regular basis. We’ll provide detailed guidance as to how and when you can file in follow up communication.” The email added, “our goal is to keep all of our stylists styling (working) as long as possible.” 

That’s why the California stylists Modern Retail spoke with said they felt particularly blindsided when on June 1, the company told all 1,400 California stylists that they would be laid off, and that they were not due to the coronavirus but rather what was financially best for the company long-term. 349 part-time stylists were laid off that week, while the remaining part-time stylists have the option to stay until September 18. 

In the weeks following the layoffs, the remaining California stylists were provided with examples of the type of responses they should include in notes to clients during their last Fix with them. Two stylists shared some of the examples with Modern Retail, which did not mention that the stylists had been laid off. 

One example: “I wanted to let you know that I’ll be leaving Stitch Fix. I feel so grateful and honored to have been your stylist for __ years/months. It’s been such a treat helping you to look and feel your best through fashion. “

Another: “While this has been the end of our fashion journey, you’re about to start a new one with an incredible new stylist who will be taking care of you.” 

Meanwhile, remaining stylists said that while they feel like their jobs are safe for now, it provides little comfort. Stitch Fix remains adamant that stylists are the heartbeat of the company, and points to the fact that it plans to have more stylists at the end of 2021 than it does this year. But an evergreen fear among some stylists is that they are training Stitch Fix’s algorithms to one day replace them.

“I’m very, very nervous for my position, it feels like it is a matter of time [before they automate it],” said one  Minneapolis stylist. “This is really my first time speaking out against anything….it feels like we are thought of as worker bees, and we’re just supposed to do what we’re told.”