Helen Zhu, Chictopia's co-founder sporting the 'sweater guards'
Personal style blog Chictopia might just be the Encyclopaedia Stylistica of its generation, used by everyone from designers after an insight into what cool young things go for right now, to editors looking for a fresh way to put a look together, or well, you, trying to decide whether to clog or not this summer and if so, how. And if you’re still not convinced, the numbers may help; 10 million page views per month, over 15,000 photo submissions. Over 100,000 registered users must know something!
We caught up with one of its founders Helen Zhu over a scoop (or two) of San Francisco’s best bi-rite ice cream, to found out more about “the people’s fashion destination”, what separates a blogger in Stockholm from one in California – boots! – and how to channel Glee’s Ms Pillsbury with Helen’s latest obsession, ‘sweater-guards’.
Helen's new fave SF style photos
Grazia Daily: How did Chictopia start and what is the main concept behind it?
Helen Zhu: Chictopia started because we wanted a bigger way to solve the problem a lot of us ask, which is “what looks good on you?” So, what defines you; that’s your body shape, your skin tone, your age, your brand preferences, all that’s unique about you. We think that, right now, a lot of people look at fashion magazines, which are a great source of inspiration but the models don’t necessarily look like you! Or sometimes, you ask your friends and relatives for ‘expert’ opinion but if I ask my mum what I should wear on a date she’ll be like “a turtleneck”! So, we wanted to create a community of inspiration-seeking shoppers to translate the style of ‘real’ people. And also, traditionally, fashion as an industry is very top-down and we wanted to open it up and make it more democratic and that’s what a community is about.
The site launched on April 2008 - so we’re close to our 2nd birthday – and we just garnered a lot of support from everyone. We have our own house-blog called ‘Everybody is Ugly’, and we get invited to New York Fashion Week so it was just a really great opportunity. Not only do we get the support of users but a lot of brands started coming to us and asking us how they can work with some of the bloggers as well as users within our community. That was a great opportunity to see brands wanting to engage. We’re based in San Francisco, which is not the most fashionable city in the US but what’s interesting is that San Francisco is the home base of the internet revolution and we are noticing that there’s a new wave of companies coming out of here that are about fashion like Polyvore and Moxsie, so I think in the future it will be great to see New York being the home base of print magazines and San Francisco driving the online.
GD: What did you do before you started Chictopia?
HZ: I actually have my degree in Mechanical Engineering but I decided that I didn’t really like cars that much so I went into Consulting. I left that after a few years and worked for three different web companies in the Silicon Valley and two of my websites were nominated for the Webbie awards and one won so I thought that maybe it was time to start my own website! I have two co-founders, Corinne and Richard who’s actually my fiancé! The three of us were roommates at one point and we wanted to start a business that would hold our interests for a long time and it came down to food or pets or fashion!
GD: The idea of the community is really fascinating. Is that the most important part of Chictopia, the base of it?
HZ: Definitely. If you think in life, everything is based on a connection and anything that’s valuable is how deep that connection is, whether you like someone enough to comment or collect that picture or you like something enough to buy it from that person so the community strengthens that connection.
GD: There’s also a shop, how does that work and how can someone get involved with it?
HZ: The shop section is really for our users to list items they want to post for sale, right now it’s invitation only and we accept essentially sellers who we think their product would be aligned with the community. But anyone can apply to be a seller within the community. The idea is that you foster this trust within the community and a certain style aesthetic and you can buy from one another.
GD: And then there’s the forum!
HZ: Yeah, the forum is very lively. We get tons of interesting topics; one of our favourite ones to follow is ‘Do girls like skinny guys?’ That’s a very popular one! Another one we get is ‘What’s your worse fashion trend?’ – a lot of people don’t like Uggs! So our forum is really fun because it gives you a lot of insight into what younger women are thinking or, in my case, not so young!
GD: You mentioned your collaborations with various brands, I noticed Keds have a strong presence on the website, could you name a few others?
HZ: We actually worked with Topshop last Summer, we did a campaign with them when they came to the US. We also work with Target, Forever 21, True Religion jeans, James Perse, Gilt Groupe. In the last 12 months or so a lot more brands are starting to jump on the bandwagon to reach out to users.
GD: You must see so many different styles from around the world on the website. Do you see any recurring themes, what’s the British style you see coming through and how does it compare to San Fran style?
HZ: I generally think that Europeans tend to be more put-together than Americans and specifically there are a few cities that I see as trend-setting like London and Stockholm. Americans are a little bit more casual; they were sneakers and tennis shoes a little bit more whereas Europeans will wear boots, wedges. San Francisco is also interesting in that you almost never see summer looks coming out of it because there’s no summer! There’s no day you can walk out in your mini sundress for the whole day. There’s that famous quote from Mark Twain, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”! So, it’s all about the layers. I personally think that San Franciscans probably don’t wear as many hats because it’s always so windy! I have a few big hats and they get blown off very easily. It also seems to be that US girls tend to wear a little bit more vintage, especially girly vintage, whereas I don’t see so much from London or Sweden, they’re a little bit more fashion forward.
GD: I always think of the style here as much more independent than New York or LA, which you can categorise easily. SF is tricky in that way.
HZ: It is tricky, there’s no defining style. Also, because of the tech industry the men-to-women ratio is very skewed. In this area, the Bay area, the men-to-women ratio is something like 7 to 1! I’d say SF style is a lot more vintage-inspired, women dress a lot more girly, a lot more floral in California…so, in one word it’s California-floral-vintage-inspired!
GD: Going into Spring-Summer, what do you personally look forward to wearing and also from the collections you’ve seen for next season, what’s really caught your eye?
HZ: I’ve been really obsessed with these things called ‘sweater-guards’. I just got these today in the mail and you basically wear them with your cardigans to keep them closed! I wear a lot of cardigans in the summer so they’re great. One of our editors did a trend-piece on them and I’ve been obsessed with them. As far as trends for Fall, I saw some ruffles in Christian Siriano’s show and also H&M’s Garden collection had some ruffle dresses. It’s like a more structured and sophisticated version of floral, which I’m a big fan of. I also look forward to wearing hats when I travel!
GD: And any favourite labels and designers that you always go back to?
HZ: I really like Nicole Miller, she’s one of my favourite designers although she didn’t invite me to her show but I still like her! I like Cynthia Steffe and Max Azria, his show is always amazing. I like classy, sophisticated, clean lines. And I have been going to Zara a lot. I’m almost always Zara head-to-toe at work! And I forgot Calvin Klein, my favourite winter coat is by Calvin Klein.
GD: And are you planning any London trips, perhaps London Fashion Week next season?
HZ: Actually, we are thinking about going to London so I will definitely keep you posted!
By Kiki Georgiou in San Francisco.
Grazia Daily was invited to join British fashion designer Chris Brooke of Basso & Brooke on a tour of California’s renowned Wine Country to celebrate the design duo’s recent appointment as Turning Leaf’s Designers in Residence and their subsequent collaboration with California’s leading wine producers. To find out more visit www.turningleafwines.co.uk