Over the past decade, the fashion industry has seen a rise in the direct-to-consumer (DTC) trend, with companies like Warby Parker eyewear and Casper mattress disrupting traditional retail models. These companies have found success by selling their products directly from the manufacturers, cutting out the middlemen and keeping prices low. cific goods directly from the manufacturers and bypassing middlemen to keep prices low. One major player in this new wave of retail is Italic, a DTC company based in Los Angeles that specializes in “brandless luxury” goods. Italic offers a wide range of products, including handbags, cosmetics, jewelry, clothing, and luxurious sheets. What sets Italic apart is that their prices are 50 to 80 percent less than similar luxury goods.
“We’re not replacing designer brands in any category,” says Cai, 29, the CEO and founder of Italic, who was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for retail and ecommerce in 2020.
“We’re simply offering another option for shoppers, so that they can buy the luxury items they love straight from the source for much less,” he says.
Cai raised an impressive $13 million in funding for Italic’s launch in 2018. Since then, the company has significantly expanded its product range from 50 to over 500 items. They also introduced their own skincare line in 2022. To cater to the growing demands, Italic has also added new categories including cookware, luggage, and pet products. As a result, their workforce has grown from 21 to over 50 full-time employees. In line with their expansion, Italic has moved from a small WeWork office, where I initially met Cai and his sparse team, to a spacious 6,700-square-foot warehouse office in the vibrant arts district of downtown LA.
Working closely with more than 60 manufacturers worldwide, Cai allows customers to buy high-end products from prestigious brands like Prada, Gucci, and Cartier without the added costs of branding and marketing. Raised in Chicago, Cai’s family operated a manufacturing business that supplied auto parts to major companies including BMW, Tesla, and Nissan. Leveraging these connections, Cai and his team have visited over 100 factories in Italy and China, meticulously selecting manufacturers based on their expertise, ethical work practices, sustainability commitments, and certifications. To ensure exclusivity and prevent copyright infringement, Cai says that Italic’s designs are unique to their brand and have not been produced for any other companies.
He believes that customers will appreciate the substantial savings Italic offers. For example, a cashmere throw at Italic costs $145, whereas the same manufacturer supplies Burberry, where it is priced at $590. Similarly, Italic’s olivewood salad bowl sells for $50, compared to William Sonoma’s price of $150 for a bowl from the same manufacturer. Cai’s ultimate goal is for customers to recognize the value and savings they will find at Italic.
We speak to Cai about his plans for Italic in 2024, the challenges he overcame, and the breakthrough moment that influenced how he works.
What are your goals for Italic in 2024?
JC: If the past 3 years were all-out expansion, 2024 is the year of simplification. We are focused on reducing the complexity of our product line and investing into a better customer experience and product quality across the entire assortment of fewer, better products.
You had 50 listings initially, now you have over 500. What are your best-selling items?
JC: We’ve come a long way. Our top 3 selling items are our Australian Ultraplush towels, our Grade A cashmere sweaters, and our Australian sateen bedding.
How do most of your clients hear about you?
JC: One of the great things about Italic is we receive a lot of great word-of-mouth from our customers, which really drives new customers to our site. We’re also continuing to build up our marketing and social outreach, and we’ve seen great results from that. But as a growing company we want to do that smartly and strategically.
What challenges did you face while building your company?
JC: One of the biggest challenges you face as a founder comes early on, as you think the only thing that matters is the product. Later on, you think the only thing that matters is marketing and distribution. Eventually, you realize that culture is what matters most. It’s not just a set of values you write down, but rather an operating model that’s codified and shaped mostly by the people you bring into the company. This realization was the breakthrough moment that shaped how I work and its culture– not product or marketing, that not only makes or breaks a business, but also makes or breaks your happiness and satisfaction with your work.
What have you learned about the fashion industry after starting your company?
JC: The more I’ve learned about fashion, the more I have come to realize that it is a complex and ever-evolving system of data driven merchandising. But also, that materials and craftsmanship define quality. If there is an absence of high quality, the price truly is meaningless.
What do you do for fun in your free time?
JC: When I’m away from work I enjoy spending time with friends and family. And the perfect weekend would be a mix of that along with playing tennis and fishing, and of course playing video games. It’s the perfect way for me to recharge while having fun.
How are you celebrating the Lunar New Year in 2024?
JC: It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to visit my grandparents and extended family in Asia – I used to visit at least once a year. We have a large Asian customer base and I’m looking forward to celebrating with them with some limited releases and fun events.