From L.A. to Y.C.

Illustration by Amanda Legge

Entrepreneurs tackle college fashion—with school spirit.

by Paige Millard

Growing up in Texas, sports and school spirit were everything. On Friday nights in my hometown, nearly all 35,000 people would gather at the high school stadium to cheer on the football team. High school boys would paint their abdomens blue, and proud parents would wear custom shirts declaring “Michael’s mom” or “Sadie’s dad.” At college, fellow students and I would spend four hours tailgating in 100-degree heat to support the school. Sometimes, fainting of dehydration was a result of too much spirit (or beer). But non-ideal weather combined with limited spirited clothing options meant most fans partied in generic school t-shirts instead of the latest fashion trends. Because let’s be honest, how many gold, burnt orange, or maroon dresses can you find that are breathable, cute, and not worn by everyone else in sight?

Cecilia Gonzalez, 25, and Kimberly Robles, 26, saw this exact problem when they were attending school in southern California. The two met in 2013 while studying in Los Angeles and lived as roommates for four years. They bonded over both being from Mexico, their interest in high fashion, and their shared desire to dress with style and school spirit at University of Southern California (USC) games. They noticed that other young women wanted to wear trendy game-day clothes as well. Many of their sorority sisters and friends were ripping up men’s football jerseys or t-shirts from the school bookstore to make them trendier and more flattering. Gonzalez, who was studying at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) at the time, wondered if she could use her passion for couture and upscale fashion to solve this problem. That, paired with Robles’ business expertise from USC, launched their idea behind Hype & Vice.

Hype & Vice organically began with the goal of helping USC students show school spirit without giving up quality fashion.

“We did our research and realized there actually was a gap, and we wanted to create something different for the girls,” said Kimberly Robles, co-founder and co-chief executive officer. Gonzalez and Robles ordered wholesale fabric and started to fulfill this goal by designing spirited, fashionable threads. They sold skirts, crop tops, and trendy sweatshirts out of their downtown Los Angeles apartment and by presenting to social clubs on campus.

Shortly after they began selling pieces, Gonzalez and Robles started getting inquiries on their website and social media channels to come to other universities around the country and design pieces for those schools. The two loaded up their car and started making road trips to campuses. The first university they started designing collegiate apparel for, aside from USC, was the University of California at Berkeley. “I remember at our first trunk show, at Berkeley, we had a line around a sorority house. Girls were lining up and they wouldn’t leave until they shopped. We sold out of every style. That was definitely an ‘a-ha’ moment—there is demand for this product, demand online and demand on retail,” said Cecilia Gonzalez, co-founder and creative director.

Their small apartment in downtown Los Angeles quickly became covered in heaps of fabric, buttons, and yarn.

“[The most challenging part] is keeping up with the demand while still creating quality products,” said Gonzalez. The two founders realized that to meet demand and fully seize the opportunity in front of them, their company needed more resources. In 2019, Gonzalez and Robles applied for Y Combinator funding and were accepted into the summer program. Y Combinator is a startup accelerator that provides seed funding for companies like Hype & Vice. It pays for expenses while a company is getting up and running, provides advice from other successful entrepreneurs, and introduces founders to potential later-stage investors.

Y Combinator is a dream for most startups in the Bay Area and beyond. According to a recent article in Forbes, Hype & Vice raised $1.5 million in a seed round backed by Founders Fund’s Delian Asparouhov, Soma Capital, USC Marshall Venture Fund and angel investors such as Jessica Livingston, the co-founder of Y Combinator.

The startup is rapidly growing—Robles and Gonzalez are quickly hiring more employees, expanding to new universities across the United States, and have opened their manufacturing facility in Tijuana, Mexico, which allows them to own their whole supply chain.

Through this rapid growth, Gonzalez and Robles try to keep the theme of family within the office and throughout the brand. Both women grew up in Mexico, and the values of family and embracing other cultures are very important to them. “We can adapt to different cultures,” Gonzalez told me. “This is a big thing in understanding each campus and being able to adapt to it. Coming from a completely different country and culture, we were able to adapt here [in the United States]. And that’s kind of what we’re doing by jumping to each campus.”

Hype & Vice relies on campus ambassadors to promote the company and increase sales through their “Campus Captains” program. I was a campus  ambassador myself for rewardStyle, a tech fashion company headquartered in Dallas. I presented to different clubs and sororities about rewardStyle’s app, LIKEtoKNOWit, and encouraged young women to try it out and learn more about the company. Hype & Vice uses a similar style to organically promote their business in a peer-to-peer format. Major companies such as Coca-Cola and Google are implementing these peer-to-peer marketing strategies to generate collegiate buzz through fun events and prizes. Through a student ambassador’s eyes, brands can discover what college students’ interests are, how the brand’s identity will mesh on campus, and where students are willing to spend their money.

“[The Campus Captain program] is a powerful way to understand each campus culture since they are not all the same,” said Gonzalez. “We have to cater specifically to each one, so it’s a great way to learn what’s trending on their campus, what girls are into, what they want to see. They are kind of like our eyes on campus.”

The campus ambassadors also help provide an estimated amount of orders. Hype & Vice prides itself on sustainability.

While most fast fashion companies are producing garments faster than they can sell, Robles and Gonzalez are cognizant of their product demand.

“In our case, we are implementing software and being very accurate in forecasting our inventory and only producing what we think is going to sell. And maybe taking some sacrifices and not leaving more footprint or extra inventory in our warehouse. We forecast just what is going to be sold,” said Gonzalez. This also helps with financial planning—knowing they will sell all they create and can accurately estimate their profits. Most fashion companies create over-inventory. According to the Global Fashion Agenda’s 2018 report, 4 percent of the world’s solid waste comes from the fashion industry. This is equivalent to 92 million tons.

Gonzalez and Robles’ story is a unique and inspiring one. Not only are they young, successful entrepreneurs, but they are focused on sustainability and female empowerment. According to Fundera, an online loan broker for small businesses, female business owners are less likely to seek funding to grow fledgling companies. While 40 percent of United States businesses are women-owned, only 25 percent of women business owners seek business financing, and only 7 percent seek venture funds for startups. Gonzalez and Robles are changing these statistics by actively looking for investors and growing their brand. The two get business inspiration from many brands and leaders. One role model is startup leader Sara Blakely, Spanx founder and chief executive officer, who is known for self-funding her popular shapewear starting at age 27. “Sara Blakley started her own company, she was able to bootstrap and did it the nontraditional way. She’s someone I look up to,” said Gonzalez.

With new funding and their growing family of employees, the founders are looking to expand to new universities and potentially professional sports gear. As of publishing, Hype & Vice is creating and selling spirited threads at 60 schools across the United States, including USC, University of Arizona, University of California at Berkeley, University of Colorado Boulder, Indiana University, Iowa State, University of Missouri, Oklahoma State University, San Diego State University, Tulane University, University of Central Florida, University of Texas at Austin, Baylor University, University of Washington, University of Utah, and many more.

Robles and Gonzalez both believe in chasing their goals with persistence and determination. Similar to role model Blakely, the two “bootstrapped their way to Y Combinator” and continue to work hard to ensure their business thrives. Gonzalez offered some advice for young entrepreneurs: “Just do it! You never know until you try it. If you have an idea or something that could potentially work, try it out. If there’s demand, keep it up. If not, keep trying.” ♦

Paige Millard is a Texas native who has loved fashion since her first pair of red cowboy boots at age one. She works in corporate partnerships/events and spends her free time scuba diving, amateur blogging, and traveling to bucket list destinations. She is a first-time contributor to “The San Franciscan.”