The Facebook of Fashion: Helen Zhu, founder of innovative social networking site talks about trends, success and street style
— SF Indie Fashion Contributor Cortney Clift
As a Mechanical Engineering major who studied at UC Berkley, Helen Zhu is possibly the last person you’d peg to have a career in the fashion industry.
Born in Beijing, China, Zhu moved to Northern California with her family in her early teens. While her mother’s ideal date outfit was always a “turtleneck,” she explains that she has always had an interest in fashion, regardless of her parental restrictions. After working and consulting for numerous online companies, she decided it was time to start up her own web site, which would soon become Chictopia.
Chictopia is a social networking site built for anyone with an interest in fashion. Site members post daily photos of their style, give feedback on fellow users’ outfits and blog about anything on their mind. With over 100,000 registered users spread out across the globe, Chictopia offers a raw, uncensored look into the street styles of today.
Despite Zhu’s well-deserved success, do not expect her to behave like your average, high-strung CEO. Currently residing in San Francisco, Helen embodies the laid back vibe that has become synonymous with the city. She can be spotted rummaging through local thrift stores on weekends and admits to indulging in reality television in her spare time.
On a foggy afternoon recently, Zhu took a break from an average day at the office to explain a little more about building Chictopia into the site it is today and what she has learned from her experience.
How did you come up with the concept for Chictopia?
I wanted to do something that I knew would hold my interest for a long time; which narrowed it down to clothing, food and pets. There was already a lot of websites geared towards what I was looking to create in food and pets. However clothing and fashion was an area that I felt was lacking in innovation, and that is when I started to work with my team to build Chictopia.
What is it about your site that sets it apart from other street style blogs?
What I think we have at Chictopia that other sites don’t have is the fact that it is a community. Sites like The Satorialist are great but, they are from one person’s point of view, whereas here we tend to push towards fashion democracy where everyone has a voice.
Your site has a really interesting system in which avid users can earn rewards. Can you explain that concept a little more?
Basically, as users participate and contribute to the website, they can redeem their points for real products that are usually coveted items of the season. We’ve given away items that are either priced high or low, ranging from a bejeweled two-finger ring to a Rodarte for Target dress, to Payless shoes. It can basically be anything we find that’s chic that we feel would align well with our community. We try to reward our members with those products.
What is it that you enjoy most about your job?
I really like the fact that I put so much work into it, and so when I see the results, I know that they are immediately tied to my own efforts.
What are some trends that you have seen a lot of your members wearing recently?
Floral is a big one. I guess thigh high boots also, but those aren’t as popular right now because summer is approaching, underwear as outerwear. Socks and sandals have also been popular for a few seasons now.
What advice would you give someone trying to break into the professional world?
Making your presence known, both offline and online is really important these days. It has become increasingly more important to do so online because your reach for an audience is infinite. I think by participating in an online community, starting a blog, or tweeting you are being involved and you are keeping your accomplishments up to date.
Is there anything career wise you would like to do that you haven’t had a chance to do yet?
I think I am doing what I have always wanted to do right now, which is to build my own company and making it grow.