Meet the 23 Year Old CEO Selling Clothes That Speak Internet

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Alexis Swerdloff
Photograph by Danielle Levitt

If you haven’t heard of Shop Jeen, that’s because you’re not a 19-year-old with pastel-pink hair and an iPhone plastered in emoji stickers. Crop tops are probably not your favorite separate, and four-inch platform sneakers are not your go-to footwear. The Generation Z–whispering web shop, founded three years ago by a New Yorker named Erin Yogasundram, now 23, from her George Washington University dorm room, should come with a seizure warning — and maybe even a trigger warning. Type in shopjeen.com, and a Japanese music video for a band called Ladybaby might automatically start blasting, while the home page quivers with GIFs of LED-lit high-tops and tank tops that say ASK YOUR BOYFRIEND HOW MY ASS TASTE.

This is what cool looks like right now for a particular subset of 14-to-22-year-olds. It’s a visual language that’s basically early-internet clip art on crack — like the work of artists Cory Arcangel and Ryan Trecartin brought to the masses via Tumblr, co-opted by the store VFiles, and now sold to young people in the form of $32 hats that say YES, DADDY?

The site sells a mix of products from its new in-house line Netgear90 and like-minded streetwear brands — O-Mighty, Huf, Married to the Mob — plus junky knickknacks like glitter iPhone cases and glow-in-the-dark toilet paper. The effect is a twisted combination of a vintage Oriental Trading catalogue, some sort of high-concept New Museum Triennial commission, and one of those stores on Canal Street that sells FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING FUCK T-shirts. Even in the grand tradition of stores for young people whose appeal is totally lost on grown-ups (Delia’s, Limited Too, Hot Topic, Spencer’s), Shop Jeen feels particularly designed to rankle adults. (See, for example, a $12 thong that reads, simply, ANAL?)

The site’s 400,000 Instagram followers, though, are rabid in their devotion: “my girl boners explode whenever I see your posts on any social media since I follow you on all of them.” “YOU GUYS HAVE TAUGHT ME THAT I SHOULD NEVER HIDE THAT IM A BAD BITCH. UR CLOTHES ARE RAD AND ERIN IS BAE AF.”

Translation on that last part is, more or less, “Erin is the best.” Part of the fanaticism surrounding Shop Jeen is targeted at Erin herself; her illustrated mug is plastered on the home page in a dedicated “These Are the Things Erin Loves” box, and many of Shop Jeen’s followers refer to her as “Mom.” When you buy a 69 ME pillow set on Shop Jeen, you’re not just buying a 69 ME pillow set, you’re buying a 69 ME pillow set to match your best friend Erin’s. As she puts it: “There are not that many companies where you see the CEO’s face in your head, other than, like, Steve Jobs.”

When I meet Erin in Los Angeles, she and her 26-year-old creative director, Amelia Muqbel, have been sharing a king bed in a new apartment building around the corner from a Pressed Juicery on Hollywood Boulevard while working in a makeshift office downstairs. The temporary space — they’re currently hunting for a proper office — feels like the bachelor pad in the Wall Street movie Boiler Room. Though instead of just a leather couch and an oversize TV, there’s also generic gray Ikea furniture, magenta beanbag chairs, and a life-size Harry Styles cutout with a photo of a Chihuahua stuck to his face. Their social-media presence leaves the impression that their lives are one big Lisa Frank rainbow-sprinkle party, but at work Erin and Amelia are quiet, even a little awkward.

Amelia, who has a tiny gold Nike swoosh glued onto her top left front tooth, is Erin’s best friend, the company’s first employee, and a social-media star in her own right. (She’s huge on Snapchat.) She’s responsible for the look of Shop Jeen. She says she spends hours on Tumblr and Instagram sniffing out new designers. “I’ll find myself up late at night, my thumb just scrolling through Tumblr. I’m probably the oldest person on there; most of the people I follow are 14 and 15.” Amelia says she’s “really good at key words.” For instance: “I’ll type in Harajuku [into Tumblr] and find some random cute pink bomber.” The girlie ’90s look, which was very big last year, is less so now; “we’re moving from Baby Spice to more Sporty Spice,” she says.

That’s not the only change. Just a few weeks ago, Erin and Amelia laid off ten of their 15 employees (two quit) and relocated themselves, and a marketing manager, from New York to Los Angeles. Erin, who’s half–Sri Lankan and half–Irish-American and speaks quickly with a heavy upward inflection, is a little slithery on the details of the layoffs, saying it was because of the move and a need to recalibrate. (Los Angeles, she says, is a much better fit for them, given that most of Shop Jeen’s customers and vendors are based there: “L.A. is super-scene. Everyone knows everyone.”) According to one ex-staffer, the company had an insanely busy holiday season and then couldn’t keep up the momentum. “We were bringing in too many people too fast who were not the right people,” Erin says.

In December, Chanel filed a lawsuit against Shop Jeen accusing it of trademark infringement for selling faux Chanel No. 5 iPhone cases. “The fact that we were even on their radar, it was flattering,” Erin says. “That was like a ‘Whoa, we can’t get away with this stuff, people are watching what we’re doing’ moment.” The company settled the suit. “We have a good lawyer.”

About a month ago, she and Amelia “had a whole day of crying about stuff” and realized they needed a restart. The web shop had become a full-fledged business (MTV had just called Erin the “Queen Bee of the Internet”) but was not operating like one. Product wasn’t being tracked properly, people weren’t getting their orders on time — basically, there were no official protocols in place. “We wanted to use this as an opportunity to really do things right, lay out processes, and build it back up from day one,” Erin says. She admits that she’s not a great manager. “It’s my weakest point. I’ve literally only been alive for 23 years.”

Now that the move is over, they’re staffing up again. Plopped on beanbag chairs, they finish an interview with a potential graphic designer.

“This is so weird and wild,” the woman says, a little flustered. “I’ve been following both of you for so long. I’m such a fangirl.”

“Is there anything else we should know about you?” Erin asks flatly.

“I eat Chipotle, like, every day.”

Erin and Amelia nod approvingly.

Though this is apparently the right answer, she doesn’t ultimately get the job — mostly because she lives in another state and doesn’t seem to have any actual graphic-design experience.

After the interview, Amelia, who is wearing a short-sleeved sundress with bananas printed all over it, takes a video of herself eating a banana. Erin goes upstairs to text the guy she’s in the process of ending things with (a blue Ikea bag full of his stuff is waiting by the front door) and to deal with a PayPal mix-up she’s having with a vendor. Erin’s boy issues, coupled with the chaos of the move (the entire Shop Jeen product line is being shipped cross-country from its warehouse in Brooklyn), mean that Erin’s a little on edge: “trauma nausea,” she tweeted the night before, quickly followed by: “holy fuck I might be the stupidist person in the world,” followed later by “too sad to take a shot / too sad to operate netflix.”

On the bright side, it’s World Emoji Day. A Shop Jeen fan has come by to drop off a box of yellow smiley-face cookies. Erin thinks the emoji cookies had the potential to be gross but that they’re delicious. Meanwhile, the newly hired social-media manager, named Layla (her Instagram handle is @toopoor, and the words are tattooed across her knees), is sniffing around for funny emoji memes, posting Shop Jeen product photos on Instagram every 20 minutes or so, and trying to address the “I ordered this a month ago and it still hasn’t come!! Omgggg” comments. (The company has since hired three customer-service reps.
Clockwise, from top left: Legs Muscle Tee by Married to the Mob, Qozmo mesh platform sneakers by YRU, Come and Play minidress by Nympha, and Boys Tears 3-D iPhone case by Valfré. Photo: Courtesy of Shop Jeen

Even if Shop Jeen doesn’t become the next Forever 21, Erin will probably be just fine. Growing up on the Upper East Side, she was laser-focused and hyperaccelerated in that city-kid way. In middle school, her big passion was the punk-pop band Good Charlotte. She’d take trains to buses to the far corners of New Jersey to see them play, and she ran a Good Charlotte message board. (Now the lead singer, Joel Madden, is Erin’s real-life “mentor.”)

In 2003, when Erin was 11, after getting the band’s autographs outside of MTV’s Total Request Live, she realized there was money to be made here. Her mom set Erin up with an eBay account, and for the next two years, every day after school, the middle-schooler with braces would take the downtown 6 from 77th Street and join the paparazzi hanging out by the back doors of TRL and The Late Show With David Letterman, soliciting autographs from everyone from Kanye West to John Travolta. Most weeks, she’d make about $500. “I’d say sweetly, ‘Can I have your autograph? I’m a big fan.’ No one suspected my motives.”

After autographs, she was on to Tory Burch Reva flats, which she bought at sample sales for $40 and sold on eBay for $100. “I’d wait on line at 6 a.m., miss first and second periods, and come into class with a garbage bag full of shoes,” she says. “My teachers would be like, ‘Why are you so late?’ ” The shoe sales encouraged her interest in fashion. By the end of high school, she was interning at Catherine Malandrino, going to fewer sample sales, and missing fewer classes. Her grades improved. Her senior year, she got into George Washington University on a full scholarship.

She kept hustling: She majored in sociology (“Honestly, because I thought it was easy,” she says), worked three retail jobs on the side, and started a fashion blog (“Back when fashion blogs were cool”), while fitting in brief internships at Alexander Wang, Phillip Lim, Marie Claire, Vogue, and Bottega Veneta between semesters. She even set up a fashion-internship website where brands would post openings — which helped her find out about available internships before anyone else. “All of the internships solidified for me that I didn’t want to graduate and go work at any of these places for $30,000 a year.”

To avoid that fate, in 2012, at the beginning of sophomore year, she sold a $2,000 Céline bag for $3,000 on eBay and used the profits to start Shop Jeen — at that time an accessories-only e-shop. She bought $1.50 skull bracelets on Canal Street and sold them for $15 each and spent hours sniffing around Etsy.com for the best of the best in Instagram-friendly trinkets. “I would write to these people, moms in Kansas who didn’t know what wholesale was, and negotiate prices with them.” She taught herself how to code, built the site on her own, and took selfies modeling the pieces.

Her social-media strategy was to follow every single person who followed Nasty Gal on Instagram, wait for them to follow her back, and then unfollow them a few days later. She’d get upwards of 25,000 likes on her posts and made $50,000 from Shop Jeen her first month. Erin’s boyfriend at the time was going to class in her place, and rather than risk him getting expelled for taking finals for her, she decided to drop out and moved back to New York to work on Shop Jeen full time. “My mom was so upset,” she said in an interview with Racked.com. “She didn’t go to college, so to be able to send her daughter away with a full ride was exciting.”

The office she found was on 38th Street (the rent was surprisingly cheap), and Erin was able to run the company alongside a bunch of interns her same age. In early 2013, she hired Amelia (“We had interned at Alexander Wang together and reconnected, and I was like, I need this girl”), and later that year she and Amelia got matching A MILLI tattoos on the sides of their palms.

Erin calls herself a “hype-beast hipster” and says that part of the site’s success has been getting on the latest thing before anyone else: “Growing up, I went from wearing Hot Topic to Abercrombie to Tory Burch; I was really just following the trends, which is what Shop Jeen is doing, too.” Right now that means: Hello Kitty, Sailor Moon, Rugrats, SpongeBob SquarePants, Destiny’s Child–era Beyoncé, “Sometimes”-era Britney Spears, pink-fur-coat-era Cam’ron. It also means throwing around phrases like “kawaii af” (which means “cute as fuck” in half-Japanese) and “That’s so aesthetic” (meaning “That has a nice vibe”). Erin, Amelia, and their followers often tweet about how sad and “emo” they are, and it seems like a disproportionate number have nipple rings, including Erin. (“good morning I’m icing my nipples with a starbucks venti passion shaken ice tea sweetened how’s your day going,” she recently tweeted.)

But Erin is aware that all those signs and signals could change anytime. Her job is to channel that obsessive knowingness into growth. In addition to staffing back up, she hopes that by winter, 40 percent of the product will be designed and made in-house. Erin hasn’t taken any outside money yet, other than private loans, though she says she’s been meeting with potential investors and setting up an advisory board. Beyond that, she has big expansion plans: opening a store (she imagines T-shirt-airbrushing stations, laser tag, an in-shop Chipotle), starting a streaming shopping network, creating a content site.

“I think that the angle for the story is how I’m this emotional 23-year-old girl, yet I have to combat these crazy 50-year-old-CEO work problems,” Erin tells me while lighting up an American Spirit. She takes a puff and exhales dramatically out of one side of her mouth, kind of like a child pretending to smoke a breadstick. “I just started smoking a few weeks ago,” she says. “It’s been stressful.” During these chaotic times, she says she seeks guidance from the CEO of her favorite company, World Wrestling Entertainment: “I ask myself, ‘What would Vince McMahon do?’ He’s had to lay people off, he’s had to deal with lawsuits from performers. He has 600 employees, 100 independent contractors, and has to put on five different live events a week. If he can handle all that, I can handle this.”

*This article appears in the August 10, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

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