loose button

Loose Button helps you find clothes from your travels

The best part of traveling (other than being on vacation) is experiencing the culture of a new place. I usually immerse myself in local culture by eating, drinking, and poking around in the local boutiques. But it can be frustrating to discover a brand or store you love overseas only to realize that it's unavailable at home. I know I stock up on H+M makeup when I'm in Europe, each time wondering why we don't carry the same items in Canadian stores.

Local entrepreneur Ray Cao had similar experiences while traveling - the fashion-conscious business traveler would often find brands he loved in Tokyo and London and get frustrated after returning home and discovering that he couldn't find them in any Canadian stores or order them online. But instead of pining from afar or planning a trip halfway around the world, he decided to build a company that made these international brands accessible to Canadians.

Ray Cao

The company that resulted is Loose Button, which launched last month. Its goal is "to build an online shopping platform that connects shoppers with brands and labels from around the world." The site is an online retail platform that sells a variety of established international brands - they already have 40 brands on board and are actively adding more.

Consumers can purchase two ways, either through limited-time sample sales or by pre-ordering items at a discount. Brands include North American names like J Brand and Free People; Australian brands including Minkpink; and European brands like Smart Turnout.

You do have to be signed up for an account to purchase items, but in this case membership has its advantages. If you refer a friend who purchases something you get a $25 credit, and you can share your unique referral link on your social networks (there's a similar referral program on Groupon and I've already earned $30 just for sharing deals I like). And you get early notice about sales and other promotions.

I was wary of the shipping and return process - after all, it's expensive enough to order from the U.S., let alone Asia or Europe. Since the company is trying to get the word out they're offering free shipping for a limited time, which could save you a bundle if you love Australian brands. They have a decent return policy - send anything back within 15 days and they'll pay the shipping. They also include duties in all the prices.

Loose Button is entering the competitive online fashion business - Cao has to compete with online retailers and other niche fashion startups including Empora, Etsy, and fellow Canadian company Beyond the Rack. I spent some time browsing the site and since I'm not exactly a frequent world traveler I like how they include information about each brand and the area it comes from (new fave: Australia's Evil Twin). I didn't like how several brands weren't available yet and many items I liked were sold out, but I'm not sure if that's a testament to the item being cute or of the site's burgeoning popularity. Since they only launched in July, it's obviously going to be a process to build out the brands and available items.

To set his company apart from the crowd Cao added an Editorial section. They blog about the site's features, highlight global brands, and showcase initiatives like their Nolcha Fashion Week contest. Cao told me that they're going to make established fashion bloggers the ambassadors for their brands, and leverage the power of their existing networks.

This isn't Cao's first brush with entrepreneurship - he was president of Impact Entrepreneurship Group, an organization for student entrepreneurs, while at the University of Waterloo and now sits on the Board of Directors. He was also the founder of EightyTwenty Group, an enterprise software solutions provider. From high tech to fashion is not exactly a natural transition, but it's one that Cao hopes he can make - you guessed it - in style.

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