Entrepreneur Bryce McGillivray proves you don’t have to live in the Big Apple to find a place in the fashion industry. With the help of social media, the 24-year-old co-founder of Narragansett-based tech accessory company Fifth and Ninth has turned the company into a successful lifestyle brand. Fifth and Ninth designs unique smartphone cases and accessories like the BeautyBank, a compact mirror/phone charger. In just over a year, the style-conscious company had caught the attention of media influencers like professional makeup artist Vlada Haggerty and created co-branded partnerships with industry names like Ted Baker.
Of course I have to ask, which phone case are you currently sporting?
I’m obsessed with our newest collection of phone cases, the InstaGlam Collection. It’s our first collection where we’ve partnered with online influencers and celebrities to create co-branded products. One collaboration in particular, I found myself so obsessed with and that’s the ‘She Just Knows’ by Fifth and Ninth design. It’s a beautiful, malachite, stone green marble type design with a gold mirror foil that says, ‘I don’t even answer my phone.’ I just think it’s so awesome because nowadays, I can’t even remember the last time I left someone a voicemail, everything is so much through text. It’s so fitting and I love the design. So, that’s the one I've had on my phone since the collection landed in August.
Tell me a bit about your background. Did you always know you wanted to work in the fashion industry?
I graduated URI in 2014; I double majored in journalism & in fashion. While I was in school there weren't a lot of opportunities for internships in this industry, so I took it upon myself to start a fashion blog. It’s called Blonde in Boutins. I started doing that my sophomore year of college, so when I graduated and was looking for opportunities in the industry it really helped get my foot in the door. I moved to NYC where there’s a lot of competition. My blog, and just being able to show my analytics and how I was able to market to certain people and help other brands market to their target consumers through my platform, helped me in so many different ways.
When I moved to New York City right out of college, I ended up at Bismarck Phillips Communications and Media, a top PR agency in the fashion industry in NYC. I was an intern there for about five months. It’s kind of where I got the basics of understanding for the industry, the hands-on experience I didn't get while I was in college. I was able to work with so many large brands and so many amazingly talented and smart people. I was just a sponge there, I absorbed everything I possibly could, and I ended up running into Kelly Cutrone.
I left BPCM and started working for her as her executive assistant for about seven months. My network just grew and grew and grew while I was there. Unfortunately, it wasn't worth the unhappiness I was enduring while I was there. I really got a feel for what the fashion industry unfortunately boils down to, and it was just a really tough time for me. I ended up having a tumor in my neck while I was there and they told me I had Hodgkins lymphoma so I thought I was battling cancer. It was a really tough time in my life so I decided to move home to Rhode Island where I was raised and just take a break and figure out what my next plan was.
But while I was living in New York City I connected with Mark Mesrobian who is the EVP and Founder of Complete Sourcing Solutions, based out of Narragansett. They are the North American licensee for a lot of UK fashion brands. They distribute a lot of UK fashion brands to traditional retailers in the US like Nordstrom, Bloomingdales, Lord and Taylor, lots of different brands like that. When I was living in New York City his team would send me phone cases and I would promote them on my blog for him and direct the traffic back to his site, so that’s how the relationship started.
When I moved back to RI, I accepted a job with him as the Marketing Director. I worked under a lot of the large fashion brands like Ted Baker and with the Nordstrom buyers, and used what I learned in New York City to help this local company grow. After about two months, we decided we wanted to start our own in-house brand, and since he had been working in the tech industry for close to 25 years, and he has partners and offices in Hong Kong and southern China, it just made sense that we started under this line of tech accessories. We started Fifth and Ninth just doing the ME2 Type cases, just things that you see pretty much everywhere just to start out and get a feel for how we were going to conquer this.
What initially inspired you to incorporate technology with fashion in the way you have?
There are more iPhones in this world than there are people, it’s just such a huge market. Mark had already been in the tech industry working with tech products for all these other major fashion brands in the UK, so he already had the distribution capabilities, manufacturing capabilities, retail partnerships. We are known right now as a fashion tech accessory company but that’s definitely not where we want to be; my goal within the next year is to branch out more into the lifestyle products category. I want to start doing sunglasses, watches, handbags – there’s a lot of different directions we can take.
We really want to be on trend, fashion-forward, ahead of the curve, coming out with what’s new, what’s hot, working with who's new. With social media, there’s always someone new coming out, someone who an instant hot commodity over night. So our goal to market strategy is really to work with people who are so influential in the social media realm that we can kind of piggy-back off their audience. I do want to stay on trend and definitely stay fashion forward, so if we can incorporate new technological products, of course, that’s where all of our partners really are masters in.
Is it a priority for you to work with other young female entrepreneurs and brand leaders?
It is. I actually just joined a group out in Silicon Valley called She's Fit to Lead. It’s a program that connects all female entrepreneurs that are just starting out, and so it’s awesome meeting girls like myself who started at such a young age. There are a lot of disadvantages for females, I think, being in entrepreneurship. If we can all somehow help each other out, I think that’s awesome. Being so close to URI also gives me the opportunity to offer girls in this program the experience to get hands on in the industry. That’s another thing I love about being so close to University of Rhode Island because when I sat in that seat, I didn't have many opportunities like this. So being able to offer that is so huge for me.
Were there other incentives for coming home to Southern RI to launch your company?
Let’s face it, New York City, you can run into anyone if you're in the right place at the right time. I was with people who could really make things happen. And this is my personal opinion, but you owe something when all that’s being given to you. There’s a give-and-take, and for me, the cons really outweighed the pros. Being back here locally in Rhode Island, it gives me the opportunity to balance New York City for a couple days if need be and still be able to be close to my family. My fiancé is a personal trainer locally and has established his business here. I’m a big family girl, so it was hard for me to be away. But we do want to open an office in LA; we would love to have a West Coast presence within the next couple of years. They're really ahead of the curve out there.
Who are the women in your "squad"? How was your team formed?
When I started it was just Mark and me, and then the first person we added to the team was actually my baby sister. She graduated from Johnson & Wales a year after I graduated from URI and she was in Business and Marketing, so she joined our team and is now the Director of Operations. And then from there, my best friend who was in business at URI started working with us. She helped do a lot of traditional retail and e-com accounts and gain traction online for us. And now we really just pick from URI. I love going there. My former professors email me and ask me to come speak to the girls so I’ll go there a couple times a semester and talk about my story.
It’s really hard being in this industry and being from and going to school in RI, because you don’t have a lot of experience. The girls I was competing against in NYC had worked at all these top labels; they had all the New York Fashion Week intern experience already. [It's] such a competitive industry. [In] Rhode Island, some girls don’t want to live in the city, some girls really are like me and they love being close to home, so [I like] being able to tell them, “You don’t have to move to the city to be successful, you don’t have to pack up your stuff and move out to LA to be successful, there’s all different ways that you can do this.” We get a very overwhelming response back and girls want to work here, they want to intern here, so I've found so much talent right in our backyard.
What are some challenges you’ve seen as a young woman building a startup within the tech accessory space?
I’m only 24 years old, so I'm not taken as seriously sometimes with people. They’re like, “You just graduated college; what do you know about the business?” That’s probably been the biggest challenge, besides being a female. Luckily, I've grown up surrounded by really strong, independent females. All my friends are businesswomen. My aunt is the CFO at Hasbro in Providence. So I’ve had a lot of great female mentors that have really pushed me to not let that affect me.
In New York City it was actually females that knocked me down the most. It was a really negative experience. Females are really, really harsh out in New York City in this industry. So that’s made me want to create a business that aspires to be kind, and motivating, and push girls to want to be entrepreneurs and be successful within this industry. Be strong and have opinions and speak out; that’s really what Fifth and Ninth is all about and that’s really what I stand for. I think that experience in New York City was so key to establishing the root of this brand. There are just so many women in Rhode Island that have the ability to do this. The girls I’ve found from URI – it’s just unreal. Some of them are sophomores and you'd think they'd already graduated.