Millennial women across the United States will remember rushing to their mailboxes after school to grab the hottest catalog of the ‘90s: dELiA*s. The groundbreaking magalog, which debuted in 1994, was, by 1998, sending out 55 million catalogs a year. REaD oN fOr A fEw fUN fACts aBoUt dELiA*s.
1. THE COMPANY WAS FOUNDED BY TWO MALE YALE GRADS.
Stephen Kahn and Christopher Edgar, former Yale roommates, were in their 20s when they started dELiA*s in New York in 1993. Kahn—who, after Yale, had studied political philosophy and Victorian history at Oxford—had taken a job at the brokerage firm PaineWebber and was studying for his MBA at night. But he was bored. He wanted to run his own company. “I was interested in being more creative,” Kahn told Crain’s New York Business in 1998. “And I wanted to make a lot of money.” He convinced Edgar to leave his comparative literature Ph.D. program at Columbia University to start the company. Kahn provided $100,000 of his own money, and his father provided another $100,000.
2. DELIA*S WAS ORIGINALLY AIMED AT COLLEGE-AGED WOMEN.
In the early ‘90s, 90 percent of catalogs were aimed at women aged 30 to 50; it was seeing fashionable undergrads at Columbia that inspired Kahn and Edgar to launch a catalog aimed at selling clothes to college-aged women. They called the catalog dELiA*s. (Where that name came from is a mystery.) Initially, they created 20,000 catalogs and, in 1994, hired students to distribute them around college campuses.
But the response from college women, Kahn told Chief Marketer in 1998, was “lukewarm.” After running ads for the catalog in a few magazines, they found a new market: the college students’ little sisters. “We got a huge response from high school kids,” Kahn said. “So basically the market found us.”
They expanded their customer base to include 10- to 24-year olds with the goal of giving girls who might not live in areas with tons of shops for them an opportunity to buy cool clothes. (Fortune’s summation of the company’s strategy, from a 1997 article, is too amazing not to share: “Today’s average 14-year-old girl in Des Moines is just as hip to what’s hot as the 14-year-old in suburban Los Angeles … She, too, wants shiny avalanche pants and baby-T’s, but she’s stuck in the backwoods with nowhere to shop but her local Wal-Mart. Delia’s body glitter, like Dorothy’s red shoes, transports her from the farm to Melrose Avenue.”) “We felt that this group was not well served,” Edgar told The New York Times in 1997. “There wasn’t a recognition of these kids as real consumers.”
The first catalog hit campuses in the fall 1994, and quickly became a hit: Within four years, the company had annual sales of $158 million. When it went public in 1996, Kahn’s 57 percent share of the stock was worth $163 million.
3. KAHN AND EDGAR WOOED INVESTORS BY COMPARING dELiA*s TO MTV.
In the ‘90s, it was tough to get investors to put their money into catalogs. According to the Los Angeles Times, they “often doubted that teens will bother to leaf through pages and manipulate measuring tapes.” But dELiA*s was able to land financing by comparing its catalog to MTV’s programming. “We told them to think of us as a ‘channel’ through which you can program different types of apparel brands,” Evan Guillemin, the company's chief financial officer, told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. “We, like MTV, stay constant … but we’ll provide them with a constantly changing assortment of designs and brands.”
4. CREATIVE DIRECTOR CHARLENE BENSON HAD A DAY JOB AND WORKED ON DELIA*S AT NIGHT FOR THE FIRST YEAR.
With its irregular capitalization and engaging photos, dELiA*s was a standout from the start. That strategy came from creative director Charlene Benson and her collaborators. Benson was the art director of Mademoiselle magazine when she got the dELiA*s gig—and she kept that day job for a full year while producing the catalog at night.
How Benson got the dELiA*s job is what she calls a “folksy” story: One of her friends, the writer Hilton Als, met Kahn at an art show, and they got to talking about the catalog. Benson went in for an interview. The office was casual; “it looked like they had collected all the furniture off the street,” Benson tells Mental Floss. “They didn’t really have an idea of what it should be yet. They wanted to know if I knew how to put together a photo shoot, how to do the layout, how to talk to printers. It was more of the business part of it.”
Given pretty much free rein—albeit on a shoestring budget—Benson hired some help and got to work … at night, after she finished at her day job. And though she loved working at Mademoiselle (which was, she says, “wonderful”), dELiA*s gave her a different kind of opportunity. “I did all of the things that I didn’t get to do at Mademoiselle—choose the pictures where the girls were making faces, and have kind of more chaotic layouts, and just have a certain kind of fun and a certain kind of real girl-ness that I always missed working at a Condé Nast fashion magazine,” she says.
That included randomly capitalized type. “We really liked that mixed up and down type,” Benson says. “Sassy had kind of done something like that [before dELiA*s] and we really liked it. But because I was such a bad typist a lot of times my typing would kind of look like that, so it was like, ‘This feels right.’”
Benson didn’t do any market research to create the catalog, but she did look at teen magazines that were available at the time. “When I looked at teen stuff it was a lot of ‘how to kiss a boy,’ or ‘how to know if he likes you.’” She and her team decided to do the opposite: “It was kind of like, ‘Let’s do something where that’s not in the picture yet or maybe it’s not the most important thing to her—that she’s more creative, and she’s more interesting, and she’s more about her friends still.”
The copy in the catalog (an example: “wOulD YoU rAtHeR bE iN a cAve oF sNakEs oR a bAthTub fUlL oF sluGs?”) also reflected that—something Benson says parents appreciated. “I got a lot of nice notes from moms that would be like, ‘Oh thank you for the funny copy. My daughter and I had a really beautiful moment reading it together.’”
The first catalog, which Benson says “wasn’t totally baked,” was a huge success; Edgar came back to Benson in two months and said they’d sold every piece of merchandise. “He was like, ‘So we want to do another one,’ and I was like ‘Wow, didn’t you find that first one really difficult?,” Benson says, laughing. “And so we did another one. ... I did that for a year and was still working at Mademoiselle and I just basically had no life,” Benson says. After that year, Kahn and Edgar asked Benson to come on full-time, and she left Mademoiselle. “That’s really when we made the catalog grow.”
5. THERE WAS A “FICTIONAL DELIA.”
Though no one knows where the name Delia came from (Benson calls it "one of the great mysteries"), according to Jim Trzaska, dELiA*s' photo producer, there was a fictional Delia who “was supposed to be a girl’s girl who loved hanging out with her friends above all else, and dressed for herself rather than to attract boys. That naturally set the tone at the photo shoots as well.”
6. THE CREW HAD A STRATEGY FOR MAKING PHOTO SHOOTS FUN.
Rarely will you find a girl in a dELiA*s catalog smiling; she’s more likely to be making a funny face or looking like she’s having the time of her life. They were looking for a particular type of girl, Benson says—someone who was expressive. "Sometimes I would ask them, 'Do you want to be an actress someday?' The actual shoots were super fun. We just had the funniest crew, and the stylist that we worked with consistently, Galadriel Masterson, was just really, really funny and she had this way of teaching the girls how to be on set and how to express themselves. She had a really good idea for how to put the stuff together because we weren’t match-y and we weren’t outfit-y. We just shot a lot of film until we got the funny pictures we wanted." Benson brought on Kevin Hatt to photograph the early catalogs, and later, Mei Tao shot them.
According to the models who participated in those shoots—who typically had already appeared in teen mags like Seventeen—they really were awesome. “Every single one was fun,” model Kim Matulova told MTV. “There was always a lot of energy and it was very natural, unforced, and spur-of-the-moment. [The photographer] would just turn on the music and let us girls do our thing, and he’d capture it.”
The photographer shot on Polaroid, and the models would get to take some photos home at the end of the shoot. “I have a huge box at my mom’s house full of old Polaroids and outtakes,” Matulova said.
The crew also had a strategy for getting girls to let loose. “One thing that always got a big reaction from everyone on set was a fake boy named ‘Billy’ who was invented by our lead stylist, Galadriel Masterson,” Trzaska told Refinery 29. “Depending on what kind of mood we needed from the model, ‘Billy’ could be anyone from a shady ex-boyfriend to a bratty little brother or a gay best friend. He definitely helped us get the shot on more than one occasion.”
7. YOU MIGHT FIND SOME FAMOUS FACES IN YOUR OLD CATALOGS.
Miranda Kerr, Brooklyn Decker, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Cassie, and Krysten Ritter all struck a pose for dELiA*s back in the day.
8. AT ITS PEAK, THE COMPANY GOT THOUSANDS OF CATALOG REQUESTS DAILY.
According to Chief Marketer, by August 1998, Delia’s was receiving 3000 to 5000 catalog requests every single day. (Some outlets suggest the number was as high as 7000 requests a day.) The company had a whopping 5 million names in its database, each one accompanied by its precise order history.
According to The Cut, 4 million people—or 10 percent of the 40 million female Millennials currently living in the United States—have requested a dELiA*s catalog.
9. THERE WERE PLENTY OF COPYCATS.
Not surprisingly, dELiA*s' massive success led to a number of “magalog” competitors, including Zoe, Wet Seal, moXiegirl (or mXg), Alloy, Airshop, and Just Nikki. But Kahn was not threatened by the competition. “People will try to play catch-up,” he told Chief Marketer. “There will be a shakeout on the imitator side. Most of these guys will lose a lot of money for a long time.”
10. THERE WAS A SPIN-OFF FOR BOYS.
Droog, a.k.a. dELiA*s for boys, launched in 1998. Though it, too, aimed for a market Kahn and Co. thought was untapped, its approach was different than its big sister’s: Instead of being shot in a studio, Droog was shot in fields and parking lots. Its centerfold featured a car, shot head on, bearing a license plate which read “Droog.” The name was the result of a company contest. It was, Kahn told Catalog Age in 1999, a “natural progression from dELiA*s” that featured “streetwear, workwear, and urban and athletic lines.”
Sadly, Droog did not find the same success as dELiA*s; according to Catalog Age, it folded in 2000.
11. THERE WAS A CATALOG FOR HOME FURNISHINGS, TOO.
Contents, which featured roomwares for teens, launched in the late ‘90s. Says Benson, who collaborated with a designer named Whitney Delgado on the catalog: "I love the pictures so much, and those crazy rooms that we built."
12. THE BRICK-AND-MORTAR STORES POSED A PARTICULAR CHALLENGE FOR BENSON.
Following the launch of its website in 1998 (which, according to Chain Store Age accounted for two to three percent of the company's total sales in just two weeks online), dELiA*s began opening brick-and-mortar stores in 1999. Creating the look of the stores was, according to Benson, a tough but rewarding assignment.
To help, the company enlisted visual merchandiser Renee Viola and hired store designer John Farnum, who had worked with Nike. “The tricky part was like ‘OK, we have this thing, it looks like this and feels like this in print. How do we bring what’s happening here into the stores?’” she says. “We didn’t want to lose what we had. From a design standpoint and a building creative team standpoint, it was super fun—I haven’t been in a store development process that was so collaborative since. It was quite wonderful.”
13. THE COMPANY WAS SOLD, WENT OUT OF BUSINESS, AND CAME BACK FROM THE DEAD.
In 2003, amidst decreasing sales, dELiA*s was sold to Alloy, its former competitor, for $50 million. (Catalog Age called it “one of the hottest pairings in teendom since Britney and Justin.”) Alloy at first absorbed the company; then, two years later, spun it off again so it was a separate entity. In 2014, after it lost $57 million, dELiA*s filed for bankruptcy; all of its retail locations and its website were shuttered by March 2015.
But that wasn’t the end. In early 2015, Delia’s was purchased by Steve Russo and other investors and relaunched that August. “In speaking to women who came of age in the ‘90s, they all said they couldn’t wait to receive their dELiA*s catalog in the mail after school,” Russo told The Huffington Post. “The company in those days was visionary, with its inclusive product assortment. We saw an opportunity to revive that excitement in every girl again through print catalogs, exciting new social media campaigns, and a strong e-commerce presence.” You can shop here.