Stitch Fix, an online styling service, caught the fashion and technology world by storm when it introduced its subscription-based model built upon the work of a personalized recommendation algorithm. The company claimed its technology could select for size, budget and style to optimize customer satisfaction and utility in a box of stylist-selected outfits.

While Stitch Fix has long classified itself as a technology company on the basis of its recommendation algorithm, at the core of its business model are its teams of stylists that are responsible for selecting the pieces that make up Stitch Fix’s style boxes. However despite their key role in Stitch Fix’s business model, multiple stylists have reported to Remake that working with a limited inventory and unpredictable hours leaves them deprived of a stable income — prompting an examination of the company’s commitment to labor rights.

Former and current employees who spoke to us for this story wish to remain anonymous. Their names have been changed to protect their privacy. Stitch Fix declined to provide an official statement.

Vanessa* has been a stylist for Stitch Fix for five years now. Initially when she was hired, she looked forward to the complete flexibility of the stylist role and the opportunity to be able to “flex up” her hours from the required 15 to the maximum of 29 if she wanted more income. “At the beginning,” she says, “I felt the promises [made by Stitch Fix] were upheld, so much so that I recommended multiple friends to work here as well.” It seemed to be going well at first, but as the company began scaling up its operations, Vanessa began to notice red flags popping up.

Since going public in 2017, Stitch Fix has been the subject of multiple allegations of bad business practices. In 2018, the company faced seven class action lawsuits in the state of California for misrepresentation of company growth – a claim stressed by the company’s lack of hard statistics on customer retention rates. Although these claims were later dismissed, the thread of absent transparency seemed to set the tone for Stitch Fix’s future endeavors.

In fact, company growth seems to be a sticking point for Stitch Fix.

Despite its stock jumping 160%, and the company reporting a net revenue of $1.7B in June of 2020, an increase of 11% adjusted year over year, Stitch Fix began to significantly cut employees from its most expensive stylist market: California. The company laid off 1,400 of its stylists, accounting for approximately 18% of  the company’s workforce. California stylists were given the option to remain in the company contingent upon the fact that they relocate their home base to lower cost cities like Austin or Minneapolis. For stylists, it seemed undeniable that Stitch Fix made the decision in order to cut the cost of labor.

Following the forced dismissal of much of its stylist workforce, some remaining stylists report a forced reliance on algorithm selected “fixes,” with one stylist telling Remake that the “algorithm selected items are extremely unreliable,” and often hinder the stylist’s ability to construct a quality “Fix” or style box. Stylists say that Stitch Fix’s focus on growing their company by keeping costs low has squeezed them in three dimensions: quality of work, working hours, and compensation.

Is Stitch Fix Exploiting the Labor Market?

In September of 2021, Elizabeth Spaulding took over as CEO of Stitch Fix, and yet the stylists still felt like they weren’t being protected by the company. While initially stylists were given relative flexibility to work in styling for the company around other jobs, stylists say they were assigned their hours for the upcoming week less than 48 hours in advance, making it difficult for them to find and commit to other work while remaining at the beck and call of Stitch Fix.

For Vanessa, these changes in the stylist position meant there was a lack of guaranteed shift hours, which forced her to remain available on a short term notice. The initial draw of working for Stitch Fix, a job that previously promised flexibility for market wages, seemed to be completely abandoned as restrictions meant to keep costs low served to foster a workforce that felt overworked and undercompensated.

We have to be available to work 20 hours but they can actually give us 0 hours for the week…Receiving our work requirements for the week [on Friday], [and then being asked to start on] Sunday feels very unethical and doesn’t allow us to plan for additional income if needed. – Vanessa

Stylists were given the option to leave with an exit payment of $1,000, according to Vice and social media posts from staffers, provided they signed a non-disclosure agreement. By the end of 2021, a mass exodus of stylists occurred, dropping the number from 6,200 to 5,700.

Although Vanessa chose to stay, she says that cost-cutting changes were endemic to the stylist role. In 2018, the company implemented a 50% reduction of paid sick time accrual, from two hours for every 30 hours worked down to one, making it the minimum required by the Healthy Workplace Healthy Family Act of 2014 (AB 1522). Vanessa suspected the change was made because management believed stylists were receiving too much compensation.

Not receiving any PTO as a part-time employee was a huge hit. We get 2 weeks of unpaid time off which never increases with tenure. It doesn’t roll over either. – Vanessa

The reduction in compensation was followed by corporate’s expectations to increase production.

Stylists had always been expected to style a minimum number of clients per hour, but Vanessa observed that the number of clients kept increasing during her employment. “When I started it was 4 clients per hour then changed to 4.2 then 4.6.” The increasing expectations were imposed without any inventory support or technological alleviation. Because stylists were being paid per hour according to their zip code, increasing this quota meant getting paid the same amount for doing more work. 

It’s not the narrative Stitch Fix has been pushing to the public.

Facing media scrutiny and internal pressure, on Friday March 4, 2022, stylists reported StitchFix releasing an amendment to their previous payment structure. Under this new system, stylists would be paid a new hourly rate of $16.50 regardless of location, with pay increases every six months, during the first 2 years and an increase at a three year mark.

Notably, the new policy does mark a shift away from zip code based compensation. Stylists like Vanessa say the pay increase is beneficial, but there are lingering problems. She says the company has not addressed the lack of paid time off, sick time accrual, or vacation time for employees. And she was “hoping to see some of these changes made for more tenured employees.” However, given the significant cuts to their styling labor force, the company’s delayed reaction to its labor issues has called into question the commitment to equity that Stitch Fix claims.

stitch fix labor exploitation
Images: Sarah/Flickr

Stylists’ Limited Resources and a Company’s Reliance on AI

Stitch Fix markets itself as a program to help busy shoppers update their closets through personalization tools. One of those tools is the Stitch Fix “style quiz,” which utilizes a central algorithm that is meant to help stylists curate the most compatible pieces of apparel with their clients.

Stitch Fix’s central algorithm is a relatively standard predictive analytics platform that combines optimization and demand modeling algorithms to work backwards and create a “Style Fix.”

More often than not, stylists say that the algorithm and inventory doesn’t align with customer expectations, and it is ultimately the stylists who pay when customers are unsatisfied.

Stacy*, a former Stitch Fix stylist said, “Most pieces are chosen by an algorithm which doesn’t consider season or repetition. Clients are also upset by this and don’t understand it (who wants to receive nine blazers when they have a casual lifestyle and it’s summer in Alabama?).”

Furthermore, Stacy found that pieces advertised on Stitch Fix’s website were oftentimes not available to her everyday styling tasks.

One of the most maddening things throughout [my employment] was the fact that we were continually told to be ‘nimble’ while trying to style with very low stock and chastised when the clients didn’t like the items we chose despite the fact that they were chosen from an absurdly small range.

Vanessa says the issue is still prevalent in Stitch Fix today: “We have no idea who makes the inventory decisions or what they are based on. We are pressured to send items that [the brand has purchased more of]. Just today I received an email from my [manager] to push sleepwear. Sleepwear never used to be in our inventory.” Although it controls the entire inventory available for stylists to choose “fixes” from, the algorithm seems to be getting less and less helpful for stylists to compile a client’s style box.

Prior to 2021, Vanessa says: “Each Fix was what they now call a ‘traditional Fix’ which doesn’t exist anymore. We click a button, get a client’s profile and the inventory options and build the Fix.”

In 2021, the company added “Fix Preview” to its existing personalization services, essentially allowing customers to reject or approve stylist selections in a preview of the style box, or shop for individual items rather than relying on stylist-picked style boxes. Vanessa says: “Now, every single client is required to receive a Fix Preview. Not every single client wants to do that.” While this might be a beneficial tool for clients, it’s a direct reversal of Stitch Fix’s initial business model — and it often makes work more difficult for stylists. With the new changes of “Fix Preview,” stylists only see what the algorithm pre-filters out based on its consumer preference analysis. Vanessa shared,“We [stylists] do not have access to many of the styles the clients see there and they are upset by it. They don’t understand it.”

Stylists don’t have much control over what the Fix Preview boxes look like. With the algorithm, Fix boxes that are previewed by customers imply less stylist effort, Vanessa says: “We get less points for styling [unpreviewed] Fixes because the implication is that we have client-right inventory to choose from already. But we mostly have to start from scratch so we’re constantly fighting [the algorithm].” This algorithm change has a direct impact on the expectations for stylist work. Stylists are essentially forced to work at a faster rate for the same pay. Vanessa says: “We were previously styling at a 4.6 client/hour rate and are now operating mostly at a 5.2 client/hour rate.” Essentially, stylists are being made to pay for Stitch Fix’s lack of adequate inventory management and cost-cutting practices while the company’s limited product fuels customer dissatisfaction. 

Calls For Unionization Grow Louder as Stitch Fix Maintains It’s Business as Usual

While internal conflict unfolds, Stitch Fix’s new CEO, Elizabeth Spaulding claims that retail’s “seismic shift” will uniquely position the company to lead with a data driven pipeline and expand personalization of style boxes. Under Spaulding, Stitch Fix is looking to “lay the foundation for the company’s next 10 years,” moving further into the personalization route, at the calculated expense of their stylists. In an interview with Vogue Business, Spaulding asks: “What are all these next things we think our model can become?”

Unsurprisingly, not one of the responses to that question have anything to do with ensuring stylists guaranteed working hours or higher wages. In marketing the company as a technology business, Stitch Fix has obscured the need for a concrete reassessment of its stylist role – the role that, in theory, has the final say in creating the “fix” and, most certainly, faces the repercussions of its success or failure.  In fact, the company has been so unwilling to listen to the “heartbeat of its business,” that stylists are finding themselves calling to unionize on public forums like reddit.

3 months ago a call for unionization was posted onto the 708-member Stitch Fix Support reddit group.

Fair Wages For Stylists! Time To Unionize.

Inflation is up, cost-of-living continues to rise, and it is time for a wage increase for stylists. We put so much care into our work, through times of tough inventory, challenging tech outages, and poor management. We advocate for our clients. It is time to advocate for ourselves and take control. There is strength in numbers here. We can use our collective voice to demand what is fair. Our duties continue to build, the number of clients we style each week continues to increase, responsibilities pile on, but our wages stay the same. No market raises in 2 years! We deserve a living wage. We have asked, but HQ is not listening. It is time that we make our voices heard.

I have started the process of contacting union representatives, but I want to gauge interest from my fellow stylists. When a petition is ready, will you be on board? Who is with me?

The post got 16 comments and 48 upvotes in support.

This comes after a 2019 call on Glassdoor for the same move for unionization. Titled: “One Incredibly Greedy Company. Stylists Need a Union or Lawyer, Stat!”, a stylist in LA wrote: “Just raised our Fixes to almost 5 per hour, when most stylists aren’t even taking their legally required breaks at the current rate. I often clock out to quickly use the restroom because I don’t want to get behind on Fixes….HQ is completely disconnected from the reality that the majority of the company (stylists, warehouse workers, and CX) face. Pretend that they value feedback, when it’s obvious none of it is taken into consideration…Dinged on metrics for things completely out of your control stylists, CX, and the warehouses really need a union or some kind of legal representation ASAP, or it’s only going to continue to get worse.”

Despite clear calls for unionization, as of 2021, Stitch Fix reports none of their employees as being represented by unions. It’s unclear whether the company has participated in targeted union busting, but the stylists suspect they have.

During her time at the company, Stacy shared that complaints were meant to be directed only to immediate managers, and never led to any change – let alone any substantive conversations about change. It’s a tiered system that has kept stylist concerns insular and isolated from upper management, and left stylists themselves oblivious to each other’s concerns. Vanessa confirmed that that structure is still well-established within the company and that: “There is no faith that any of our concerns are heard or that anyone with styling knowledge has input on styling activities. Tools to combat these things have been announced, but I don’t think there’s much trust to believe they’ll be utilized.” It’s not an unfounded fear.

Stacy spoke to the lengths the company will go to to maintain the veil of toxic positivity that runs through Stitch Fix’s internal and external messaging. While stylists are claimed to be the “beating hearts” of Stitch Fix, Stacy said: “Any dissent posted on the internal messaging board or brought up in group discussions via video chat is quickly either deleted or squashed, with the stylist who made the comment told to bring it up privately with their lead.”

Stacy’s experiences go beyond a failure to acknowledge the problem, and rather, confirm that Stitch Fix is actively trying to squash any semblance of stylist voice and agency. She goes on to say, “Stitch Fix would never admit to this, but they have an internal blacklist of stylists who cause dissent. Too many strikes, and the company finds a way to fire said stylist. Of course, they can’t fire someone for bringing up criticism or expressing frustration— that simply wouldn’t look good for them. So instead they find other creative ways of firing people and oftentimes need to invent issues simply to have a legitimate sounding excuse to let the stylist go—I’ve seen this on multiple occasions.”

What’s more, there is a clear dissonance between who makes up the styling community and who is chosen for managing the styling community. Stacy shares that “Most leaders and higher ups are hired from outside of the company. That didn’t used to be the trend, but has become so in the last couple of years. They look for another large corporation on someone’s resume.” Outside hiring usually leads to a lack of context in addressing stylist specific issues.“It’s the classic pyramid structure corporation where the lowest person on the totem pole has very little interaction with the person at the top, if any,” says Vanessa.

The problem is one of drastic effect, most acutely seen in the company’s approach to diverse inclusion. Remake previously reported that Stitch Fix’s management is only 2.5% Black and 2.5% Hispanic/Latinx. Stitch Fix has repeatedly been criticized as a company led by white women at the expense of women of color and that seems to be increasingly more accurate. Vanessa’s attempt at joining an employee group left her unsatisfied with the way the company addresses diversity, equity and inclusion within their channels. She said: “The company culture is monolithic. For the minority groups, we were sent an email asking if we identified as one or wanted to be part of the group as an ally. It’s volunteer, so it would be extra work for me to participate without extra time/pay.” But by far what she found most frustrating was the lack of commitment to discuss anything of substance within the company’s channels.

The voices of Stitch Fix stylists seem to be falling on deaf ears. Vanessa says: “From the beginning when big changes started, we were told to have flexibility and resilience termed ‘Stitch Fix Grit.’ But I have yet to see any thank you in terms of promotion or compensation or even acknowledgement that working through problems is not just the status quo of this job. Even now, listening to their quarterly call for stylists, they continue to say that the concerns we are voicing will not change.”

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*Employee names changed to protect identity

Images: Daniel G. Wells III and Sarah/Flickr

Update: The story has been corrected on 3/23/22 to reflect updated information on sick time accrual and pay increases.

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