Stitch Fix Stylists Are Unheard, Overworked, and At the Mercy of Robots

Stitch Fix, a subscription service that allows people to try on and buy clothing from the comfort of home, is facing an exodus of workers who say the company is not only technologically flailing but also encourages a regressive culture of “toxic positivity” that discourages criticism and complaint.

As BuzzFeed reported, stylists from Stitch Fix are leaving the service en masse because of a scheduling change that they say takes away the flexibility that once made this job attractive to them. While Stitch Fix claimed to Motherboard that the changes were made to better fit clients’ needs, BuzzFeed estimates that a third of the stylists left in response to the scheduling changes, imposed last month. 

Motherboard spoke to 16 current and former stylists, who say that the issues run much deeper. For many, the schedule changes, which restrict workers to a maximum of 20 hours a week—only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.—are simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. Sources say that the job has changed constantly between March 2020 and now, leaving stylists feeling overworked, undervalued, and unable to make their voices and needs heard.

Women working in the Stitch Fix office in front of racks of clothing.

Women in the Stitch Fix office (Image source: Stitch Fix)

The complaints fall largely into two categories: technological and cultural. On the tech side, stylists for Stitch Fix say they were increasingly at the mercy of an algorithm designed to pick clothing for their clients. They say the algorithm wasn’t trained well and often gives clients the exact opposite of what they asked for, leaving stylists to take their ire. These stylists say they were often scrambling to find seasonally appropriate clothing in their inventory—that is, when the systems they used to do their jobs were operational and not plagued by new bugs.

On the cultural side, stylists say Stitch Fix is a company where you’re expected to be positive to the point of not voicing any criticism. Eventually, stylists say, they were subtly discouraged from even speaking to each other. They called this a culture of “toxic positivity,” where using your “Stitch Fix grit” could solve any problem. Combined with low pay and increasing work duties, stylists told Motherboard, this made the company culture regressive and isolating.

“Why did you send me this stuff?”

Stitch Fix is a subscription fashion service where users sign up to receive curated boxes of clothing at their homes to try on and either return or keep. Clients pay only for the items they keep, plus a $20 “styling fee” on each order. Each box, or “fix,” is put together by a stylist, who follows the notes on clients’ taste that they write when they sign up. Stylists and clients interact through messages on the site, and through notes that stylists write to be sent with their boxes. According to the Stitch Fix website, “thousands” of stylists work for the company.

Stitch Fix was started 10 years ago by Katrina Lake, who said last year that the company had served 3.4 million users to date, a growth of 9% despite a loss in revenue. In August, Elizabeth Spaulding took over as CEO. 

Stylists for Stitch Fix told Motherboard that they were often given on average between 5 and 15 minutes to style each box for their clients. But completing this task involved wrestling with the technology they used to complete their orders for clients. Not least among these issues is the new Fix Preview feature, which launched in the UK last December and is now rolling out in the U.S. It shows clients a preview of clothing that could be chosen for their customized box. Stylists say they don’t have control over the items in the Fix Preview, but that clients don’t know this, leading to inevitable friction when clients are shown items they don’t want and in some cases specifically asked not to see.

Do you work for Stitch Fix, or another company that asks a lot of workers without giving them control? We’d love to talk to you. You can reach Gita Jackson by email at gita.jackson@vice.com, or securely over Signal at +1 267 713 9832.

As a client, when you sign up for Stitch Fix, the survey about your personal style asks about specific kinds of clothing or colors or fabrics you don’t want to receive. What you might see next is the “Fix Preview,” which shows you items that might show up in your Stitch Fix box and asks for your feedback on them. According to stylists, the algorithm often just picks up on keywords in these sentences without understanding context. If you tell the system that you don’t want jeans, you may very well end up with multiple pairs of jeans in your Fix Preview.

“And sometimes our clients don’t know that the algorithm is picking stuff,” a stylist told Motherboard. “They’ll respond, like, ‘Why did you send me this stuff?'”

“I don’t have any work pants to send anyone.”

“The algorithm was not trained well enough to take into account seasonality or where people live. It would just start pulling out like, a bunch of sweaters for someone who lives in Texas, or like 10 pairs of pants, or like 10 of the exact same shirt, or like 10 backpacks,” Kara Calagera, who recently left her job at Stitch Fix over the schedule changes, told Motherboard. “It was just ridiculous, and then we would have to sit there and fix what the computer did. It was embarrassing, honestly.”

“It just looks for keywords, like ‘yellow,'” a source who requested anonymity because they are still at Stitch Fix told Motherboard. “If someone says, ‘I don’t like yellow,’ it just picks up yellow.”

Complicating the job further is a lack of available inventory. Every stylist who spoke to Motherboard said the company lacks seasonally appropriate inventory. If clients need shorts for summer, for example, they won’t be in stock during hot weather. One stylist told Motherboard that all summer long they had an abundance of boots in their warehouse, but now that people are actually asking for boots for the fall season, they’re unavailable again. 

“I had gotten requests from clients like, oh, they just want work pants,” a stylist who recently left Stitch Fix told Motherboard. “I don’t have any work pants to send anyone.”

An employee can be seen pulling clothes at one Stitch Fix's warehouses, in South San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – AUGUST 16: An employee can be seen pulling clothes at one Stitch Fix’s warehouses, in South San Francisco. (Photo by Nick Otto for the Washington Post)

Stylists told Motherboard that initially they were attracted to this job because of its flexibility. You’d be able to log on for a few minutes between other tasks, style a few boxes for clients, and then go back to your day job. The job is now much less flexible, and the metrics guiding the amount of work stylists are expected to complete per day, while struggling with the technology, have gotten more intense. Some stylists told Motherboard that the company has recently started tracking those metrics using a points system rather than an hourly system. Each work task is assigned points and categorized as one among different types of tasks, which stylists must log. The points you earn per hour are then calculated to determine your “efficiency,” with the goal being 100%.  This results in stylists scrambling to style more and more boxes during their time on the clock.

“When I started, there was no Fix Preview; it was all organic,” a stylist who recently left the company told Motherboard. “It was a little more straightforward when I started, and then they started to roll out Fix Preview. Then it went from ‘You should be styling this many fixes’ to ‘You should be getting this many points today.'”

“We have to sell Fixes, and we have like six to 13 minutes. We have, you know, time constraints and if it’s not working, we can’t do our jobs.”

Over on SFStylistSupport, a subreddit for Stitch Fix stylists to commiserate with each other, stylists publicly wonder whether the points system is designed to crunch more tasks into their limited hours. One stylist said they’d styled over 200 Fixes in a week but still didn’t meet their points goal. Another laid out how the points system increased their workload to the point where they burned out and eventually quit.

“In the past few months, I’d gotten so mentally burnt out and I thought it was just because I was over it, but in actuality, we were expected to do so much more work for the same amount of pay,” the stylist wrote. “More Fixes also included more feedback to review, which always took way more time than was given if you actually wanted to do a thorough review and address issues.”

On top of all of this, the software stylists use to access the company’s inventory and style boxes is, itself, breaking constantly.

“My last day, there were like three banners up that said all these tech errors,” a source who recently left the company told Motherboard. “We have to sell Fixes, and we have like six to 13 minutes. We have, you know, time constraints, and if it’s not working, we can’t do our jobs.”

The snags might be manageable if stylists felt like their complaints could be heard. But many told Motherboard that criticisms of any kind are discouraged.

The broken backbone 

There’s no rule against stylists talking to each other at Stitch Fix, but for many, it feels impossible to do so. Stylists say that conversations over GChat are monitored, and while they once had an internal message board to talk to each other, it no longer exists. 

Stitch Fix told Motherboard that it did not remove the feature that allows stylists to start conversations with each other, but four stylists told Motherboard that they can no longer access that part of their internal message board.

“It’s really sad, especially when you work remotely,” a stylist told Motherboard. “I guess the point of working remotely is that you can be alone, but sometimes you want that connection, and they took that away.”

The only way to voice complaints is to comment on The Thread, an internal board where managers make announcements. If you leave a comment with any negativity, it will be deleted, stylists said. Sometimes making negative comments leads to a one-on-one meeting with a manager.

“The only options we had available for communication were emails and The Thread, SF’s companywide messaging board,” one stylist said. “Everything you wrote was public, and it was heavily implied that being too negative meant that you were ‘incompatible with the SF OS’ (Stitch Fix Operating System). I tried to have meetings with my lead to express frustration with inventory difficulties and clients that were justifiably upset at the lack of clothing options and was told, politely, to just deal with it.”

The Stitch Fix OS isn’t a piece of software but rather a code of conduct to be followed. Although the guidelines that stylists have described don’t sound too extreme, stylists say they are cited in conversations about negative comments on The Thread.

“I have gotten in trouble many times for voicing my opinion.”

One stylist who said they’d been reprimanded for leaving a negative comment was also told they were violating the Stitch Fix OS. They said their manager had been instructed to speak with them three separate times because their apology was deemed insufficient. Eventually they were told that further violations could lead to their firing.

“The supervisor said to my lead that if my communication steps outside the OS requirements, like, the ideal conversation guidelines for Stitch Fix, that is grounds for immediate termination,” the stylist said. “She called out a couple of specific ones. For our core values, she called out authenticity, integrity, and responsibility.”

Specifically, this stylist was told that they were not taking responsibility for stepping outside of OS communication style. But this stylist felt that by continuing to have meetings for over a week about a now-deleted comment, the managers in this situation were not empowering them to be authentic or responsible, or to have integrity.

An Employee uses a computer and scanner on top of a cart to pull clothing at one Stitch Fix's warehouses, in South San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – AUGUST 16: An Employee uses a computer and scanner on top of a cart to pull clothing at one Stitch Fix’s warehouses, in South San Francisco. (Photo by Nick Otto for the Washington Post)

“It’s not a job. That’s not helping anything within the company in the business,” the stylist said. “As a manager over a team, it’s your job to make sure that the information is properly shared with your team. But it’s also your job to make sure that your team’s voices are heard and their concerns are spoken to and addressed directly. It’s like your job to be supportive of your team, not to micromanage and dictate the no-nos of your team, as if your team is like a bunch of children.”

Calagera also told Motherboard that when she recently tried to voice negative feedback on the company message board, her comment was deleted and she was pulled into a one-on-one with her manager.

“Most of us make less than the styling fee.”

“I have gotten in trouble many times for voicing my opinion,” Calagera said. “They’ll delete your comment, like right away, on our internal intranet, and then you’re getting an email from your boss and your boss’s boss’s boss that talks about how you have a meeting on Zoom. They basically reprimand you and say, ‘Even if you feel it, you need to put it into a positive light.'”

Stitch Fix told Motherboard that it has the ability to turn off comments or remove comments if stylists say that the tenor of the comments has turned hostile. Stitch Fix did not respond to questions about its workplace culture.

On top of the changes to scheduling that prompted many stylists to take a $1,000 “voluntary exit” payment in exchange for signing an NDA, stylists at Stitch Fix were also told that any promotions are now “on pause.” Previously, after a year stylists would be considered “senior” and given a one-dollar hourly raise. At this point, there’s no clear path to a promotion or raise for Stitch Fix stylists. 

Currently, stylists say that salaries are determined by ZIP code, and stylists who spoke to Motherboard said they make between $15 and $16 an hour. To order a box from Stitch Fix, clients pay a non-refundable $20 as a “stylist fee.” But stylists say they don’t know where that money goes, and many of them make less than that per hour.

“Most of us make less than the styling fee,” one stylist told Motherboard. “There’s some stylists who are senior, and they’ve been there for a while. I think I saw someone say they make like $18.”

“We are called the backbone of the company, the heartbeat of the company,” the stylist continued. “But you don’t deserve a living wage and you don’t deserve, you know, actual hours when we say you have to be available for 20.”

Two women pointing at a style board at the Stich Fix headquarters.

Women in the Stitch Fix office. (Image source: Stitch Fix)

Stylists do not feel like management or the executives at the company care about them, despite being told that they are the “backbone of the company” by management. After the recent schedule changes were announced, the stylist who created SFStylistSupport posted a new thread to talk about the news. This stylist told Motherboard that the subreddit hadn’t been especially popular before then, but that after that thread, it exploded. Not long after, this stylist began talking to her co-workers about the possibility of forming a union, inspired in part by the organizing of digital media over the last decade. This particular organizing effort is still in its infancy, though this stylist said it’s been discussed for a long time.

Stitch Fix did not respond to questions about the organizing effort at the company.

“At times, I waver. I go, like, ‘Yes, it’s absolutely necessary. Everybody deserves a living wage. Everybody deserves benefits.’ I think part-time workers deserve benefits,” the stylist said. “And then other times I’m like, ‘Oh my god, we’re completely spread out across the United States. How are we ever going to do this?’ I’m sure there’s some stylists who don’t even know we’re talking about this because they aren’t as online.”

As this effort grows, the stylists still at the company are, for now, at the mercy of its whims. Although Stitch Fix announced the scheduling changes in August, stylists still there say there has been scant communication from management about these changes since then.

“They basically said that updated policies were going to be out in two weeks,” a stylist told Motherboard. “Those aren’t ready now for some reason. And it’s like, why aren’t they ready?”

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