Luxury goods entrepreneur and investor Carmen Busquets is undoubtedly the online retail sector’s fairy godmother. A pioneer of the fashion-tech space, she was the major founding investor in Net-a-Porter, one of the biggest digital success stories of our time. Besides being a minor shareholder of Net-a-Porter, Venezuelan- born Carmen, forty-nine, now holds shares in companies that include Moda Operandi, Maiyet, Astley Clarke, Lyst, ASAP54, Kovert Designs, Dr Jackson’s, The Business of Fashion, PS Dept. and Farfetch.
When Carmen first met Executive Chairman and Founder of Net-a-Porter, Natalie Massenet, and saw a business plan for a revolutionary site that entailed the then unheard-of concept of selling clothes online, she knew that it would be successful. Carmen re-invested at various stages when no other investor believed women would buy luxury clothing online, because she had already been doing it offline more than a decade before. At just twenty-two, Carmen convinced luxury retailers to supply at her boutique Cabus in Caracas, Venezuela. “I researched and gave the brands what they needed in order to curate their image among the Latin American press. I filled the shop with long gypsy skirts and bohemian dresses, and everything from Chanel jackets, Jean Paul Gaultier, Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino, Alaïa’s sexy suits and Alberta Ferretti’s romantic dresses, to Hervé Léger bandage dresses mixed with Montana jackets for the evening,” she says.
To source the collections, Carmen attended fashion shows in New York, Paris and Milan. She sent drawings and photos of the looks via DHL to her global network of clients, and pre-sold clothes immediately following the presentations. After hearing the idea for Net-a-Porter, Carmen called Natalie and said “Natalie Massenet, where have you been all my life?” Natalie and Carmen still laugh when they recall their first phone conversation – particularly at Carmen’s Latin accent. Today, the London-headquartered group has a rumoured turnover of £1 billion ($1.6 billion).
Stateside in 2007, another online shopping revolution took place. Harvard Business School grad, Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, inspired by private flash sales in Europe, co-founded Gilt – the first flash- sale site in the US – with long-time friend and fellow HBS alumna Alexis Maybank. Gilt quickly turned into a huge success, and now has over 9 million members and over 4,000 brands. A true force, Alexandra remains a strategic adviser to Gilt, is an active fundraiser, sits on various boards, and also now serves as the Co-Founder and CEO of Glamsquad, a NYC-based mobile app company that allows clients to order beauty treatments at home or to any location on demand. Currently catering to New York, Los Angeles and Miami, the app offers high-quality blowouts and manicures at affordable prices.
Alexandra, thirty-nine, who worked as an investment banker for Merrill Lynch and managed retail operations at Bulgari and leather goods sales planning for Louis Vuitton prior to Gilt, has incredible insight into luxury retail. She believes that women connect so strongly to certain brands because apart from quality, it comes down to confidence. “At the end of the day women will stay loyal to a brand when they have faith that it will make them look and feel their best. Brands such as Alexander McQueen and Christian Louboutin really do have an incredible aesthetic, but when a woman wears them she knows she’ll get an instant boost of confidence.”
Adamant that women bring something unique to business, especially when it comes to working in companies that cater to women as clients, Alexandra isn’t surprised by the emergence of female leaders in e-commerce. “When we launched Gilt back in 2007, my Gilt co-founder and I, Alexis Maybank, were the exact customer that we were launching the business for, so our intuition about how we wanted to shop the brands we wanted to shop, and the way in which we wanted to view them, was absolutely critical.”
Today working on Glamsquad, which is a venture that Alexandra is very excited about, she says that she is similarly a target customer. “I do try and use my intuition, but when you’re building big, disruptive, scalable business, you’re hoping to cater to thousands and hopefully even millions of people, so you have to recognize that there are a number of opinions and ways in which women make decisions.”
In 2010, another of Carmen Busquets’ early endeavors was made accessible via a digital platform – the pre-order. Lauren Santo Domingo, a Vogue contributing editor who is known for her flawless style as well as being one of the most influential women in the fashion and society circuits, was frustrated with having to wait a full season until the runway pieces she liked launched in- store. Lauren took fashion e-commerce a step further, knowing that fashion-conscious women don’t want to wait or risk never owning the pieces they liked from the shows because they never went into production. Along with former Gilt executive, Aslaug Magnusdottir, Lauren co-founded Moda Operandi, which allows shoppers to pre-order products directly after fashion week through online trunk shows.
Moda Operandi is headquartered in NYC, where Lauren, thirty-nine, is based and now serves as Creative Director, but the company also has a physical store, Moda Mews, in London. “The Moda Operandi customer is international, sophisticated but likes to have fun. The greatest thing is that she has truly embraced the ability to shop the runway, which was our mission all along. As a customer myself, I can truly testify it is liberating to choose exactly what I want to wear next season,” she says. As Moda Operandi’s distinguished brands are so carefully considered, it’s no wonder that the style and elegance of women from previous decades are what inspires Lauren. “I find I am most inspired by generations before mine, women like Annette de la Renta, Deeda Blair, Marella Agnelli, and Beatrice Santo Domingo. Jayne Wrightsman is perfect in my estimation,” she adds.
For Carmen, inspiration comes from many women including Winnie Mandela and Hillary Clinton, as well as her mother – an esteemed sociologist and anthropologist whose thesis was included in university textbooks in Venezuela. “She was unafraid to go to the worst areas in Caracas to interview people for her work, dressed down in jeans and a ponytail, and then change into the most glamorous dresses at night.” She also reflected on the tragic loss of two women who were very close friends – the late designer L’Wren Scott, who died from suicide in 2014, and famed fashion buyer Maria Luisa Poumaillou, who lost a battle to cancer in April of this year. “I met them both while I was in my twenties. Maria Luisa was my mentor and was passionate, stylish and unique – I will miss her forever. L’Wren had an incredible sensibility, all tall with an extravagant yet introverted personality. They both worked so hard on themselves and were both uniquely beautiful without being perfect, but any time they would walk into a room everyone would turn to look at them. I respect how much they fought to survive in a world that can be tough on women. One fought with her illness, and the other with her image and transition from stylist to designer.”
In 2014, Daniela Cecilio, Brazilian-born and London-based fashion tech entrepreneur and founding member of Farfetch, added a new layer to the game by leveraging the power of imagery with her innovative app, ASAP54. “The idea was born out of my frustration when searching to buy products online. I’m a very visual person and find it hard to describe what I see”, she says. The final straw was a search to find a pair of rare pearl-rimmed Chanel sunglasses that she saw on Pinterest that went on way too long. So Daniela set out to change the way we discover and buy fashion online with image-recognition technology.
There is a fair amount of skepticism around the technology, but Daniela, thirty-four, is out to prove cynics wrong. When we sat down for lunch in East London, she not only demonstrated how easy it is to find a pair of Aquazzura sandals for purchase directly from a screen grab of an ad, she took a picture of the café’s bright coral wallpaper and delivered dresses and stilettos in the exact shade in a range of price points. Daniela explained that ASAP54 is not just about finding a particular piece, but for discovering similar products based on an idea or even a painting. “I do truly believe that it can revolutionize the way people search and discover fashion, but it needs to be applied and used properly,” she says.
One of ASAP54’s most novel aspects is the absence of aggressive retailer-led trend pushing. Daniela doesn’t believe this is the way to go about it. “Everyone is talking about personalization and curation. At the end of the day, the user is the curator. Users can’t be boxed. It’s not rational or linear, it’s emotional. That’s why the science very often fails. It’s not because you bought Balenciaga yesterday that you want to buy Balenciaga today. There is always an emotional reason. Why do you buy black instead of grey? Why a short-sleeved jumper instead of a long-sleeved jumper? You got inspired by something, and you’re often not even aware. If you try to trace down all of the different inspirations, it is something that cannot be explained in a mathematical exercise,” she explains.
Carmen would also like to see changes in the industry. “I’ve been thinking about how fashion is mainly a business for women and gay men, yet why do we women who control the media, make it so hard on each other? No one will be young forever so we need to convey the message that beauty is more than just youth. Nothing can compete with experience and inner beauty. Our clients in retail are real women, not skinny sixteen-year-old girls; leave the very young models for Topshop and H&M. We should also stop reading magazines that rarely represent real people; they can be garbage for our minds and self-esteem.”
Despite its challenges, the e-commerce sphere is hot. To make it, Alexandra feels you have to be tenacious. “I think as an entrepreneur you have to know that building a company or a start-up from an idea to reality is a long journey and you have to learn to expect the unexpected. It’s like a roller coaster; you’re going to experience the highest highs, but also the lowest lows. It can sometimes bring moments of loneliness because you can find that you’re so committed to your vision and it’s possible that there are moments when other people just can’t understand your level of passion. But you have to persevere. Surround yourself with people who bring you up and not down. Find mentors and build an amazing team. The reality is that most start-ups fail. You don’t want to dwell on that, but that is the reality.”
Carmen also echoes the importance of finding the right people. “Successful founders are flexible, hungry to learn and aren’tintimated by surrounding themselves with people who are smarter than they are in areas that are not their expertise. Some good founders lose their companies because they don’t surround themselves with the right people and it breaks my heart when I see these companies fail. One of them was my own. I only had a year to find the right CEO, I was the main investor, and I could not find the right senior team who was loyal to me and my idea.”
Being at the helm of a business reliant on investors’ money in what is an increasingly crowded marketplace is no easy feat. To control the stresses that accompany great responsibility, self-mastery is fundamental, according to Daniela. “Your mind plays tricks on you all the time, and I know when my mind is playing tricks on me. I fix what I can fix, and what I can’t – I just don’t worry about. It’s a waste of energy that I can be putting into something else. There is only one thing you can control in this world, and that’s yourself. The way I see it, you wake up with a jar full of energy and you are the only one who decides what this energy goes to. It’s like money. You have your earnings and your spend. Energy is exactly like that. If you start spending your energy on negative things – it’s gone.”
Carmen also takes a spiritual approach when it comes to business. “I let go and don’t worry for too long anymore. I don’t try to control things. I meditate, read inspirational books or I run by the water. I can now stop myself from leaking energy by not worrying about things I can’t influence. I have always been brave so I’ve never run from problems, but I don’t pretend to be strong like I used to. I embrace vulnerability and I feel it. After a while it may still hurt, but I get a different perspective and let go.”
If all else fails, there is always high culture and comforts of the city. To Lauren, the dream day off includes NYC’s museums. “They would be empty except for me. My favorite museum in the city is the Met, but I often frequent PS1 in [Long Island City]. Bonus – they have the best bookstore in NYC. Hardcover books are my greatest indulgence. Luxury, to me, is having the time to read them.”
It also helps to remember why you started, which of course, brings us back to fashion. On Daniela’s wish list are pieces from Portuguese designer Diogo Miranda and Céline, and for AW15 specifically, Valentino’s floral boots and a red fedora hat from Maison Michel. For this season, Lauren was captivated by emerging designers like Brock and Rosetta Getty who also found inspiration in the generations before theirs. “On the reverse, heritage brands Oscar de la Renta, Nina Ricci, and Sonia Rykiel took in new creative directors and began new chapters for their iconic houses,” she reflects.
This year will see a lot of moving and shaking in the industry as the demand for innovation increases. Farfetch has bought London boutique Browns and Net-a-Porter will merge with Italian e-tailer Yoox. Alexandra will focus on expanding Glamsquad into bridal markets, and Carmen will re-launch CoutureLab as an online platform to house her portfolio of companies and other projects. Moda Operandi, Lauren says, will focus on opening more physical shopping salons, while for ASAP54, Daniela is looking to roll out a multi-channel experience so people can decide whether to shop online or in-store for their items via geo-location compatibility. Much like fashion, the retail experience of the future is about fusing new and old elements – the efficiency of online with the sensorial input and enduring charm of the real thing.
Article by Anabel Maldonado for The Untitled Magazine’s #GirlPower Issue
Pick up a copy of the issue in our online store!