For the last few years, high-street chains like H&M and Zara have provided women with tight budgets and big fashion aspirations the chance to indulge in runway trends without breaking the bank. Where those stores pair with haute designers to produce limited-edition collections (take Alber Elbaz’s recent collaboration with H&M), flash-sale sites like Gilt Groupe deliver actual runway duds at hugely slashed prices to women not lucky enough to receive those ‘Friends and Family’ invitations to sample sales in their Inbox. But when savings rule, where does that leave higher-end shoppers who are ready – and more than willing – to spend big bucks on fashion? “There hasn’t been a lot of focus on doing special things for the shopper who wants the latest thing and is going to pay full price,” points out Aslaug Magnusdottir, former head of merchandizing at Gilt Noir (Gilt.com’s elite member group), on the inspiration behind Moda Operandi, the revolutionary new e-commerce site she co-founded with Lauren Santo Domingo of Vogue. “There’s a real need for a new luxury experience at the high-end level.”
Set to launch in February during New York Fashion Week, the exclusive, membership-only shopping site will instantly gratify and reward the fashion obsessed. Moda Operandi will feature collections from the likes of Calvin Klein, Proenza Schouler, Thakoon, Alexander Wang, Derek Lam, and many more for sale as early as 48 hours to a couple of days following their runway shows. Perhaps even more surprising, members can shop the entire collection – not simply what a department store’s buyers predict will be a hit for the season – and receive their purchases months before the clothes make it onto store racks. And, of course, before the designs have been replicated by certain high-street stores for the masses.
Closing the gap between the runway shows and the time in which designs are ready to be purchased is a seemingly never-ending fashion conundrum that Magnusdottir hopes Moda Operandi will work towards solving for both designers and serious shoppers. “People get so excited after the shows, it will be great to be able to deliver the pieces quickly,” Magnusdottir says. The fashion veteran took time out from preparing for the launch to answer our questions about Moda Operandi’s alternative shopping strategy, and the effect it will ultimately have on the future of fashion retail. What inspired you to launch Moda Operandi? The idea came to me over a year ago. Having worked in fashion for a number of years, designers kept saying to me how they would make these beautiful collections and the stores only buy a select part of them, so the special pieces never get made. It’s really a shame. They tell me the buyers have become more conservative and end up buying less of these special pieces. The inspiration behind the concept is to allow designers the chance to connect with women who appreciate these special pieces. I closely follow the runway shows. In many cases, I’ve seen pieces that I definitely want to get and then I find out it never got made. It was featured in the press a lot, but the store never bought it. I’ve experienced that on many occasions and it’s very disappointing. Even women with the means to splurge on luxury items can find themselves not having access to certain pieces? What companies like Gilt did was take something that was an insider experience, the sample sale, and made it accessible to the public. What we are doing is taking one of the few exclusive fashion experiences, the pre-order and trunk show, and making it available to a broader group of women. There are a small group of women in New York, London, Paris and Milan that can go into a designer’s showroom the week after the runway show to place their orders. On the other hand, there are women who see the collection on Style.com and they know what they want but it’s often impossible to find those things. I think this will be attractive, not only to big shoppers living in the city, but people in more remote places that don’t have as much access as a woman in NY. Your site is giving women the freedom to edit their own closets and personal style. If you look at the situation 10 years ago, women did not really know what was going down the runway. They would only see what ended up in the magazines or in the stores. Today, they can see every single style online within hours of the show. They know what they want and buyers can only select a certain number of looks. We want to empower women with more choices. They should be able to choose what they want to buy. While at the same time stripping some power away from the buyer? This concept does not require a buyer. We will offer guidance with our editorial content. There will be some women who will be happy to buy this way, and then there are women who still like the guidance of someone’s edit. I don’t think this is for everyone, but I think more and more people will become comfortable shopping this way. How will the site work? Our team will go to shows to film the runway shows and interviews with designers backstage. Following the show, we will shoot the full collection in the designer’s showroom. We’ll have very detailed shots of the products. The trunk show will then start on the site. It can be as early as 48 hours, but some of the designers prefer to wait later in their market week. It will vary a bit, but generally after the show it will run 36 to 72 hours. During that time period our members will be able to look at the individual styles with detailed descriptions. We have 24-hour customer service on hand to help with any questions. Members can place their order with a 50% deposit and immediately after the trunk show we submit those orders. Designers ship everything to us, and we package and ship to the customers. The membership will be small, at first. We started with a database of 15,000 people from our network of influencers and friends. Those individuals will get to invite two or three people. Then, we will close it down to make sure we get to know those members. Our customer service is at the top level. We will then open it up gradually to more members. We expect by the end of 2011 to be at 100,000. What was the reaction from designers when you pitched them the idea? And how will this new strategy benefit them? Lauren and I worked in the industry for a long time and have relationships with a number of brands. The reaction has been absolutely extraordinary. The designers immediately saw the benefits. In addition to being able to reach out to their customers, one of the biggest benefits is the immediate feedback in the start of their market week on what is and isn’t working in parts of the world. They can use this information to make their businesses a lot more efficient and to guide their own buys for their stores. If they are working with other retailers, they can use the information from our site and tell the store buyer what customers are reacting to. This will help everyone to better plan and buy more of what shoppers want and less of what isn’t selling. This information is valuable. Will designers being able to figuring out exactly what sells make sample sales obsolete? I think there will always be some overstock, but I think this will help manage the process much better. From a designer and retailer perspective, it’s very positive. Sometimes stores require designers to take back what hasn’t sold at the end of the season. For many designers, this could be a huge financial burden. The aim is to have less overstock. Hopefully, they will be providing items that people want to buy. When you have an item that sells out in two weeks, generally there’s no opportunity to replenish since the designers only go through one production cycle. One of the biggest complaints from designers, editors, and shoppers is the lag time between the shows and what makes it into the store. I think designers and the fashion community believe something needs to change. The cycle is just too long. Those chains that re-create designer pieces are working on a much smaller cycle. The replica styles are coming out significantly faster than the originals. We do see this changing. Burberry has been a leader in revolutionizing this experience. In September, they featured styles, immediately following the show, on their site that shipped to shoppers within just a few weeks. Over time, the trend will be to shorten that cycle.
Tom Ford refrained from releasing any images of his latest runway show to build a buzz until the collection would actually be available in stores. What are your thoughts on his approach? I think that is another reaction to the same issue we are tackling. The item gets so much exposure and then gets copied. I think some other designers may chose to go down Tom Ford’s path. There was a study done by the Wall Street Journal earlier this year that showed that on average, in NY, in the 24 hours after a fashion show there were 100% increase in sale inquires due to the buzz the show created. But it leads to zero sales because none of it is available. I think a fashion show can be a huge buzz and press event, but what is missing is how to leverage that buzz into commerce. That’s what we are trying to enable designers to do. Do you envision other e-commerce sites following your lead? We are the first to specialize in this shopping experience, and I think any good idea is gonna be copied. I expect this to be the new way more and more people will shop. What we are planning to do is create a very special experience. I think the brands will also pick up on it. Just as brands have their own stores and are carried in stores with multiple brands, I think there is room for more than one player here.