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At 10:30 on a Wednesday morning Carmen Busquets was seated in a banquet at the Mark Hotel in New York, drinking hot water with lemon and wearing full cocktail attire — a black-and-white dress and trompe l’oeil T-strap booties, both from Valentino’s fall collection. If a bit overdressed for the hour and occasion, Busquets insisted her outfit was a matter of practicality. “I have a cocktail and a dinner tonight and I thought I would have no time to change,” she said in her Venezuelian lilt.
Between breakfast and dinner, her day was filled with press meetings and a photo shoot for next month’s U.S. launch of Giftlab, the luxury e-commerce Web site Busquets founded in the U.K. in November 2012. Since its inception, Giftlab has shipped to the U.S., as well as 157 other countries, but Busquets and her team are making a big push in the American market, recently opening offices on Madison Avenue in New York and hiring Elizabeth Spiers, the founding editor of Gawker.com and former editor of The New York Observer, as an editorial advisor. Developing editorial content based on merchandise and tastemakers is a key initiative for GiftLab.
As the site’s name suggests, Giftlab’s angle is the art of highly personal gift-giving, which allows for merchandising across a breadth of categories, whether fashion, home, beauty, travel, games, toys, charity or experiences, which range from under $50 to five-digit price tags.
“People who really know what they want — that’s the kind of customer that I really like,” said Busquets. “But at the same time they are looking for ideas, and the source of where they go to find ideas has to be a variable.” She thought the interactive nature of gifts opened up a new market in which she could “explore all of these ideas in different cultures.”
Some of the most popular gifts have been hand-crafted artisanal pieces made in Bali or Thailand and tickets to Intelligence Squared, the U.K.-based debate forum.
Busquets plans to expand Giftlab’s bespoke offering; she said people have been requesting Olympia Le-Tan book clutches customized to look like their favorite novel.
Busquets is Giftlab’s chief executive officer, a role she sees as temporary. “It is not possible time-wise for me to be ceo for a long time,” she said, noting that she could take on a more creative director at large position. “But it’s too early to implement that until we have more information about what is selling the most. I’m doing more site analysis. We have all the data. We are looking at it all the time. That defines my partners and where we are going, and the next investors which I have the beauty of being able to choose.”
Busquets is actively meeting with potential investors — she said she’s in talks with five companies — about a merger. “I always need to think about what is the next step,” said Busquets. “I want to know who will be the person or the team that will be exploring that idea into what I want or what is my vision. You know, my vision for Net-a-porter was very similar to Natalie’s [Massenet] so it was fun to do that and let it grow. The way I invest in companies is about really about ideas that have to be bigger than yourself.”
When the Busquets name is attached to a project, the industry takes note. Her investments in the tech and fashion worlds have been successful for the most part, most remarkably at Net-a-porter, which she cofounded with Massenet in 2000 and became the majority shareholder after providing 250,000 pounds of start-up capital.
Thirteen years later Net-a-porter is still Busquets’ badge of honor, though she has been involved in a series of other fashion-digital projects including JEM, Astley Clarke, Go Try It On, Moda Operandi and CoutureLab, which was the genesis of Giftlab.
Of all her investments, which included an ill-fated women’s Web site akin to iVillage for the Hispanic market called Entrenos, and Deepak Chopra’s mypotential.com, Busquets thinks a retail model is the most viable because it provides the most feedback on the site’s audience. Her experience in luxury retail dates beyond Net-a-porter — Busquets owned a successful boutique in Caracas, Venezuela, called Cabus from the early Nineties to 2001, specializing in designers such as Azzedine Alaïa, Jean Paul Gaultier and Claude Montana. Pre-e-mail, she would sell stock by sending Polaroids of looks to her best clients, a process which made her an early believer in e-commerce. “You don’t know much about your reader until they actually buy certain things and you see how they are reacting,” said Busquets.
As an example, she told a story about her friend who started an e-commerce site based on her personal style. “Nobody was buying and I said, ‘Of course, nobody is buying because nobody can afford to buy what you are buying. Just because I tell you how great you look, I don’t have $3,000 for that dress,’” recalled Busquets. “For me, when you sell something, you know more about who is following you. You know more about the psychological thinking. People change their habits.”