LONDON — Matchesfashion is on the hunt for its third chief executive officer in as many years after Ajay Kavan made a surprise exit from the fashion retailer after just 12 months on the job — a year of COVID-19, Brexit turmoil and a likely clash of cultures.
As London prepares to ease lockdown and with nonessential retail allowed to open again in April, the Matchesfashion board has begun its hunt for the next person to lead the retailer: someone who can juggle the numbers, turn a profit and keep the retailer’s heart and soul intact.
In the meantime, Maureen Chiquet, a non-executive director on the Matchesfashion board since 2018 and a Chanel veteran, will run the operation as executive chairwoman during the transition period and “support the teams in overseeing business activities” until a new CEO is named.
According to industry sources, Matches will be looking for someone with a 100 percent focus on fashion and retail, an industry insider who understands the business, the power of the brand, and the importance of differentiation in a crowded and competitive market where size and scale matter.
“They’ll want a fashion insider who can run the business at a time when everyone is expecting a splurge in consumer spending, post-lockdown,” said an industry source.
The new CEO will also need to turn a growing business roughed up by COVID-19 into a profit-making machine. According to Companies House, the register of U.K. businesses, Matchesfashion Ltd. turned over 430.5 million pounds in the fiscal year ended Jan. 31, 2020.
Losses that year were 5.9 million pounds, due partly to major investments in infrastructure, e-commerce, tech and operations, not to mention the company’s massive townhouse on Carlos Place in Mayfair, where the retailer was, until lockdown, the host with the most, organizing parties and events for designers, brands and collaborators on a near-weekly basis.
Those changes will need to happen quickly: Matchesfashion was acquired in September 2017 by Apax Partners at a reported valuation of $1 billion after a bidding frenzy by a number of private equity investors, including Permira and KKR.
Normally, private equity doesn’t like waiting too long to flip a company, or take it public. Adding to the pressure on the board — and on the future CEO — will most certainly be the rip-roaring debut of rival company Mytheresa on the New York Stock Exchange in late January.
The board would also have looked at Farfetch’s mega-deal last year with Alibaba and Compagnie Financière Richemont, the fruit of which was a Farfetch Tmall store that opened Monday offering 3,500 brands, most of which did not previously have their own stores on Tmall.
While Kavan may have been an Amazon high-flyer who tried his best at Matchesfashion, the timing was all wrong and he just wasn’t the right person to steer the company forward, according to industry sources.
On Monday, Tom Hall, chairman of the Matchesfashion board, thanked Kavan for his “significant contributions to Matchesfashion over a challenging year, book-ended by the start of COVID-19 lockdown and Brexit.”
He added that Kavan reinforced the foundations of the business, “significantly strengthened the team, and embedded a customer-driven culture.”
Kavan himself said he was proud of the team he built during the 12 months. “I believe in the potential of the business, and the team is focused behind a clear set of goals that will further accelerate growth in the years ahead,” he said.
The company did not give a reason why Kavan was leaving so soon, and declined further comment on Monday’s announcement.
During his short tenure Kavan made key hires, wooing Elizabeth von der Goltz away from Net-a-porter and naming her chief commercial officer, a new role. Von der Goltz had been global buying director at Net-a-porter, leading buying strategy across all product categories and responsible for driving sales and developing product collections.
Last September, Kavan also brought on board Sean Glithero as chief financial officer and Jason Weston, a fellow former Amazon executive, as chief operating officer. “Ajay did what needed to be done, and there is a lot of positivity around his legacy,” said a person familiar with Matchesfashion.
Some sources pointed to a potential culture clash, with the numbers and data-driven Kavan possibly wondering about the ROI of Matches’ glossy editorial content, brand and marketing initiatives and its interest in nurturing young designers. Young designer collections may look great on the shop floor, but they don’t necessarily enhance a balance sheet.
“This is fashion, and things like branding, collaborations and young designer initiatives don’t deliver ROI, and they don’t adhere to budget lines. But what they do deliver is differentiation — they help Matches steal market share from its competitors,” said an industry source.
The source added that Kavan would likely have been a merchandising and margin-focused man, looking at numbers and efficiencies and possibly wondering why Matchesfashion needed to send out its orders in such fancy marbled boxes.
Chiquet, who served as global CEO of Chanel until 2016, will help run the business in the meantime. A seasoned executive, Chiquet began her career at L’Oréal in France, before joining The Gap and then moving to Chanel in 2003.
As reported, Kavan had succeeded Ulric Jerome, who exited the retailer in 2019, two years after the business was acquired by Apax Partners.
Kavan had been a vice president at Amazon for nine years and was vice president, international special projects before taking up the role at Matchesfashion in March 2020.
During his time at Amazon, Kavan led several initiatives to improve the Amazon customer experience globally and drove the giant’s businesses in U.K. and European Union consumables.
He led the development of several global strategic initiatives, launched businesses such as Amazon Fresh in the EU and Japan, and built key strategic partnerships, including with Morrisons in the U.K.