Yoox Net-a-Porter tech hub

It was the year that luxury e-tail basked in the spotlight, attracting millions of dollars in fresh investment and making headlines as traditional bricks-and-mortar continued to suffer.

The likes of Matchesfashion.com, Yoox Net-a-porter, Farfetch and Moda Operandi were among the biggest winners. Not only did they secure exclusives, launch new categories and develop technologies aimed at reimagining the shopping experience, they also welcomed some deep-pocketed partners.

In August, Matchesfashion.com was acquired by the private equity firm Apax Partners in a deal valued at more than $1 billion, turning it into one of Britain’s few unicorns. The initial valuation of $600 million nearly doubled after a bidding frenzy by firms including Permira, KKR and Apax, and the weighty price tag highlighted Matches’ own growth potential and that of the digital luxury market.

“Digital luxury has become a bandwagon and pushback has dissolved, as it is clear consumers are researching and buying fashion and luxury products online,” said Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas.

Paul Thomas, analyst at Retail Remedy, added that despite Matches’ “reasonably small profits,” the investment by Apax can spearhead significant growth by allowing it to enter new territories and to expand the brand assortment.

In December Apax Digital, along with the billionaire entrepreneur Adrian Cheng, took a stake worth $165 million in Moda Operandi, which is also looking to scale its business through international growth, particularly in Asia and the Middle East.

Moda Operandi's London showroom

Inside Moda Operandi’s London showroom.  Courtesy Photo

Moda, which started as a digital trunk show business offering customers the opportunity to pre-order full looks off the runway, has grown to incorporate a boutique section with in-season product, dedicated accessories trunk shows and a fine jewelry salon.

Its average order values are significantly higher than its competitors – close to $2,000, with purchases totaling up to $182,000 in a single order — and it services them through both its web site, personal shopping teams and a cluster of private showrooms in New York and London, with a new location opening in Dubai.

Farfetch, which follows an alternative retail model and sources its product from boutiques around the world, is another e-tailer that scored new funding in the year, a $397 million investment from JD.com in a bid to enter the mammoth Chinese market.

Farfetch also purchased Style.com after Condé Nast failed to develop the much-touted site into a viable e-commerce platform and tapped Natalie Massenet, the founder of rival Net-a-porter, to join as co-chairman. Talk of an initial public offering continues to circulate, although Farfetch principals have been downplaying the possibility of one in the near future.

Despite the ongoing growth trajectories from the likes of Matchesfashion, Moda and Farfetch, Yoox Net-a-porter has retained its position as market leader, reaching the 1 billion euro mark in sales last August for the first half of the year — and ceo Federico Marchetti has every intention of remaining at the top.

“Frankly, we operate on a different scale, but we appreciate the competition. It keeps us on our toes,” said Marchetti during a conference call earlier this year.

YNAP has fully committed to technology research and development, opening a 70,000-square-foot Technology Hub in London last June. With its iPad-controlled coffee machines, flexible working spaces and reclining chair beds, the new space aims to be a locus of luxury online retail innovation and a fountain of ideas about mobile technology, artificial intelligence, big data and image recognition.

YNAP has also been growing its fine jewelry and watches category as a means of fueling further growth. It has so far lured digitally shy historic labels such as Cartier, Buccellati, Piaget and Chopard to sell exclusively on its site, with the aim of becoming a destination for high-end jewelry and watches.


Net-a-Porter x Chopard

Net-a-porter x Chopard  Courtesy of Net-a-Porter

“We’ve planned to grow hard luxury by nearly 150 percent in the next year. By 2020, we expect the department to grow by over 300 percent,” said Net-a-porter’s global fashion buying director Elizabeth von der Goltz, adding that the highest-price-point fine jewelry styles tend to sell out upon launch.

Matchesfashion.com has also been in the process of readying itself for the ambitious growth plans its new majority owners have for the company. Last summer the retailer revealed the opening of a new creative hub in East London which will house its photography, video and editorial teams. The new hub’s state-of-the-art facilities will enable the creative teams to shoot and upload more product on the site, as well as experiment with new ways of presenting product online, such as 360-degree videos.

A new distribution center near Heathrow airport is also set to open in early 2018, which will enable the retailer to increase the capacity of shipments it can handle and allow for speedier deliveries globally.

A private townhouse in Mayfair’s Carlos Place is also in the works, and will allow the company to invest further in one-on-one appointments with its top clients. Investment in content is another area of focus, with the introduction of a new “Style Daily” feature on the Matchesfashion app, which offers shoppable stories and the ability for shoppers to curate the editorial content they prefer to read.

As competition gets tougher in the online space, retailers have also been racing to get first dibs on the new labels and secure exclusives.

In addition to its exclusive jewelry launches, Net-a-porter has teamed with the likes of Giorgio Armani, Chloé and Burberry, as well as contemporary labels such as Ganni and Staud, for exclusive capsules.

Matchesfashion.com’s buying director Natalie Kingham has also been placing more focus on delivering exclusive pieces and continuous newness to the customer and less effort in keeping up to date with the traditional fashion calendar. Recent designer tie-ins included an exclusive holiday collection by the buzzy Milanese label Attico, a range of printed scarves by photographer Mary McCartney and a line of tailoring pieces by the up-and-coming Racil.

Matchesfashion.com's Style Report

An editorial image from Matchesfashion.com’s Style Report.  Courtesy Photo

For Moda Operandi, exclusivity is just as key.

This year it took its commitment to offer the Moda customer all that is new and exclusive a step further with the launch of “The Platform,” a digital incubator through which the retailer will promote hot, emerging designers on its site and also take an active role in advising designers on marketing, brand development, product assortment and sales forecasting.

Designers who are part of “The Platform” can sell to other bricks-and-mortar retailers but have to be sold exclusively on Modaoperandi.com online.

“The way the fashion industry works has largely stayed unchanged for decades, yet with e-commerce, we’re seeing many disruptive business models that answer the future needs of the sophisticated Millennials,” Cheng said of his recent investment in the business.

As existing players pursue aggressive expansion strategies, new ones are simultaneously entering the market. LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton made its first foray into multibrand luxury fashion e-tailing with the launch of 24 Sèvres, a global digital version of its Parisian department store Le Bon Marché. It stocks LVMH-owned brands including Louis Vuitton, Dior, Givenchy, Loewe and Kenzo, as well as younger names such as Isabel Marant, J.W. Anderson, Maison Kitsuné and Marco de Vincenzo and a small range of beauty labels.

The conglomerate’s chief digital officer Ian Rogers, said that the new venture is not competing with the group’s efforts to launch monobrand e-commerce stores for its brands and it aims to be a reflection of Le Bon Marché’s expert edit. “There are marketplaces and monobrands and they’re not mutually exclusive. This is a pure cross-selling project. Ninety-nine percent of the brands sold online will be in the store.”

The Modist is another new business in the digital luxury market, launched earlier this year by former financier Ghizlan Guenez, in order to offer a destination specifically designed for women of different ages and ethnic backgrounds who choose to dress more modestly.